Grabbing a bigger slice of the residential construction
market has been an uphill battle for steel framing,
particularly given the current financial turmoil gripping home
builders, yet the metal's characteristics have opened up niche
The argument pitting steel's benefits vs. traditional wooden
studs is nothing new, especially when it comes to steel
framing's anti-termite attributes, and the material has made
some inroads in the Hawaiian and southern California markets,
where the problem is more acute. Florida, where steel can
provide increased hurricane protection, counts as another
Military housing marks another area of progress for
"We've focused our attention over the last several years on
military housing. Coastal locations like Hawaii have been a
huge market for steel framing, partly because the building
codes are stringent in terms of the termite issue," said a
spokeswoman for Dietrich Metal Framing Inc., a unit of
Columbus, Ohio-based Worthington Industries Inc. "But we are
starting to see it much more on the mainland for the military,
who have been rebuilding many of their bases. They are asking
developers to take on these developments for 50 years and are
looking to durable, long-lasting materials to make sure the
buildings hold up over that length of time."
Steel framing still accounts for only around 4 to 5 percent
of total construction of single and multifamily homes despite
the millions of dollars pumped into the promotion of steel
framing for residential construction during the past decade,
according to analysts.
With the housing market in the middle of a major downturn
that likely will extend well into next year, steel framing
companies are turning increasingly to other sectors, like
"In the mid-rise size, using the integrated building system
approach, we're seeing an increase in interest in that
product-certainly in the hospitality industry, where they are
building more metal-framed structures," the Dietrich
spokeswoman said. "We've seen it in areas like barracks and
dormitory housing on college campuses. Even condo living
downtown. American cities are doing more and more inner-city
development, so anything in the three- to seven-story range is
something that is a sweet spot for us."
One of the advantages of using steel framing is that it
relies less on skilled labor than its wooden rival, according
to steel framing companies. And this explains part of its
success in the hospitality sector.
"The system approach, where it's just one contractor that
can schedule the trades and work on the site-ready for the
building to be finished out-is part of the key to the success.
Speed is an attribute because the faster they (the client) can
get heads in beds, the quicker the revenue comes in," the
spokeswoman said, adding that steel studs, floor systems,
finishing products and accessory items are still selling and
can form part of a house in combination with wood products.
Predictably, stick framers maintain that the advantages of
using timber far outweigh some of the benefits of steel. In
addition to being cheaper, wood is a renewable resource and
more flexible when working on-site, according to Paul Kessler,
head of Creative Home Concepts Inc., a Fort Collins,
Colo.-based management consultancy for building systems with a
focus on timber framing.
"It's easier to make field modifications. If the owner wants
to make modifications or add upgrades, it's very easy to do
with dimensional lumber. It's my understanding that it's much
harder to make these kind of on-site changes with metal
frames," Kessler said. "At the end of the day, if you want a
'green' house you build with wood because it's a renewable
resource. It does not contain as much embodied energy as other
systems, such as metal, which is a high-energy commodity.
There's also more timber in North America than you could ever
Although timber has its limitations when it comes to
high-rise buildings, efforts to make higher-strength timber
products are making progress, Kessler said.
Timber construction also relies less on unionized labor and
is easier to organize, he added. "Metal frames are usually
built by metalworkers that belong to unions. Conventional
builders are usually non-unionized and easier to organize."