Steel Framing Ramps Up in Mixed-Use, MidRise Construction

By David Hunt

July 2006

Designers continue to favor cold-formed steel framing in commercial applications, but this trend is pushing into the more traditional residential wall and ceiling market, with the growth of steel framing in midrise construction.

By all accounts, steel framing has gained a foothold, especially in the nonresidential market.

A Designers continue to favor cold-formed steel framing in commercial applications, but this trend is pushing into the more traditional residential wall and ceiling market, with the growth of steel framing in midrise construction.

By all accounts, steel framing has gained a foothold, especially in the nonresidential market.

study of the nonresidential construction in 2002 found that steel framing was used in 81 percent of interior walls, 47 percent of exterior walls, and 4 percent of roofs. Also, steel framing is now used in

• 53 percent of office and bank buildings.
• 45 percent of laboratories.
• 49 percent of dormitories.
• 53 percent of hospital and health treatment centers.
• 53 percent of public buildings.
• 52 percent of apartments/assisted living structures.

Residential applications are growing also, particularly in the multifamily segment. The NAHB Research Center suggested that the use of steel-framed interior walls rose 50 percent for this segment in 2004 over the previous year, while the application of steel-framed exterior walls grew by 30 percent over the same period.

What forces are driving this trend toward steel framing in the residential segment?

George Richards, a principal with engineering firm Borm Associates, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., believes he understands the trend, and sees continued growth in the market for steel-framed midrise structures.

"Production builders are left with less land for traditional building products—those classified as strictly commercial or residential,” he said. "This is creating a new paradigm.”

Richards said this new paradigm features increasing land prices, which in turn drive the market for mixed-use structures, especially in urban and previously developed commercial areas. This new paradigm, he predicts, will increasingly translate into a hypothetical structure with commercial establishments on two lower levels and townhouses on three upper levels. Richards said logically, such a mixed-use, midrise structure would be framed with cold-formed steel.

Richards’ firm, Borm Associates, is serving as the engineering consultant on a nine-story, mixed-use structure called Atlantic Times Square in Monterey Park, Calif. Currently under construction, the 225,000 square foot property consists of three building types. When complete, the first two levels will feature subterranean concrete parking, followed by two levels of concrete retail space above grade, and four levels of condominiums constructed with cold-formed steel framing. Kam Sang Company of Los Angeles, now in the opening stages of construction, is serving as the general contractor on the project.

Larry Williams, president of the Steel Framing Alliance, suggested steel construction offers a significant opportunity and that traditional wall and ceiling contractors would benefit from the background provided by a new program called "Steel—Doing It Right,” a joint effort of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry and the Steel Framing Alliance.

Scott Shaddix, CEO of framing contractor Nicholas Lane, Anaheim, Calif., said his firm got into the residential steel framing business during California’s construction boom of the late-1990s, but has more recently shifted their expertise to larger, midrise applications.

Nicholas Lane is currently working with general contractor Sundt Corp. of Tucson, Ariz., to build a four-story student housing project for the University of California, San Diego. Shaddix said that during the process of preparing for the project, Sundt discovered their insurance premiums would be reduced if they chose cold-formed steel for the project. They enlisted his firm, Nicholas Lane, as the framer for the project. Shaddix said his firm is preassembling the panels for the project off-site, but he believes the product is superior, whether it is assembled off-site or on-site.

Shaddix said his firm is also working on 20 three-story, cold-formed steel residential buildings in downtown Santa Ana, Calif. The firm has completed seven structures to date for general contractor Lennar Homes of Miami.

More Reasons to Love Steel

Shaddix points to several factors behind the growth of steel framing:

• Cold-framed steel in midrise construction is gaining in popularity because it is more cost-effective than concrete.
• Steel designs reduce a firm’s liability for mold, a growing specialty for tort lawyers.
• Steel framing enhances the safety of a structure as it serves as part of a non-combustible environment, increasingly the goal of building codes.

He believes steel framing now serves as the best material for three-story multifamily applications, as well as five- or more story applications.

Shaddix pointed out that designers now have more options to design load-bearing walls with steel framing. That shift, he said, has created more options for the material.

Shaddix said that as steel framing grows in popularity, contractors will need to gain expertise in load pathways and weight distribution.

George Richards, of engineering firm Borm Associates, agreed.

"In midrise, cold-formed steel framing projects, a wall contractor will need to make sure everything that holds up the building is in place,” Richards said. "It is just one more step in the process.”

Williams, of the Steel Framing Alliance, pointed out that wood structures are not an option above five stories in the heights and area tables of current building codes. He added that steel framing becomes competitive with concrete in commercial, and particularly, midrise structures.

"Cold-formed steel offers an advantage over concrete in both the speed of construction and the ability to use it in combination with other materials,” Williams said.

Williams said that insurance companies such as Zurich of North America, New York, N.Y., are providing an incentive to build with steel and offer builder risk/course of construction insurance discounts for steel framed structures. He said one recent building project saved a contractor $1.3 million in discounts by using steel.

Williams also pointed out that marketable "green buildings” are more easily attainable when built with steel framing. The U.S. Green Building Council has sponsored a program called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design) in which rating points are earned toward green building status. Currently, 64 percent of all steel products are made with recycled material.

More Evidence of Growth

Bruce Ward, Pacific Northwest construction manager for Dietrich Building Systems, Cleveland, expects his design/build, design/supply firm to award subcontracts for framing 15 to 20 buildings with cold-formed steel this year. He said those framing subcontracts will cover 650,000 square feet of real estate.

Dietrich is now finishing a seven-story building containing five load levels as part of a mixed-use retail/residential building near Seattle.

Ward said the project involved flying the exterior walls on the project first, then placing the interior walls by hand. Later, Dietrich Industries’ dimensionally stable TradeReady Floor System was installed.

After the firm gained work in framing four other large building projects in the area, they secured a facility to panelize the walls off-site. To widen the expertise of the labor force in the region, they hired a competitive contractor to preassemble the walls for the remaining four projects.

"The only way to stay on schedule with these large projects was to panelize,” Ward said.

The firm’s other current projects include a three and four story condominium building in the Seattle area as well as two 80,000 square foot condominium facilities in Portland.

Dietrich Building Systems works as a subcontractor to general contractors. In turn, DBS subcontracts all of their framing work to area wall and ceiling contractors. The job of Dietrich Building Systems, in essence, is to assemble all of the parts necessary to build a cold-formed steel-framed building, and then hire a wall and ceiling contractor to install them.

Dietrich Industries, owned by parent Worthington Industries of Columbus, Ohio, is a manufacturer of metal framing products and accessories. Dietrich Design, another company in the Worthington group, provides engineering services to build cold-formed steel-framed commercial or residential buildings.

"Once contractors see these projects going up, they become like a magnet,” Ward said. "Our general contractors have been pretty accommodating in allowing other members of the industry to tour these buildings,” Ward said.

Ward advised companies looking at venturing into the cold-formed steel framing business to approach it with a level of caution. "The trick is understanding what you don’t know,” he said.

Ward typically asks contractors new to steel framing to provide him with their most detailed-oriented individual as the lead person on the crew. He added that workers must have good carpentry skills and understand the concept of plumb and square.

"Cold-formed, steel-framed buildings are built from the ground up, but their precision must reach from top to bottom,” he said.

These tight tolerances led Dietrich to provide a Seattle area assembly facility to panelize steel framed walls.

"Our automated compression tables ensure that all corners are perfectly square,” he said. "And square panels make plumb corners.”

Ward said that all of the steel-framing work on the five Portland/Seattle projects has been completed on schedule.

About the Author
David Hunt is a free-lance writer in Hershey, Pa.