LIGHT-GAUGE STEEL HAS LONG had its fans among home builders for framing purposes because it offers significant advantages over wood. It doesn't warp, bow, twist, or swell; it's impervious to termites and disease; and it doesn't attract mold. Plus, it produces straighter walls more consistently.

For reducing liability and warranty call-backs, it's clearly a good choice. Weighing about a third less than wood, it requires fewer workers to install and costs less to ship. All in all, it's just about the perfect material for trusses and framing.

Except for the little matter of cost.

Framing a house with light-gauge steel can be between 30 percent and 50 percent more expensive than wood. For custom home builders, the added expense might not be an issue, but for production builders, that alone is enough to make builders stick with, well, sticks.

But that obstacle may be falling by the wayside. Seven California divisions of Lennar Corp. are using the material successfully through panelization. What began essentially as an experiment has grown tremendously in the past three years, says David Ball, regional director of product development for the Lennar Family of Builders. Together, the divisions will produce approximately 1,000 steel-frame homes this year.

STEEL RESOLVE: Despite cost concerns, seven California divisions of Lennar Corp. are successfully using steel through panelization. The initiative came through Lennar's Greystone Homes division in Orange County after a senior manager working in Anaheim saw steel framing being used in a nearby custom neighborhood.

“He was interested in the way the homes went together,” Ball says. “They were much more efficiently built than stick framing.”

After a test phase, division management was sufficiently impressed with the results to present a proposal to corporate management. Light-gauge steel framing would be used to address two of Lennar's core objectives—increasing quality and reducing costs. Yes, reducing costs.

“The initial expectation was we could reduce cycle time and callbacks, which we did, and provide a quality product,” Ball says.

The quality wasn't a problem. Homeowners seem to love steel framing, says Ball.

“Customers are very open to the product,” he says. “We've surveyed them. There was no buyer resistance.”

Collaboration Cuts Costs By using panelized steel frames with pre-punched holes, Ball says, Lennar was able to reduce its framing schedule by 40 percent, from 20 to 12 days. Plus, the panelization design process required the architect, engineer, and panel vendor to work together earlier than in normal building processes and helped create much more builder-friendly floor plans and blueprints.

“The normal bid process is where most of this kind of design enhancement happens,” he says. “By moving the process up, we give ourselves time to come up with an efficient design.”

That collaboration, and the use of 3-D models, also reduced errors that often are inherent in the blueprints and produce costly rework in model homes. As a result, Lennar can be more predictable on production schedules and bring homes on line faster, Ball says.

The system even works with the recent increase in the price of light-gauge steel, which has added between $1.00 and $1.50 per square foot to the cost of construction, Ball says. As a percentage of total cost, he considers the increase a “normal commodity fluctuation.”

In terms of overall cost, Ball says, Lennar has made steel framing comparable to using wood. But it wasn't easy to get there.

“We had to work extremely diligently with our trades, with engineering, and with design to make it as efficient as possible,” he says.

Saving Cycle Time The product requires some shifts in scheduling trade contractors, and a process change in the field from production framing to crew framing. In California, Ball explains, framers normally are very specific in their jobs. Crew framing involves having four or five workers build the house from beginning to end.

That meant altering the schedules of other trade contractors who work around the framers. But instead of slowing the jobs down, it actually made them go faster.

“Production speed and efficiency has been enhanced by this process,” he says. “We can very efficiently pace the construction within a community.”

The material itself helps with that pacing. The panels can be brought on the jobsite prior to installation and stored indefinitely, giving the builder more flexibility in scheduling, Ball says. “And you're fine if it rains on you,” he notes.

Additional cost savings is achieved by the lighter weight of the steel and the tools needed to assemble it. A third lighter than wood, it requires fewer workers for installation. Plus, steel framers use screw guns instead of pneumatic nailers.

To ensure quality work, Lennar is doing extensive training, either in-house or with third-party contractors. Operational meetings are held at least once a quarter to share best practices that are disseminated to the contractors.

“The first time any contractor does this, it's different,” he says. “That's where we want to provide support.”

In Southern California, Lennar relies heavily on San Diego-based FrameMax, a steel framing manufacturer that operates a panelization factory in Mexico. Company president Phil Ellis says the typical cycle time to fabricate the beams and trusses and assemble them into panels is 14 days. Working from architect's blueprints, FrameMax engineers and designs the segments with pre-punched holes for screws or rivets and for electrical wiring and plumbing.

Ellis has spent a decade creating systems to make steel cost effective and easy to install. He looked to building practices in his native New Zealand—where he says 90 percent of the houses use panelization—to design his factory and the manufacturing processes. In the U.S., that percentage is in the single digits, he says.

“This is the first time steel's got a chance,” Ellis says. “There are a lot of fanatics who didn't care about price. Getting the right price makes the difference.”

Obstacles Still Exist While Ellis maintains that the skills needed to install steel framing panels can be learned in a day, Ball says his contractors have experienced a significant learning curve. That's one of two major obstacles standing in the way of making steel framing more acceptable for volume builders.

Typically, wood-framing crews handle installation of the panels; Lennar has found that it takes about nine months for trade contractors to be “fully comfortable” with the product and the installation process. That's been improved through better front-end design to make the panels fit together more smoothly.

The other drawback that is keeping steel framing from taking off is lack of consistent supply. Most of the Lennar divisions using light-gauge steel are in Southern California, close to the FrameMax plant in Mexico, which can only deliver to a limited number of markets before shipping costs become prohibitive. In Northern California, Lennar operates its own manufacturing plant because of concerns over the stability of the steel market and a lack of skilled trade contractors.

“It's not readily used,” Ball says. “In time, once the volume is in the marketplace, it should be significantly less expensive … .We think it will become extremely competitive. That's why we're going after it. We'll continue to encourage divisions to use it. We're working with contractors to train them to use it or manufacture it themselves, and we're looking for companies to support us. The next step will be more volume in the marketplace.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.