The perils of living in a harsh climate
remain the strongest motivation to make the switch to steel
from traditional wood framing, according to home builders
specializing in steel-framed construction, with more than one
noting growing export opportunities.
"If the country had started out building
steel-framed houses they would have never switched to wood,"
said Orie F. Wells, president of Wells Enterprise Designs, a
Traverse City, Mich.-based home builder. "People are more
concerned with granite counter tops, but steel is structurally
engineered so it can handle storms and wind. You get a frame
system that is going to outlast you, and you can put all the
amenities in and make it as beautiful as you want." Wells, a
former sheet metal worker, has been building with steel since
the 1980s. When light-gauge framing was introduced in the
mid-1980s it was mostly for commercial applications and there
were no standards, which slowed the potential growth of the
market, he said.
"When I did my first one, I had to get a
structural engineer to help me." Wells has built 3,000 homes
since then, although his business has been hit hard by the
economic ills brought on by the troubled automakers in his
Steel's growth in market share is being
impaired by "lumber lobbyists and big box stores not stocking
items on their shelves. In wood-framed housing, builders can
run to the hardware store if they run out of something, but
steel-framed builders are not afforded the same luxury," he
Wells said he also would like to see a
larger labor pool. "The unions are all splintered up and there
are not enough unions in the housing market, so you are not
getting workers who are union trained. Skilled trades are not
very skilled anymore. I'd like to see more education, and the
housing market is one of the best places to start," he
Markets outside the United States are more
receptive to using steel, which is creating export
opportunities, according to some home builders.
Sterling Bryson, a Tahoe, Nev.-based
consultant, works to export pre-engineered houses to other
countries that recognize the value and advantage of steel.
Customers in Malaysia, the Philippines and
Thailand want steel because "the cost is the same as local
construction and the energy efficiency is excellent," he said,
noting that he has exported packages to these countries. If
these lower-budget customers can use steel "then it is possible
to build with it and make it affordable," Bryson said.
Meanwhile, a Delray Beach, Fla.-based
company is building for all budgets. "When people think steel
in homes, they think of a shed or warehouse. Some we have built
are very simple and some are 18,000 square feet and based on
wood-framed drawings," Perry Tabrizi, director of project
development at Freedom Steel Homes, said.
Tabrizi also has served the international
market, including sending home kits to Britain and Portugal. He
pointed out that Australia and New Zealand are much bigger
markets than the United States.
"Most clients contact us because they want
steel," he said. The Internet has been a great medium to
attract buyers who are becoming more educated on the value of
steel, especially during the past two or three years, he
Florida is a good market for steel framing
due to hurricanes and moisture, Tabrizi noted. All the
construction is based on conventional drawings, and since no
interior walls are load bearing it opens up a lot more options
on finishing or renovating the interior. The versatile interior
has created a market where 40 percent of Freedom Steel's buyers
are using the structures for storefronts because the walls can
be shifted at any time.
Steel framing showed its strength in 2005
during Hurricane Katrina, which bulked up to Category 5 status
after crossing south Florida and entering the Gulf of Mexico
with winds reaching 175 miles per hour. While local forestry
was completely toppled, the only damage sustained to some of
the homes built in Florida by Freedom Steel were missing soffit
Bruce Brown, president of Rhino Steel
Building Systems in Denton, Texas, said residents of his state,
like those in Florida, recognize steel's benefits. "People in
the Midwest, and especially in agricultural areas, go for steel
because they understand its value," he said.
Brown purchases his steel under contract
through a fabricator, noting that while material availability
isn't an issue there is some difficulty in procuring a skilled
"You can get material, but it is hard to
get workers," he said, pointing out that the cost to frame a
home in steel represents only 8 to 10 percent of the total
cost. "We don't try to sell on price, we try to sell on
quality. It is a stronger, quieter product."