Houses made of steel gain in popularity

September 08, 1991|By Tom Nadeau | Tom Nadeau,McClatchy News Service

MARYSVILLE, Calif. -- The newest house in Central California's Yuba County is the first of its size to be built entirely of steel.

Such is the claim of Doug Nicholson, who commissioned its construction at a cost of about $185,000. The "steel house," as neighbors call it, is situated in a 77-acre walnut orchard about 11 miles north of Marysville, snug by the Yuba and Butte county line.

The two-story home has 12 rooms, including three bedrooms and three baths, along with an attached four-car garage. Construction began July 1 and is expected to be completed Sept. 15, Mr. Nicholson said.

The materials and design used in the Nicholson house came from Tri-Steel Structures of Denton, Texas, which provides 80 home designs and touts steel as an increasingly popular option for single-family home construction.

About 30,000 steel homes -- roughly 2 percent of new construction -- were built in the United States in 1988, the National Association of Home Builders reported.

"In 12 years we've sold or built about 6,000 steel houses in every one of the states, plus houses in 21 countries around the world. We have about 500 to 600 in California," said Alton Ginn, Tri-Steel vice president.

"Steel homes have been around since the end of World War II, but the cost has kept its use down," Mr. Ginn said.

The rising cost of wood has prompted growth in steel construction during the last few years -- a trend that Mr. Ginn said is likely to accelerate.

"With the spotted owl and pressure by environmentalists, wood costs are going up fast. In the last couple of months I've gotten calls from California reporting wood costs going up 35 [percent] to 40 percent," Mr. Ginn said.

There are other advantages to steel, including lower insurance rates and higher energy efficiencies, Mr. Ginn said.

Mr. Nicholson, 53, found his own favorite steel advantages when he went shopping for a retirement home.

"I'm in an orchard, and it's termite-proof. It's also fire-resistant -- and it's very flexible for construction changes," Mr. Nicholson listed during a tour of the building site.

Two kinds of steel are used in house construction. Red-iron steel beams form the house's main exterior frame, and lightweight galvanized steel studs of a few basic sizes make up the interior, non-weight-bearing walls, explained Robert Rivera, a career construction contractor.

One lesson quickly learned is that steel construction is not unlike playing with Legos, Rivera said.

"It's sort of like an erector set. Two big trucks from Texas pull up and unload piles of steel all laid out in the order you have to put it up," Mr. Rivera said.

L "You screw put part A into part B, and up it goes," he said.

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