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Steel Frame Homes
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

One of the first steel frame homes?built in 1928?stands today, a testament to the durability of steel framing, according to Tri-Steel Structures, Inc. owner, David Brown. Steel-framed houses have withstood the winds of hurricanes and the forces of earthquakes. In fact, steel framing was once predicted to be the future of home building at the 1933 Worlds Fair in Chicago.

So, why don?t we see more steel houses?

First, the original steel frame single-family home-industry (25 companies) went out of business during World War II because of the all-out use of steel in the war effort. Over the next 30 years, the only major interests in steel framing were the several hundred all-steel homes built in the Midwest between 1948-1950 by Lustrom Homes, according to Brown. Tri Steel Structures, established in 1976 by Brown?s father, John Brown, is one of the older residential, steel-framing firms operating today. It was originally set up commercial.

?About two years after our inception, we started doing steel frame homes,? David Brown said. ?We did the modified A-Frames.? For the past 21 years, they?ve built the straight wall design?over 13,000 structures shipped to 50 states and 35 countries.

But it wasn?t until 1993, after lumber prices more than doubled, that the National Association of Home Builders Research Center (NAHBRC) initiated an alternative materials program and considered light gauge steel framing as a possible solution. Since then, steel frame housing has increased dramatically according to statistics; for instance, steel-frame interior load-bearing wall systems were built in 14,851 homes in 1997, 26,699 homes in 1998, and 35,423 homes in 1999, according to Steel Framing Alliance. ( To generate more public awareness about light gauge steel in single-family home construction, the North America Steel Framing Alliance, 75 companies, committed $100 million to a five-year ad campaign, now in the second year.

?There are two main holes that need to be filled before steel can really become a presence,? Brown said. ?One is just education?that people would understand the benefits of steel and consider it a viable option, and two?the framing labor, the builders, for people to be able to put these up effectively.?

?There are a couple of different ways to build it (steel home),? Brown said. ?Some people in this business are building what I would call?stick for stick steel framing. What I mean by that is that they?re building steel just like they would build lumber?studs every 16 inches and they?re doing all cutting and labeling on the job site. It?s just building steel by wood rules. That is not what we do?we have created pre-engineered kits so that the structural spacing on the studs can be anywhere from four to eight feet. And every structural component comes to the job site precut and pre-labeled. And, the reason we have done that is because you can?t find a steel carpenter out there. We had to make it as easy as possible. ?

Texas Steel ( also sells steel frame kits from Parisall, Texas since 1993, according to Judy Applewhite.

?Our steel frame homes bolt together. Everything is pre-engineered,? Applewhite said. ?I?m not going to say that the average person?never worked with tools?can get out there and try to accomplish it. You?re got to be able to lift tools. You?re got to lift a forklift. It?s hard work; but a skilled man can put a house together in a week?steel frame a 2500 square foot house.? Costs for a steel frame house in South Texas is about $34 a square foot for a steel frame home compared to $50 per square foot for a wood frame stick home.

?I would tell the client that it?s going to cost 10-15% more than a regular (wood) house in square foot cost, up front,? said Scott McCaslin, A.I.A. of McCaslin & Associates, a Dallas architectural firm in commercial and residential, including the steel frame home. That is if you can find a builder who will build the home.

?There are two basic kinds of construction: one is commercial, and the other is residential,? McCaslin said. For the most part, commercial trades work about 75% steel and don?t do residential building because of the pay differential. And residential contractors, by and large, work only with wood and don?t work in commercial. ?So, if you jump into a metal situation, almost all the trades who do any part of the construction are going to be commercial. There go your costs.?

?Certainly, if the builder is willing to consider steel, we would love to work with them,? Brown said. ?You?ve got some builders out there who are very progressive in their mindset; they?re utilizing the latest heating and cooling technologies, the latest foundation technologies. But, you also have a fair share of builders who can fight just tooth and nail not to use a nail gun. They still want to split and hammer. That?s a hard guy to convince to do something different. If a builder had a mindset, we have training classes every month, where we bring new distributors in and we teach them how to build our homes.?

?We operate though an independent network of distributors,? Brown said. ?Some of our distributors are actually general contractors. Some of them really got involved to build their own home but have the desire to build one, two, three, or four others. When a home lead or someone calls up interested in steel home, what we try to find out from them is?do you need someone to build this home for you? Or are you looking to buy a steel kit and have an interest in building it yourself??

?My goal is to build one or two nice homes a year,? said distributor, Kyle Henley, Ultimate Steel Home, Inc., who has been a local builder of Tri Steel frame homes since 1994 employing mostly people experienced as wood framers. Henley works for a flat fee in an advisory as well as building capacity although he stands aside from being a financial intermediary. And his own steel-frame home, a 7,000-foot Regency, represents one of the more than 250 model kits available through Tri-Steel Structures.

?The only thing I see right now that needs to change is the way that we fasten the steel together?not the bolts?they are fine,? Henley said. ?But to put the little light gauge pieces together. They?re all screwed together with a screw gun or a drill. Only problem is you drop a screw; a screw moves; it?s a lot of tedious doing that?ultimately you could do a room like you do a car?weld it.?

?Wood and steel have strengths totally different from each other,? McCaslin said. ?I think the (steel) house can be stronger. I say, can be?it wouldn?t necessarily be stronger?but it can be if you size things accordingly. It has to do with the size, the spacing, the gauge, and how you brace and frame the house. Generally speaking the steel stud house would be stronger. But, if somebody cut back on the gauge, as much as possible and down played all the connections?reduce the amount of screws?then you can get into a home that still meets the code, but is weaker than a very strongly framed wood frame house.? For tables listing the load strengths of wood and gauge steel, check in A Prescriptive Method for Residential Cold Form Steel Frame, which can be purchased or downloaded chapter by chapter from Steel Framing Alliance, according to Shelton Cartwright at the NAHBRC.

?You can do everything you can do in wood in steel and have bigger spans,? said McCaslin. ?I think having a material that can span longer spans is a benefit cause then you can make a larger building or a larger room fit more the scale of the house.

?At some point, you have to go from steel to wood,? McCaslin said. ?You have to make the connection cause wood is the siding or wood is the roofing or wood is something you?ve got to nail. You?ve got to have special connectors to make the translation between steel and wood. And every time you want somebody to come out and fix something, fix a plumbing pipe in the walls or repair a roof shingle, he?s got to know that it?s a steel frame building. He?s got to have special connections.?

?I had a client wanted to do it (build steel home) and the contractor talked him out of it because of the repair problems,? said McCaslin. ?You want to make changes two or three years later, you?ve got a repair problem.?

Training could minimize these types of problems. Henley found that adding a window to a utility room took about one and a half hours to unscrew the metal stud and install the window?a job that on a wood-framed house would have needed reengineering because of the load-bearing wall. Steel framing also eliminates termite problems and increases the home energy efficiency.

?Remember, most building damage is caused by water,? McCaslin said. ?People don?t really think of it like that. But it truly is?we?re talking about rainwater?filtration of water through building components is the main harm done to buildings. You got a steel frame; you?re no going to get any damage from water.?

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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