A steel-framed house can be a cozy home

Durability: Steel-framed houses have that, and more. Hurricanes don't scare them, and termites don't like them.


When Lynn Beattie decided to build a house, she began to research all the various decisions that would have to be made during the process.

One seminar she attended mentioned the growing problem of finding quality lumber. And then it dawned on her.

"I thought, they build steel buildings every day, so why don't they build homes out of steel," Beattie asked. "The speaker was talking about how the quality of wood was not what it used to be, and I decided I wanted something solid."

Beattie made her decision after attending yet another seminar, this one hosted by Tri-Steel Structures Inc., a Texas-based manufacturer of steel-frame homes.

What she is ending up with is a 5,000-square-foot home in Phoenix that is as strong as steel.

"I knew there were problems with wood and there were just so many benefits to using steel. Not the least of which is you're not cutting down trees to do it. Instead, you can use recycled materials [with steel], and I thought that was a great idea."

While the steel industry has tried for decades to get into homebuilding in a significant way, steel-framed homes have not become the phenomenon that industry officials would like. But the industry keeps pushing the idea, and there are indications that it is slowly catching on. Steel-framed homes account for about 1.5 percent of the homes being built in the country, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The number rises to almost 8 percent when looking at the number of homes built with some steel parts.

Builders know the option is there, but, with the housing boom going on, they can't spare the extra time to learn the new craft.

"The work forces around here don't really exist for residential steel framing. When [Beattie] first came to us with this project, we looked and looked for a crew to assemble this," said Michael Aieilo, vice president of Cockeysvile-based Cher-Chris Construction, which was brought in to construct the home.

"We had a crew capable, but they didn't want to jump into a project that large for their first time," Aiello said. "A lot of these framers have enough to do, and they don't want to take on something that's going to put them in a bind. There is definitely going to have to be some people educated in this area."

Aiello said the Beattie project was taken on to learn more about working with steel and to possibly promote steel framing in the future.

"It has a lot of appeal; it comes down to the dollar and if people are willing to pay a little more for it," Aiello said. "For someone who is really looking for perfection in a house, who is really concerned about a twist in a stud, for example, it's a good alternative.

"You're dealing with man-made precision materials. So everything is basically perfect. You don't have any of the imperfections of a natural product, Usually, people are willing to pay a little more if there are advantages to it."

Beattie choose a pre-engineered steel-framing system with each component delivered to the site, cut to length, clearly marked and ready for assembly.

"When it arrived, it looked like a giant erector set like we had when we were growing up,' she said.

Tri-Steel provided the blue-prints and detailed assembly instructions.

The steel homes can be built on any type of foundation and can be finished with any material such as brick, stucco or siding. An unaware observer wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a completed steel-built home and a wood-studded home.

The biggest hurdle for Beattie was finding a local builder to put it together. That eventually turned out to be Cher-Chnis, which laid the foundation. North Carolina-based builder Diversified Building Services said it would send a crew to erect the steel framing. And Cher-Chris returned to complete the exterior finish.

"The things we can say about steel are it doesn't rot, warp, split, crack or creep. It doesn't burn, and termites can't eat it. It doesn't expand under different moisture contents. It has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any building material. All of this makes it a superior construction mate-rial," said Donald Moody, president of the North American Steel Framing Alliance (NASFA).

"So it's fundamentally a better framing material. It dominates every other segment in building construction except residential," Moody said.

In several parts of the country such as Hawaii, California and many Southern states, where termites and severe weather are a houses foe, the use of steel framing has grown.

While some steel companies operated steel-home divisions in the 1960s and 1970s, steel was more expensive than wood and the demand never took off. But lumber prices began to fluctuate while steel prices have remained relatively stable for the past 20 years. Consequently, steel has become an attractive alternative.

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