Steel Forges New Role In Home Building

Some 907,000 new homes were built last year and about 97 percent were constructed the old-fashioned way with wood and nails. But 3 percent were built with steel framing, and that percentage is likely to increase.

There's good reason to believe that more and more new homes will use steel. Why? If you've seen the new PBS special Building Big you know the answer: Just go to any big city, look at the latest construction, and all you see is steel framing.

The case for steel is impressive. Steel framing for skyscrapers forms a load-bearing grid on which exterior walls and interior floors can be hung. The result is great strength, large open areas, and attractive economics.

The same concepts apply to residential construction. Steel is strong and price competitive, there are no worries about termites eating a beam here or there, and there are building efficiencies as well.

No less important, while there's no shortage of wood, long-time builders will tell you that quality lumber is tough to find and expensive. While composite wood products are strong, lightweight, and structurally more-consistent then the stuff that grows on trees, the use of trees for any purpose seems to bother a growing number of people.

The use of residential steel grew 41 percent last year, according to the North American Steel Framing Alliance. The group says more than 35,000 homes were built with steel frame construction in 1999, up from almost 14,900 units in 1997.

Over the next few years the volume of steel construction will inevitably increase. Such growth relates to the inherent benefits associated with steel and also to the removal of artificial barriers which have limited the use of metal framing and other steel products.

The construction industry has been dominated by the use of wood to this point and with good reason: Wooden homes can last for centuries -- just spend a few days at Williamsburg and you can see why. It follows, then, that the codes we use to assure safe home construction are oriented toward the use of wood. And it also follows that the crafts and tools long associated with residential construction relate to the shaping, joining, and use of wooden elements.

The result is that while steel as a construction material is ready to go, that's not necessarily the case with local construction rules, builders, or workers.

  • Steel manufacturers each have a somewhat different view of how steel pieces should be sized. Standardization will reduce construction costs by making elements from different sources interchangeable.
  • Uniform labels are needed so that local builders can readily identify the strength and thickness of each piece.
  • Not all local codes incorporate the latest standards for steel construction, such as the lower insulation values (R values) which are okay for steel. In many cases, local building inspectors have not worked with steel. Both problems will be resolved over time.
  • The tools and techniques used for wood construction are largely useless with steel.

But as residential steel structures become more common, the barriers above will necessary fall. In the next few years the check-out counter at the local builder will increasingly offer the option of "wood or steel." And as steel becomes increasingly familiar you can expect that more homes will use steel, especially as forest-related environmental policies become continually more restrictive and the price of wood soars as a result.

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Question Of The Week

Q We are buying a home and the seller will only allow us to conduct a home inspection if we provide a copy of the inspection report. What is the reason for the seller's demand?

A Most likely there are several reasons.

If the deal falls through the sellers then have a good idea of where they need to make repairs and improvements. If the deal goes through and there is any requirement to make repairs the sellers will naturally want to know the basis for such requests. Also, if the home is sold the owners will want a copy of the home inspectors' report to refute any future claims that they hid damage.

Weekly Resource

What must consumers know when they are offered credit terms? The Federal Trade Commission explains all with its Guide to Consumer Credit

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