Tomorrow's Homes... Today!

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St. Paul Pioneer Press

Saturday, October 13, 2001

The Strength of Steel

Time may be right for homebuilders to reconsider the reasons they use wood instead of steel.


Pioneer Press

If you attend this weekend's Fall Home and Garden Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center, you'll have an opportunity to see what could be the house of the future.

Oddly enough, the house of the future looks exactly like the house of the present. That's because the difference is inside the walls and under the roof. The difference is steel.

Commercial buildings have been constructed with steel beams and girders for decades, but it is a relatively new phenomenon to build houses that way. The reason is fairly simple: Historically, steel has cost more than wood, so builders put up wood-framed homes.

The difference in price between wood and steel has changed in the last decade; however, wood has become more expensive,

steel is more affordable, and some builders are beginning to see an interest in steel frame homes.

Jerry Peterson's Midland Contracting (A Sunway Homes Distributor) built the steel home that will be on display today and Sunday in the Convention Center. You would not be able to tell the difference between Peterson's 1,500 -square-foot steel frame house and the one you live in, except that some of the walls are open and a Subaru Outback is sitting comfortably in a second floor bedroom.

"A steel home is unbelievable strong", Peterson says. "I've got a main support beam (in his office). If you picked it up you'd be shocked on how heavy it is. Overall, when the house is done, the skeleton weight less than a wood house, but an individual piece -whoa, that's strong.

"We are looking at steel being about 10 times stronger than wood. Nobody in their right mind would take a full-sized pickup truck and put it on the roof of a wood house."

The strength of steel is certainly one advantage -Peterson says steel houses have withstood winds of up to 200 M.P.H. in other parts of the country.

The Sunway Homes steel structure at the Minneapolis Fall Home & Garden Show

Steel framed homes are becoming more popular in the Minnesota home market. This home, "The Juliette" by Midland Contracting (A Sunway Steel Structures Distributor), is featured at the Home and Garden Show through Sunday at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Another advantage, according to Peterson, is the thickness of the walls, which allows the builder to add more insulation, making the house more energy efficient.

"One of the of the first questions we get is about thermal transfer or ghosting -coldness coming through the wall," Peterson says. "With the thickness of the walls, we're able to go from normal insulation (R-13 or R-15) to R-19 and higher. That is no issue whatsoever. In a normal house, you put your hands near an electrical outlet on a cold day and you can feel cold air. This doesn't happen in a steel home."


Peterson says another advantage to the steel house is its ease of construction. Owners may opt for Sunway Homes' cost saving "owner-builder" program, which provides the material, the crane to put the component pieces together and supervisory experience to walk the owner through the various phases of construction. But putting the parts of the skeleton together is relatively easy. Peterson says.

"If you remember having an erector set when you were a kid, it's basically the same concept," Peterson says. "You're bolting or screwing part A to part B, and sooner or later, you think 'My God, I've got a house here.'

"We dig the foundation, put in the basement walls, button it up and turn the key over to you, and you finish it off."

Peterson says a steel-frame house will be quieter and sturdier than wood. "The two biggest call-backs from new homebuyers are nails coming loose and squeaking floors," Peterson says. Wood continues to shrink over time and the screws or nails twist and turn to the point where you can pull them out. When you get into steel, the quiet floors and quiet walls never shrink. The wall is as plumb as the day you build it.

"The (wood-frame) house I'm in is 2 years old, and it's already noisy. I'm going to build a steel house too."

It would be one of the first in Minnesota. Peterson's company has dug foundations for two homes on the Pebble Creek Golf Course in Becker, Minn., but the Sunway Homes' steel framing has not been erected yet. Those parts came into town on the same truck that brought the steel components of the Home and Garden Show house.

With all its purported advantages, you'd expect a steel house to be more expensive than a wood house, but Peterson says that's not so.

"Right now, the price of lumber has stabilized, but it was going up quite fast," he says.

"Steel in the past had always been expensive, but now steel has come down in price, while the quality of lumber has deteriorated. Right now, the price is comparable. In fact, steel is even 3 to 5 percent less."

Other Twin Cities builders agree that steel is a viable material for building homes and might even have some advantages over wood, but they're not sure how quickly steel homes will catch on.

"I would say it's an uphill battle only because the public does not see it" says Morgan Jenkins, architectural designer for Anderson-Sorensen Homes. "Far and away the norm is to see wood-framed homes. Is it a good idea and will it eventually catch on? . . . It will have to."


Catalog of Home Designs

Classified by framed area

784 to 1,024 Sq. Ft. 1,035 to 1,120 Sq. Ft. 1,123 to 1,195 Sq. Ft. 1,197 to 1,350 Sq. Ft.
1,363 to 1,486 Sq. Ft. 1,489 to 1,647 Sq. Ft. 1,656 to 1,785 Sq. Ft. 1,788 to 1,878 Sq. Ft.
1,884 to 2,005 Sq. Ft. 2,020 to 2,175 Sq. Ft. 2,180 to 2,395 Sq. Ft. 2,398 to 2,537 Sq. Ft.
2,538 to 2,779 Sq. Ft. 2,803 to 3,072 Sq. Ft. 3,106 to 3,541 Sq. Ft. 3,580 to 4,023 Sq. Ft.
Index 17: 4,059 to 5,992 Sq. Ft. Homes
In a nutshell ...Why Steel?

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