Cold-formed Steel: A History Still in Progress
A look back at how the steel framing industry has evolved in this debut column.
It was only a few years before the first issue of Walls and Ceilings hit the streets that cold-formed steel was finding its first practical applications. Since that time, CFS has been through peaks and valleys but these experiences have laid the foundation for a bright future.
While there are a few vague claims as to who built the first structure with CFS, an architect in Berlin, a homebuilder in upstate New York … it appears that the first documented use of CFS as a building material is the Virginia Baptist Hospital built around 1925 in Lynchburg, Va. The walls were load bearing masonry, with a floor system framed with double back-to-back CFS lipped channels. A site observation during a recent renovation confirmed that these joists from the “roaring 1920s” are still supporting loads.
There’s very little reliable information about who did what in these early years but the date for steel framing’s grand debut is beyond speculation: 1933, the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition (World’s Fair). Here, the “Home of the Future” exhibit area featured three homes that either made extensive use of cold-formed shapers or were completely framed with steel, including the General Houses home, the Armco House and the Goodhousekeeping/Stran-Steel House. CFS materials were also used as a nonstructural material in the Hall of Science. This new material was also touted in the official program of the World’s Fair: “[T]he genius of man has provided factory-made parts, wall materials pre-fabricated in shops, steel frames and clips and screws for quick assembly, and new compositions, all to permit the building of staunch structures …”
Sadly, this enthusiasm for steel framed homes didn’t translate into new demand from the residential market. The primary reason was that the costs were much higher than wood framed systems due to the difficulty in obtaining cold-formed studs and accessories, and a total lack of any design, manufacturing or installation standards.
BIRTH OF AN INDUSTRY
The first true foundation stone for the CFS framing industry was laid in February 1939 when the American Iron and Steel Institute’s Committee on Building Codes sponsored a research project at Cornell University that eventually resulted in the 1946 publication of the first edition of the AISI’s “Specification for the Design of Light Gage Steel Structural Members.”
The release of this important document coincided with the next major event in the development in the steel framing industry: the end of World War II and the crushing need for new housing for soldiers and sailors returning home to start their families. The most noted steel framing company at the time, Lustron Homes, built and sold almost 2,500 steel-framed homes. Unable to make a profit, however, the company eventually closed its doors.
While interest in steel framed homes waned, it was nonresidential construction where CFS really made headway as a mainstream building material. During the 1950s and 1960s, the construction of taller buildings, where life-safety and constructability was a primary concern, created a new demand for lightweight, non-combustible CFS. New technologies were being introduced that made steel framing construction easier and faster, including the self-drilling screw to replace “nailable” studs and wire ties for metal lath. The parallel development of tools to drive the screws during the 1950s made CFS even more attractive and steel framing companies began to pop up across North America. During the 1960s, CFS was being used in new systems, like curtainwalls, exterior framing with brick veneer and interior shaft walls.
EYE ON THE PRIZE
Even with the success in the nonresidential construction, the big prize has long been the potentially enormous demand for steel in residential building. An opportunity to grab a piece of this market came in the late 1990s following a run-up in wood prices. A major steel company even established a homebuilding divison; but it closed down in 1972 after wood prices tanked. Then, in July 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed the northern spotted owl on the “threatened” list under the Endangered Species Act and virtually shut off the federal timber pipeline. Supply immediately tightened and the average price for dimensioned lumber nearly doubled, forcing homebuilders to actively seek alternatives to wood.
Energized by the vision of “25 percent share of the residential market,” the steel industry took a hard run at displacing wood, producing much needed technical, training and marketing tools. After some initial successes, resources tightened and the effort slackened. Even so, residential market share hit 16 percent in multifamily walls and 3 percent in the single family segment. When the residential construction market began to turn downward in 2007, the industry’s focus began to shift from single family to mid-rise and then almost all marketing efforts crashed when the market tanked in 2009.
Then an interesting thing happened: the wood industry decided to try to take away the mid-rise construction market from CFS. In the last four years, wood has poured millions of dollars into research, marketing, field support and efforts to change the building codes to explicitly allow the use of wood in structures above four stories in height. Market share studies conducted by Reed for the SFIA show these investments have not produced movement for wood, but this could begin to change in 2015 as structural building codes enter the review and revision cycle.
Despite the huge war chest, a wood victory in the mid-rise segment is far from certain. It is difficult to take away market share from an entrenched product—unless the incumbent product experiences a traumatic disaster or does nothing to defend its markets. Plus, there are helpful headwinds we can use to our advantage.
Research conducted by the SFIA, with the support of the Steel Market Development Institute, shows that two-thirds of the architects, engineers and contractors that have used steel think that it is a superior or very good product. For those who have not used steel, the same survey finds that the market is receptive to steel framing, with nearly 50 percent of builders and architects thinking they’ll be using more steel in the next five years.
However, this is only a measure of “expectation”—not a prediction of what to expect. This same research finds that information about steel framing and related products is hard to find and not always easy to understand. And unfortunately, those who want to learn more have to educate themselves.
Especially now, as the construction markets get their sea legs back, we have an opportunity to seize the interest that potential users have in CFS and hold ground against the wood industry by factoring in some key concepts into your marketing and sales efforts:
Don’t ever stop communicating with your customer groups. A study by the American Institute of Architects found that nearly 28 percent of jobs at architecture firms disappeared during the market meltdown. Many of these jobs will return as the construction markets return to normal, healthy levels and most will be filled by new faces.
If your targeted group is the building department, you’re probably used to an average turn-over of 10 to 15 percent each year, but these rates have shot up to nearly 50 percent in some jurisdictions as city departments have contracted and then tried to re-build their staffs since 2008.
Communicate with ALL those who count. The choice of a structural system and material is almost always a shared decision. The architect may want to use steel, but the owner and engineer also have to be onboard. There are also those outside the decision-making process, such as the building inspector, that can also cause the owner to regret the choice of any system.
Information … or even just providing access to information is a powerful marketing tool. Our research confirms our fear that despite the good job we think we’ve done about educating the market, those who are choosing construction materials don’t really know much about CFS, don’t know where to look or don’t understand the information when they stumble across it. This confusion and lack of information translates into “risk” in the mind of potential users, and is almost always certain to keep an architect or engineer from recommending CFS for an upcoming project.
Fortunately, there is a trove of technical, educational and marketing materials that the industry has produced for builders, architects, engineers, contractors and subcontractors. What’s needed is someone to bridge the connection between the information that exists and the decision-making in the construction chain.
You can be an expert. There is truth in the old adage: “In a land of blind men, the one-eyed man is king.” New faces at many firms and jurisdictions are an opportunity for you to educate key gatekeepers and decision-makers about CFS. You also have the support of the CFS framing industry that can provide you with a broad range of resources, from the SFIA Technical Product manual to webinars that will help you brush up on CFS issues. If you need a way to get in front of specifiers in the first place, a special SFIA program offers its members access to AIA/CES approved seminars.
Cost is king. No surprise but there are subtle issues that may create opportunities or difficulties for the marketers that understand what they are. The first is that the vast majority of decision-makers look at cost from a “total installed cost” perspective. Good news in an environment of very low wood prices.
The good and bad news is that there is broad recognition of the many positive attributes of CFS, such as lighter weight, dimensional stability, faster construction cycle, non-combustible, recyclable, etc. However, the industry has not done a good job of connecting these attributes to the impact they have on lowering costs of construction or defining what they mean to their profit margin. This is a missed opportunity.
In future columns, we will explore each of these concepts in more detail and provide practical ideas for marketers of CFS and related products.
In the meantime, congratulations to Walls & Ceilings magazine. If the last 75 years are any indication of what’s to come, then we have reasons to celebrate.