Joss Hudson, 31, and his two partners, Ken Hensey, 38, and Kurt Hensey, 41, have had enough of wood-framed homes. They talk as if their hoped-for revolution has already come, and that their insulated, steel-framed EcoSteel homes have become the worldwide standard for construction.
"What we're looking to do is not replicate what's already there. We're trying to change single-family homes," says Hudson, who is CEO of Rehoboth Beach, Del.-based Northern Steel International. "To start, we'll focus on niche markets anywhere in the world. We're not trying to be the low-cost builder. We have some key issues people are trying to get away from, such as mold, and we're not competing with $62-a-square-foot junk. We're ready to offer a builder's clients more contemporary houses that are better built."
"We're five years into this, and our fundamentals are to educate the [homeowner] first," Hudson adds. "The world has turned against the traditional construction method of cutting down trees and building homes out of them that will fall down in a few years."
Those are fighting words in the wood-frame-dominated housing industry, of course, but Hudson and company are ready to rumble. The firm has adopted Dell Computer as its business model.
"Dell doesn't manufacture everything in the box, but when that box is finished, it carries the Dell logo," Hudson explains. "We're combining the Henry Ford approach with a Sears prefab approach. We're exploring doing the entire house, soup to nuts."
What does one of Northern Steel's proposed homes look like? Steel frame. Steel I-joists, metal roof, metal-clad exterior (such as look-alike cedar shakes). Even the interior has a metallic ring--most notably stair and baluster systems and fully industrialized kitchens with stainless steel appliances.
Unlike other would-be rabble-rousers, Hudson and his partners don't need to go begging to home builders to man the jobsite. Instead, they have ready access to an elite mercenary force, a group with their own equipment, skills, and a support crew of low-paid immigrant laborers--commercial builders.
A decade ago, recalls Ken Hensey, Northern Steel tried to develop a single-family project of several homes but gave up for lack of local contractors ready to work with metal systems. This time, he says, there will be no manhunt.
"So we want to bypass [traditional lumber builders] and say, 'Here is our builder network of commercial builders, and they will erect your system for you anywhere in the world.' That is what we do. The foreign labor pool for pre-engineered steel buildings is so huge we are able to move people in large numbers every day all the time to different jobsites. When we leave, you have a dried-in, insulated, all-steel shell. A local commercial builder or subcontractor can come in and do the interior finishing."
Solidly behind Northern Steel's insurgency: the manufacturers of steel products.
"What we're planning on doing is riding the tide of the big boys," adds Ken. "A lot of manufacturers are already pushing steel, offering free training. We're going to take that further and make ourselves available. We can offer packages where we provide all of the pieces cut to size. The builder can carry all of the waste off the jobsite in his arms." He adds that many steel mills are now using a high percentage of recycled material.
The next move
Northern Steel has only recently begun to focus more on the residential market. With several multifamily lofts either planned or completed, along with one residential single-family home built in Hawaii, the company has now published plans and specs for residential products on its Web site, www.nsteel.com/index.php.
The company offers two distinct building packages--one for single-family residential projects, which includes both one- and two-story home plans, another for a multi-unit residential steel system designed primarily for urban infill lots.
The single-family package uses a cold-rolled steel and Ecocrete GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete) wall panel system. The multi-unit system consists of a foamed-in-place insulated steel sandwich panel for exterior sheathing. Structures have an I-beam frame and all-steel decking for the second and third floors, with concrete flooring poured in place.
Both systems boast R values that are comparable to a 2x6-inch, wood-framed house (R-19 in walls, R-30 in ceilings), and Northern Steel sells these products with a sustainability tag. Ken says that the steel includes a high percentage of recycled content, which reduces its embodied energy. In addition, the company offers home energy production by means of photovoltaic roof packages and wind turbines from third-party manufacturers.
Hudson points out that traditional home builders don't have to be sliced and diced by commercial firms. They can join the revolution now.
"As of next year, we'll be offering full conversion training programs for contractors," he says, "that will include things like the differential in tooling, framing techniques, and how to meet OSHA's rules with the framing technology."
Ken adds: "The bottom line is that if we have interest from builders who want to put up steel houses, we can offer them resources. We feel at this point that there's a better profit point in steel than wood. You also get a greater clear span inside the home."
"The Japanese and Europeans have been building this way for years," Hudson says. "I really believe it's not as hard as it's made out to be."
Northern Steel International's EcoSteel residential package includes the following factory-made components:
1. Heavy-gauge steel columns, beams, and rafters
2. Metal roof purlins
3. Steel stud system for exterior walls
4. Metal framing components for dormers, roof, and saddles
5. Metal sub-fascia for roof overhangs
6. Metal interior studs and track
7. Metal furring for all ceiling surfaces
8. Metal second-floor joists for all two-story areas (not shown)
All bolts and fasteners for columns, rafters, joists, purlins, studs, furring, sub-fascia framing, and exterior wall and roof sheathing screws
Complete set of working drawings, including anchor bolt layout and erection instructions