Steel Framing Snapshot

Don Procter

August 2008

Last month I wrote a feature story for AWCI’s Construction Dimensions looking at how the Steel—Doing It Right seminar is helping U.S. drywall contractors wake up to the complexities of cold-formed steel framing (CFS) contracts, so I decided to look into the situation in Toronto and see if equivalent training was available.

My research didn’t go far because I couldn’t find any drywall contractors here that take on CFS—at least not load-bearing jobs. Design and installation is generally done by integrated framing panel companies with proprietary LSF systems. They include panelized walls, roof trusses and floor systems. Drywall contractors stay out of it. And by the way, Canucks call it lightweight steel framing (LSF), not cold-formed steel framing.

I also found out that there isn’t much load-bearing LSF going on in Toronto. My Canadian sources, however, said that could change because it holds plenty of advantages over conventional block and concrete or red iron and precast construction methods commonly employed in the city. For starters, it is green-friendly.

"Depending on where you are purchasing your steel, you can get up to a 65 percent post-consumable recyclable rate,” explains Thomas Curran, president of Dietrich Metal Framing Canada. Furthermore, the two largest steel mills are nearby in Hamilton. "That helps toward LEED® certification.” Curran says the midrise residential and hotel sector is a big target market for LSF, but it largely remains untapped in Toronto. One of the reasons is that building sector is dominated by unionized trades including masonry and red iron erector trades.

But there’s another big obstacle: Soaring steel prices are putting LSF out of reach. In the past year steel prices have jumped about 80 percent, says Enzo Zeppieri, sales manager of Toronto-based Bailey Metal Products Limited. He points out that almost all heavy-gauge steel studs are used in curtainwall or windload applications, and he is not optimistic about load-bearing applications growing.

"We’re doing a few jobs but my personal opinion is we’re not competitive enough on price,” Zeppieri says. "It either comes down to a core slab or poured concrete floors that are cheaper (than steel), but they don’t work that well with steel studs.”

What might sway owners to take a second look at load-bearing LSF, however, is that hard construction costs are 20 to 30 percent less than block and poured concrete, points out Bill Kraft, director of marketing and field operations for the Steel Framing Alliance, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

LSF is not as economically viable, however, in buildings that are one to four floors high where less pricey wood framing is permitted by building code, says Ed Hernandez, market development representative at the SFA’s Ontario office. "That’s why we’re focusing on the midrise market.”

Another advantage over concrete block and poured concrete construction is that in a typical midrise project LSF can be erected three to four months quicker. That’s a big plus in Toronto’s winter, says Kraft, adding that because the walls of every floor are erected with sheathing, interior trades can immediately start working, rather than wait for the building to be closed in.

LSF has been around since the mid to late 1990s in the Greater Toronto Area. Back then it was geared to lowrise structures, such as multifamily housing. Kraft, a Canadian himself, says the rapid growth of residential in the inner city of Toronto offers a huge potential market for LSF. But everything comes down to price: If steel prices continue to rise, don’t expect to see cold-formed steel framing making much of a dent in the city’s midrise market.

Don Procter is a free-lance writer in Ontario, Canada.