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Termite Bill Led to Steel House : Couple Says Metal Structure Costs Less to Build, Own

April 21, 1985|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

Termites inspired Timothy Cross and his wife, Nancy, to build the first model of a Phoenix company's homes in California.

"I paid $700 to get rid of termites in my old house in Redondo Beach," he said, "and when I heard of these homes, I figured, 'Well, I shouldn't have any termite troubles in one of those.' "

Cross shouldn't have any termite troubles because the house he had Redondo Beach developer Chris Gerold build in Manhattan Beach from one of the Phoenix company's kits has a steel frame and steel exterior walls. Cross smiled. "You could take a hammer and pound on an outside wall, and it wouldn't break through."

That's not unusual in commercial construction, but for a house? Robert Ladd, president of the Phoenix firm, Paragon Steel Structures, estimated that there are only 25,000 steel-frame homes in the entire United States. His company has been responsible for about 115.

The only other company that Tim Cross knows has been building them is Tri Steel of Denton, Tex. "But their thrust has been primarily in the Dallas and Denton areas, Tennesee and Kentucky," he said.

Since Paragon Steel was founded in 1982 (a few years after Tri Steel), it has been building a network of dealers--an estimated 175 in 32 states, with another 200 to 300 expected to be added this year. Using the name "Fifth Avenue Homes" (P.O. Box 236, Hermosa Beach 90254), Nancy Cross is one of these new dealers.

"She's going to be home anyway, so she might as well do this," her husband, who started out as an industrial engineer but is now a vice president of marketing and product development with Union Bank, said.

Married nearly six years, the Crosses have twin, 2 1/2-year-old daughters, Amanda and Shannon. He's 37. She's 31.

"We're the epitome of the baby boomers," he said. "We bought our first house when I was 30, and now we're upgrading to our dream home."

Nice as he thinks it is, the four-bedroom, 3,300-square-foot house they built from the kit is not their dream home, which would be more castle-like in size.

Changing Walls

"But we could build our dream home with this type of building," he said, "or I could simply add on." As Paragon's Ladd explained it, the steel-frame houses "bolt together like an Erector set."

The Crosses could change interior walls almost as easily. "Because there are no load-bearing walls, I could change them in a few hours," he said. "If I didn't like the wall there, I'd just unscrew it at the top and at the bottom and take it out. Yet, it is as strong as any conventionally built wall."

A Paragon information sheet goes as far as to say that the steel-frame houses are "resistant to earthquakes, hurricanes and lightning." The fabled little pig that built his house of bricks should have known about this!

"My house is four times the minimum requirement for earthquake safety in terms of overall strength," Cross said.

As for hurricanes, he points to a conventionally built house in North Carolina that was the only one for blocks that still had its siding after a hurricane hit town. The siding--a plastic-like material that looks like wood shingles--was the same type he used over the exterior walls of steel sheeting on his Manhattan Beach home. He also used some grained aluminum that looks like clapboard.

No Painting Needed

"Except for the fascia, I'll never have to paint the outside," he said. The plastic-like siding supposedly has a guaranty for 60 years.

What if the house is hit by lightning? "We'd be instantaneously grounded, whereas a wood house would burn," he replied.

When it rains, he doesn't even hear it, because all of the exterior walls are wrapped with R-30 insulation. Most houses are insulated with the lighter-weight R-11 and usually, they are insulated only at the roof.

"We're already feeling the benefits in our gas bills," he said. "In January, when it was so cold, our gas bill was only $37, and my neighbor across the street, in a smaller house, paid $70."

Dollar-wise, there apparently have been several advantages in building the steel-frame house.

From the outset, the Crosses saved time and, consequently, money by using a prepared kit. Kits are packaged at Paragon's new $770,000, 10,000-square-foot plant, built from two of the firm's residential designs modified for commercial use.

Nine Model Kits

C-shaped steel beams are cut to specific lengths, the angles are engineered, and steel plates are pre-drilled and welded onto the beams for easy assembly into one of nine models ranging from 800 to 5,000 square feet. At a cost of about $30,000 each ($15 to $17 a square foot), the kits include steel-frame beams, steel sheeting, 9 1/2-inch fiberglass insulation batting and exterior shingles.

"We put up the frame, roof and sides in three days," he said. By comparison, a home would take about two weeks to frame conventionally. "After the framing, it was the conventional-type building that took time," he added. Construction began in September, and they moved into the home in January.

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