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Builders see bright spots in exports and Web-based sales for steel-framed homes

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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 state.

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 said.

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 said.

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 said.

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 panels.

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 work force.

"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."

LISA GORDON


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