Steel Framed Homes Farmington NM
Steel Frames Entering the Mainstream
At first glance it seems like a typical coastal home until you look closer and notice the metal tubing arches that make up the hom's framing. Like an increasing number of homes being built today, this 5,500-square-foot home, located on Branford Point in Connecticut, is a marvel of modern construction. It's a hybrid, prefabricated in a factory with a galvanized steel frame that was bolted together on site and then clad with structural insulated panels (SIPs) to create a durable, energy-efficient building envelope.
Increasingly, steel is being used as framing in residential construction across the country. Steel framing is now used in 7 percent of residential structures in Florida and 8 percent in California the top two states in the country when it comes to new home construction. Leading the nation in residential steel construction is Hawaii, where a whopping 70 percent of the houses are being built with steel frames.
The Age of Steel
Steel frames have been a common sight in commercial construction for decades, but it is only in the last 10 years or so that steel framing has begun to expand from a small niche in custom home construction into the mainstream of the residential market.
The door to this new market opened in the early 1990s when wood prices rose sharply, causing builders and homeowners to look at alternatives to wood framing. As the price of wood has continued to rise over the past several years, the gap between the cost of wood over steel has closed. Further reducing costs is the fact that using prefabricated steel frames helps cut labor costs, as do most other prefabricated methods of construction.
In addition, the natural disasters that have recently occurred across the country have made people more aware of the need to build homes that are structurally strong enough to stand up to the fiercest forces of nature. Durability is a key factor as well: Because many of today's homes require a large financial investment, homeowners want to ensure their dwellings will be built to last for generations, rather than for the short term.
Also driving the growth in steel-framed homes is the fact that there's an increasing availability of information about homebuilding options, especially via the Internet. As a result, more people are aware of the fact that they are no longer limited to traditional choices, such as wood framing, but instead have a greater flexibility when it comes to building materials.
In the past, homeowners who wanted to build a steel-framed home had great difficulty finding contractors with the required expertise. Commercial contractors were not interested in building homes, and residential contractors lacked the experience to build them.
Today, there are several companies prefabricating the frames for houses and helping homeowners find contractors to erect the frames. This method of steel-frame building is referred to as panelizing, and is the technique used by such companies as PanaSteel of Savannah, Ga.; Tri-Steel Homes of Denton, Texas; Kodiak Steel Homes of North Little Rock, Ark., and others. (See sidebar for a listing of steel-home manufacturers, contractors and architects.)
Why Use Steel
Switching from wood to steel framing is a major change in thinking for many builders and homeowners. For that changeover to happen, there have to be solid benefits that make steel a feasible building alternative. Advocates of steel say those benefits do exist and include the following:
Strength. One of the most important reasons for building with steel is its strength. Houses built with steel frames can be expected to last hundreds of years and can be engineered to resist the highest seismic ratings, as well as hurricane-force winds.
Durability. Steel will not split, crack or rot, and steel frames are not affected by climatic changes, so there's no twisting, bending, expanding, contracting or warping, which can cause bulges in walls or sagging and squeaking floors in wood-framed houses. Steel is not susceptible to damage from termites and other vermin, and there is no need to treat the frame with chemicals to guard against rot and fungus, making for a healthier environment.
Eco-friendly. One of the major trends in current homebuilding is the growing use of materials that are kinder to the environment. All light-gauge steel contains a minimum of 25 percent recycled steel, and the steel frames themselves are not only 100-percent recyclable, but can be recycled an infinite number of times. In fact, steel is the most recyclable material used in home construction today. In addition, because many of the steel frame houses are prefabricated, there is a minimal amount of waste in the factory, where scraps can be recycled. And because the framing is pre-cut before it arrives on site, waste disposal costs are virtually eliminated for the framing part of the project.
Non-combustible. Steel framing is a practical alternative in fire-prone areas because steel is a non-combustible material. The average house fire would not be hot enough to have any effect on a steel frame. Some insurance companies have recognized this fact and are offering reduced rates to homeowners and builders for steel-framed structures.
Design flexibility. A steel frame can support any type of roof, including a heavy tile roof. When building a wood-framed home, homeowners are often advised to choose lighter roofing materials that require less support; this is not the case with a steel-framed home. With steel frames, fewer load-bearing interior walls are required, allowing for a more open floor plan and flexibility when remodeling the interior space in the future.
Fast build times. As is true of many prefabricated elements in construction, panelized steel frames can be erected more quickly than a wood frame built on site. Many companies build the steel-framing parts in a factory and, when delivered to the site, they are color-coded or numbered for quick assembly. A knowledgeable crew can put the frame together in as little as a few days, though depending on the complexity of the frame it could take a few weeks.
Types of Steel
The most common type of residential steel is light-gauge steel, which is sometimes called cold-formed steel because it is fabricated without the use of heat. This type of steel is easier to produce, thinner and less expensive than heavier steel. It's relatively easy to handle, and doesn't require the use of a crane to assemble.
Heavier-gauge steel is often referred to as red-iron or hot-rolled steel because the framing components are fabricated using heat. Houses with red-iron frames are built more like timber-frame construction with the entire load of the house carried by the outer framework, allowing for wide-open floor plans. In addition, because of its strength, heavier-gauge steel can be used in locations where building presents difficulties, such as on a mountaintop location.
The Cantilever Home, located near Granite Falls in Washington's Cascade Mountains, is a prime example of a house built with heavier-gauge steel. The prefabricated steel frame was assembled on site, and a building envelope composed of structural insulated panels (SIPs) was attached to the frame. The home is also an example of the design flexibility possible with steel framing.
Another architectural company, Marmol Radziner Prefab, based in Los Angeles, offers factory-built steel-framed homes and recently completed a prototype home in Desert Hot Springs, Calif. A number of different models are available, with prices starting at $215,000. The company will also build custom-home designs.
Many companies are striving to make it as easy as possible to build with steel. PanaSteel, for instance, will generate an engineered-home package from any standard house plan, identifying and manufacturing each steel component. Chases are created in wall and floor panels for electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems. After inspection, the various components are packaged and shipped to the building site for assembly.
After a home is completed, it is generally impossible to know that it has a steel frame, since there are no restrictions on the siding that can be used for the design of the house. In some cases, a homeowner might prefer the steel to be more visible, as with the Cantilever House. But for the most part, no one except the homeowner will know the home has a steel frame -- which is a bit unfortunate, given the benefits that the steel frame will provide for many years to come.
Sheri Koones is the author of Modular Mansions and House About It. She also recently completed a book on prefabricated construction, which will be available next year. She's based in Greenwich, Conn.