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Home: Dallas, Archive: 1999, August: Week of August 23, 1999: Leading Stories

Leading Stories From the Dallas Business Journal

Homebuilders opt for steel structural frames

Higher priced, lower grade lumber forced builders to search for alternatives

 

Lisa M. Whitley Staff Writer

FAIRVIEW -- Facing higher prices for lumber, more and more residential builders are looking at steel as an alternative for their structural framing needs.

Metroplex builders have watched lumber prices increase as much as 40% since April, said Ed Horne, vice president of the Texas Steel Framing Alliance.

Steel-frame homes currently account for an estimated 3% to 6% of all new home starts in the United States, according to the North American Steel Framing Alliance. But experts expect that percentage to increase.

"I think steel is an emerging construction technique that works for large-volume builders," said Paul Cauduro, director of government relations with the Home Builders Association of Greater Dallas.

"For someone who's building similar floor plans, it works really well," he said. "It is something that will catch on, but probably with the volume builders first before the custom builders."

In addition to the price increases, experts say the quality of lumber has gone down recently, while restrictions on its collection have risen.

"Wood is becoming less available, and the quality of wood you're getting has decreased," said George Petriccione, president of Fairview-based Sunway Steel Structures Inc. "What was a C-grade wood three years ago is now an A-grade. The lumber is so green, you practically have to peel the bark off the lumber."

Steel is comparable in price to lumber, Petriccione said. While a typical lumber wall-stud costs about $2.15, a comparable piece of Sunway steel would run $1.99.

"Steel is almost dollar-for-dollar the same price, if not a bit cheaper, than lumber," he said.

Sunway Homes produces steel-framed houses using heavy-gauge steel throughout the structure. It currently has homes in Peru, South Korea and Cyprus.

"We're the only company in the world manufacturing these structures with 100% galvanized steel," said Mario Aguilera, the president of Sunway's parent company.

Sunway homes also offer eight-inch-thick exterior walls, twice as thick as those commonly used, Aguilera said. The double thickness means twice as much insulation, which improves the home's energy efficiency.

Another advantage to steel is that it won't warp, rot, twist or bow as wood does, Aguilera said. "And, termites haven't developed a taste for steel yet."

Steel also offers ecological advantages.

"Steel is the most recycled material on earth," Aguilera said. "Sixty-eight percent of all available steel has been recycled."

Petriccione is building the Mexican company's first American home in the Tower Group Inc.'s River Edge development in Fairview, just east of Allen. The steel-framed home will serve as a model home and as Petriccione's residence.

The completed home will boast 4,000 square feet of living space, plus an additional 4,000 square feet of basement storage space.

Petriccione plans to market his steel product to builders rather than to home buyers.

Because of its location in elite Fairview, where lots typically start at more than $100,000, the steel-framed home is expected to be valued at $600,000 after its completion in November.

One of the biggest challenges to building steel-frame housing is finding a labor force.

"They can't find anymore wood framers right now," said Horne, with the steel framing alliance. "I go into the commercial arena and bring them into residential construction."

Despite such difficulties, Petriccione isn't discouraged. Before working with Sunway, he was in the technology field. As the founder of 17-year-old Affiliated Telephone Inc., an independent Nortel distributor in North Texas, he's used to difficult challenges.

"I'm a pioneer," Petriccione said. "I enjoy the challenge ... Within the next five years, I think you'll find this is the preferred method of building. I think it will surpass wood."

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