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Smaller niche markets are a bigger part of the picture


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 areas.

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 bright spot.

Military housing marks another area of progress for steel.

"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 hospitality.

"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 consume."

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."

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