Steel-framed houses beat their wood-framed
competitors hands down in terms of durability, among other
factors, but steel framing has been unable to make significant
inroads in the housing sector, in part because there just
aren't enough trained workers to go around.
Steel framing accounts for less than 1
percent of all houses built in the United States. Steel used in
single-family housing totaled slightly less than 100,000 tons
in 2007, the most recent year for which data was available,
down about 20 percent from 125,000 tons in 2005, according to
Mark Nowak, president of the Steel Framing Alliance, an
industry trade group that promotes the use of steel framing in
residential and commercial construction. He noted that the
figure declined because residential builds have been
Steel frames are stronger, straighter, fire
resistant, termite proof and can withstand the beating of an
earthquake and tornado much better because the structures don't
move, shrink and expand like the traditional wood-framed house.
In addition, the majority of the construction uses a
lightweight galvanized product that doesn't rot, warp, rust,
crack or split and has a longer lifespan. Besides being
"green," there are savings associated with steel-framing-in
high-wind areas, for instance, insurance rates can be
Despite all these attributes, analysts
agree that the mentality of workers is partially to blame. "My
understanding is the problem lies with changing the mindset of
smaller contractors that are used to working with wood. This
can slowly change, but pricing volatility and a slow housing
recovery can make growth challenging," UBS Securities LLC
analyst Timna Tanners said.
Chuck Bradford, analyst at Affiliated
Research Group LLC, agreed, saying that home builders possess a
hammer mentality as opposed to the screw gun mentality.
"The housing market has grown up around,
and been dominated by, wood framing," Nowak said. "We find
people are now using a mixture of materials and are competitive
in the floor framing product."
Specific markets and certain parts of the
country are more receptive to steel framing than others, he
noted. Mid-rise markets, including five- to seven-story
apartment buildings and hotels, where steel competes on an even
playing field, are seeing growth in the use of steel
Certain geographic areas prone to moisture
and severe storms-the Gulf Coast, Arizona, California, Nevada
and Hawaii among them-are stronger markets for steel framing.
"It is durable and resistant to natural disasters, termites,
high winds and seismic forces. And it is non-combustible,"
Nowak said. "If it is designed correctly, it will hold up well
in all those situations. But areas outside these regions, we
are not seeing demand."
Tanners agreed that steel homes fare better
in certain climates. "I think the best shot for better demand
lies in coastal areas with hurricane threats, such as Florida,"
she said. "But the bottom line is it will take time and a
better housing market."
The only limitation with steel lies in the
mindset of builders, Nowak said. "It is an unknown for a lot of
builders and framing contractors, but that is changing. We are
seeing more and more engaged in the business through training
and education efforts." He noted that the market had been
growing until the collapse in residential construction.
A marketing approach that has been
described as weak and misdirected is another reason cited for
the steel industry's inability to gain a foothold in
In the scope of residential construction's
importance to steelmaking in the United States, it is
"meaningless," Bradford said, blaming misguided marketing and
other strong markets for hindering growth. "At one time there
was a big push to develop the steel-framed housing market
because it's a great product," Bradford said. "But the industry
doesn't know how to market it. And in the last few years,
nobody cared about developing new markets because everything
was so strong. One of the problems is poor marketing compared
to how the aluminum industry, promotes its products."
Trade groups like the American Iron and
Steel Institute have "focused on trade as opposed to developing
the market for steel. And the focus is wrong," Bradford
"Don't market that you are trying to save
money, but are offering a better product. Lumber goes up and
down like a yo-yo. So if you try to sell steel, you are going
to lose, Bradford said.
Better approaches could be to address the
fact that there is no first-cut lumber anymore and that it is
hard to get really straight lumber. Steel houses also are
easier to finish and the plumbing and electric work is actually
cheaper. And, unlike wood, steel is non-organic and doesn't
"You have to get the customer to want
steel," said Bradford, who is bullish on the product, pointing
out that structures built of steel were the only ones to
survive Hurricane Andrew virtually unscathed. The 1992
hurricane, which hit south Florida as a Category 5 storm and
later made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 3, resulted in
23 deaths and caused $25 billion in property damage, making it
one of the costliest hurricanes in U.S. history.