Use of steel in building homes is on the rise

August 20, 1994|By New York Times News Service

For more than 50 years the American steel industry has been promoting its product for residential construction -- with a stunning lack of success. According to the National Association of Home Builders, as recently as 1990, 94 percent of new homes were built with wood framing, with concrete block the most frequently used alternative.

But things are changing. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, an industry trade group, the number of steel-framed homes increased to 15,000 last year from 500 in 1992, with 75,000 projected this year.

The boomlet can largely be laid to simple economics. In the last year, the near exhaustion of old-growth timber has become critical, sending the price of of wood soaring and the quality of what is available into decline.

Reluctantly, builders have begun looking for other alternatives, and some are switching to steel.

But acts of nature have also played a role. The devastation left in Florida by Hurricane Andrew in August 1992, and by recent earthquakes in California, have highlighted the need for strong and flexible housing.

Among larger buildings, steel-framed ones clearly did better than those made of wood or masonry.

Steelmakers who struggle with high fixed costs and highly cyclical markets in their traditional automotive, appliance and construction applications, see a much-needed stable outlet.

"There are 1.1 million to 1.8 million housing starts a year," said Richard Haws, manager for light construction at the Iron and Steel Institute. "Since each house uses five to six tons, it could be a huge market."

Still, a number of obstacles to wider use of steel remain, not the least of which is custom and habit. Though steel is strong, not flammable and impervious to termites or rot, in the past residential builders avoided it because they found it more difficult to cut and join.

However, high-rise use of steel has helped establish a manufacturing and distribution network for metal building studs and related material that is ready to expand -- and to help educate residential builders. Studs are the concealed vertical supports for the walls of a house, and are usually cut from 2-by-4-inch boards.

As for cost, the price of 1,000 board feet of lumber went from about $300 last July to about $500 last December and is now about $400, according to Michael Carliner, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders.

That puts steel, which once was twice as expensive as lumber, in a nearly competitive position, and has attracted builders who had signed contracts to build houses for a fixed price.

As for quality, structural timbers, boards 2 inches by 6 inches or larger, must be cut from dense, old growth trees to have sufficient strength. But 90 percent of the old growth has been cut down, and much of what is left is protected for environmental reasons.

"The forest management practices of the last 40 to 50 years have exacerbated the problem," said Nels C. Johnson, a forest ecologist with the World Resources Institute.

Wood products companies, he said, replace diverse natural forests with tree plantations, using one species of fast-growing tree.

This allows them to harvest the trees sooner, but the wood produced is less dense and less strong than that of old growth. Builders complain that wood from the smaller plantation trees is more likely to have excessive knots and is prone to twisting and splitting.

"The quality of lumber has gotten a lot worse," said Jim McAleer, executive vice president of Kevin Scarborough Inc., a builder of single-family houses in southern New Jersey and Delaware. "It's green, it twists and has so many knot holes it looks like chipmunks have been running through it."

Officials of the American Forest and Paper Association, the lumber industry's principal trade group, said that builders have a perception of deteriorating quality in lumber.

In the past, the officials said, mills mixed higher-quality lumber with lower grades because there was little price difference. But since prices have risen, mills have been stricter about sorting.

"You see a more accurate mix now," said Robert Glowinski, a vice president of the association. "But builders on the job site may be disappointed that the higher grades are not in there."

A lot of builders are thinking about alternate materials, although few have actually made the switch. "We surveyed our members and found that about 2 percent of them are using steel, but that 45 percent are thinking about it," Mr. Carliner of the homebuilders group said.

Another obstacle to the wider use of steel in housing is that most building codes are designed around a wood structure, and the companies that fabricate the lightweight studs that can replace lumber have been unable to agree on standards. Many builders are reluctant to deviate from established codes for fear that they will have to pay for additional engineering to have their houses certified as safe.

"We are not talking U.S. Steel or Bethlehem here; there are 100 little companies that buy the steel from them and do the fabrication," said Larry Zarker of the homebuilders association's research center. "They tend to fight with each other a lot and, as a result, the homebuilding industry has not had good information."

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