Steel in the walls Strength: The steel industry is teaching builders how to use its product in the construction of new homes.

June 02, 1996|By Daniel H. Barkin | Daniel H. Barkin,SUN STAFF

Thomas Rayner's company is called Plumb Construction Co., and that's not just a name, he says. His customers expect straight walls when they buy his homes in Baltimore and Harford counties.

"My clients are very meticulous," explains the Forest Hill custom builder. "Everybody's looking for a nice, smooth, even finish."

And that's the reason Rayner came to the Dale/Incor steel fabricating plant in Sparrows Point for a recent seminar. Rayner and several dozen other builders accustomed to putting up wood frame homes learned how to do it with steel.

"I think the quality of the lumber has fallen off," Rayner said during a break. That makes it more difficult to ensure that walls stay straight, floors don't squeak and costs stay under control, he said.

"I'm looking for something with less waste, better quality [that will] give me a better finished product, drywall and siding," said Rayner.

The steel industry thinks it can help Rayner and the other builders, large and small, who sell more than 9,000 homes annually in the Baltimore region. Big Steel is making another assault on wood's dominant position in American homes, and the American Iron and Steel Institute is conducting hands-on seminars around the country.

The recent five-day seminar at Dale/Incor's plant on North Point Boulevard featured the framing of a steel home that will be completed and donated to the Habitat for Humanity. The steel in the home was supplied by Bethlehem Steel's local mill and formed into framing lengths by the Dale/Incor plant's machines.

Steel partisans say their day is coming. The Iron and Steel Institute calls it "one of today's hottest trends" and forecasts that 25 percent of new homes built in 2000 will use steel.

If that happens, one reason may be the rising price of lumber. The price of framing lumber has risen nearly 30 percent since January, according to Random Lengths Lumber Report, prompting Randy Smith, president of the National Association of Home Builders, to complain that the increase would add $2,000 to the cost of a 2,000-square-foot home.

"It goes up and down like a yo-yo," said Wanda Cross, local marketing director for Ryland Homes.

The price of steel has stayed relatively constant. And the Iron and Steel Institute says that, with experience, the overall labor and material cost of framing with steel is comparable to wood. But those promoting steel say there's more than just price to be considered. Consistent quality, strength and resistance to termites are also cited. Steel is seen as a pro-environment material, because its usage will reduce the clear-cutting of forests and boost recycling. They paint a picture of old junk cars being transformed into new homes.

But if it's that good, why don't more builders use steel in homes? While steel is common in commercial framing, only 1 percent of new U.S. homes employ steel structural walls. That number climbs to 6 percent for homes that use steel in some fashion -- for nonbearing walls, for example -- according to Tim Waite, an engineer on the staff of the National Association of Home Builders Research Center.

There are several barriers to the wider use of steel, according to Waite. The distribution network isn't as efficient as the variety of lumberyards available to builders. Some chains want to stock steel framing products, but they aren't sure what to keep in inventory. "They look at a set of floor plans, [but] they can't really recommend today to a builder what size floor joist he should be using," said Waite. "Soon, they'll be able to do that" because of increased use of industrywide standards, he noted.

Another barrier is a lack of a trained work force. "We don't have a lot of builders out there that are familiar with steel framing," said Waite. "Most of them come from the commercial side, but they don't really want to get into the homebuilding business." That's why the steel industry, through its trade organization, has launched a training program.

Yet another obstacle has been the unfamiliarity of some building officials with steel in residential construction, Waite said. The industry is working hard to develop and promote standards that can be incorporated into model building codes.

And there is resistance among some builders because of concerns that steel construction is a slower process. Instead of using hammers and air nailers, workers have to use new tools, such as screw guns. "Some people get the hang of working with screw guns, and some people don't. So that's why the very first thing we do in a training program" is hold screw gun training, said Waite.

Locally, wood framing is still dominant, although building officials say they encounter steel homes here and there.

"It's done occasionally," said John Dreisch, chief of inspections for Howard County, who said he saw "very little" steel used in local homebuilding. "I don't see it changing. It's been available for 20-some years, and it has not taken off so far." That's too bad, he says, because steel "is a good product."

John Altmeyer, chief building inspector for Baltimore County, said "there's no code problem" with steel homes. His staff can inspect them. But, "We don't see it that much."

Bob Coursey, marketing director for Ryan Homes, the largest builder in the Baltimore region, said his firm is looking into steel but relies mostly on wood-frame technology.

Bob Ward, president of Bob Ward Homes, one of the largest Harford County builders, said he's "intrigued" by steel and has studied it, "but we haven't gotten past that."

He predicted that if lumber prices go "a little higher" for a prolonged period, then steel will begin to make inroads.

"It hasn't quite gotten attractive enough for us to do it," he said.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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