A study of construction trends concludes steel is on the rise in the non-residential market.

The non-residential construction industry is building back after four years of declining fortune. A strengthening U.S. economy, living up to its forecasted growth of between 3 and 5 percent this year, is an important factor in this positive outlook. And steel, whose largest market lies in this segment, is watching the recovery closely, positioning itself for significant expansion.

So concludes a study recently completed by the Steel Framing Alliance. The study developed a statistical analysis of the non-residential steel-framing market, including the industry's participation and potential for growth in a broad spectrum of applications and categories of structures. Data were collected from a variety of sources, including F.W. Dodge, R.S. Means, the Steel Stud Manufacturers Association and FMI.

Steel standing

To measure steel's use in non-residential construction, the study determined the estimated size of the current market for nonresidential steel framing by applying a rationalized percentage to the total market opportunity described.

Using this method, the study showed steel framing is used in 81 percent of the interior and non-bearing walls built today. For structural applications like bearing walls, curtain walls, floors and roofs, it showed steel framing was used in 22 percent of structures. Floors and roofs are shown to have captured a very small portion of the available market at 13 and 4 percent, respectively. Total market share for steel framing was determined to be 38 percent.


In defining the potential market demand for cold-formed steel framing, the study totaled the entire area within a structure where framing members could be used and translated into tons. Not included in this calculation were areas within specific types of structures that typically would not be available to steel framing. For example, only elevated floor area was considered in determining the floor framing opportunity, as it is not envisioned that cold-formed steel would replace slab-on-grade construction.

The study showed that if steel framing were used in all the available non-residential applications, it would require shipments of 4,464,258 tons per year. It measured numbers against critical demographic and societal changes occurring. For instance, an aging Baby Boom population will increase the demand for health care facilities. Projections by the AIA indicate that the majority of these structures will be smaller-scale facilities, like clinics and assisted living, rather than the large regional hospitals built over the last decade. The number of school projects is also on the rise as the children of the Boomers keep enrollments up. At the same time, older adults looking for a career change are driving the construction of higher education facilities.

The study found that steel's largest opportunity lies in homes for the aged, frequently assisted-living facilities, at 1,055,193 tons. These are typically multi-story structures with many interior walls and large roof systems. Warehouses, stores and food service buildings, office and bank buildings, and schools and colleges would also consume significant volumes of steel studs. The second largest potential application for steel framing is exterior walls at 1,267,953 tons per year; at 1,224,291 tons per year, the interior walls segment represents nearly as much potential.

Steel's appeal

Steel is ready for growth but are builders ready for a change? The answer is yes, with steel providing clear advantages over other materials in nonresidential construction.

One sore point among most builders has been the extraordinary increases in the cost of insuring their projects against loss during the course of construction. Driven by high loss rates over the past decade, most through fires, some builders have reported premium hikes of up to 1,000 percent over just a few short years.

As a result of rate-setting classifications developed more than 82 years ago, structures built with "non-combustible" or "fire-resistive" materials enjoy premiums rates that are a fraction of than buildings classified as "frame" construction. Concrete and masonry qualify as "fireresistive" but because it was introduced long after the classifications were set, steel framing has been typically lumped into the same classification as wood framing.

Some insurers have recognized the non-combustibility of steel by reclassifying steel as "joisted masonry" or "non-combustible" construction, enabling builders to negotiate substantially lower rates for their projects. The impact of this reclassification can be enormous, bringing rates down to 26 to 35 cents and 12.5 to 15.5 cents per $100 of construction value for joisted-masonry and non-combustible classification, respectively, vs. typical annual framing rates of 65 cents per $100 of construction value. A five-story mixed-use building at Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood, Calif., was reclassified as non-combustible recently and saved $400,000 in builders risk premiums.

SFA recently smoothed the path for all builders who would like to lower their insurance costs by developing a national program through one of the industry's largest general insurers that would allow consistently lower prices for structures that use steel framing.

Next, provisions in the building codes also create unique opportunities for the builder or owner who wants to lower costs or increase the revenue from specific projects. Height and Area Tables in the NFPA fire codes, for example, give unprotected steel construction roughly 21⁄4 times the area value permitted for unrated wood construction. In addition, the same codes permit steel framing in taller structures than wood framing. In some cases, steel provides a three-story height advantage.

Finally, unique applications for steel and new construction techniques that are enabled by steel are helping a growing number of builders to lower direct cost of construction, as well as overall project costs. In the face of high costs for OSB and plywood products, sheet steel for shear panels is becoming a popular alternative in Southern California.

Construction of sloped roofs-especially those on multi-story structures-can be tricky, and require conformance with stringent OSHA regulations. Due to the light weight of the steel framing materials, a growing number of builders are assembling, bracing, and sheathing their roof assemblies on the ground then "flying" the completed system into place using a crane.

With the steel industry preparing for future growth as nonresidential construction rebounds, builders are sure to find steel framing will improve their construction efficiencies, lower costs and improve their overall competitive position.