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STEELING HOME : Metal is making inroads in O.C. housing: It's environmentally sound, resistant to quakes and fire and impervious to insects and rot. It's also stronger, and now less costly than wood.


What makes the house David Busk is building in Ritz Cove at Monarch Bay unusual isn't its price or location or even the amenities the custom-home builder is adding to his personal residence.

The difference is in the steel framing--something Busk and others in the industry believe is a construction material well within the reach of most people.

Long used in the treeless outback of Australia, in the termite-infested Hawaiian Islands, in office construction and in custom homes around the country, light-gauge steel framing is turning up with increasing frequency across Southern California in moderately priced tract homes. One measure of the growing acceptance of steel framing is that the industry now has its own trade journal: Metal Home Digest, published by Modern Trade Communications in Skokie, Ill. The second issue of the quarterly magazine features articles on steel roofing and the new wave of steel framing in Southern California tract developments and educational material for builders who want to start using metal.

Steel framing even is available these days for the homeowner with a strong do-it-yourself orientation and a desire to try something new. It is being stocked alongside more traditional materials by building material suppliers and at big warehouse retailers. Supplies were limited at the Home Depot in Santa Ana earlier this week, but prices for the equivalent of eight- and 10-foot 2-by-4s in the lightest gauge available were less than half the posted prices for construction-grade wood 2-by-4s.

There are several arguments for steel framing in houses: It's stronger and lighter than wood; termites and other insects won't bother it; it won't rot; it has more resistance than wood to the tremendous twisting forces of an earthquake or a blasting Santa Ana wind storm; it won't burn (although if things get hot enough, it can melt), and it is easy to work with.

Until now, however, there has been one overpowering argument against steel as a commonplace building material: It cost more than wood.

That is changing, though, because of an upsurge in metal recycling and diminishing supplies of wood as well as the propensity of timber companies to ship the best grades of wood overseas, where they command premium prices.

Bill Justus, whose Los Angeles-based Silverwood Structures designs and packages steel framing, said he supplied 11 tons of metal for the Busk project.

"At today's prices, the bill is probably 10% to 15% less than if he would have used wood for the framing," Justus said.

That's good news not only for those building a home but also for those planning to make changes or additions to a home.

Want to add a whole room? Or are you just building a few non-structural walls as you try to maximize the space in the old homestead? Steel works just as well as wood for framing. Maybe better, says architect Scott Martin of Laguna Niguel.

"It's easy to use, nice and light, so one person can work with it comfortably, and it's not as messy as wood because you don't have all the sawdust," Martin said.

"And because you screw it together and don't have to drive nails with a hammer when you attach pieces to existing studs and joists, installing new steel framing is a lot less disruptive to existing plaster, glass and drywall."

Martin, who collaborated with Santa Ana architect Jeff Riggs on the Busk home, is a big fan of metal framing.

"I recently added a prefabricated fireplace at my house and used steel studs for walling it in," Martin said. "I cut it with a good pair of tin snips and put everything together with an electric screwdriver. It is just really clean and easy. You even use self-tapping screws, so you don't have to pre-drill holes when you put two pieces together. You can use it for just about any remodeling project."

And with steel there is no danger of importing termites as there is when using untreated lumber for room additions and other framing projects.

Metal framing comes in several styles.

Some builders and framing makers like "stick-for-stick" systems in which the steel is used in the same manner as wood--2-by-4 studs every 16 inches in the walls, with double 2-by-4s over doorways and window openings. The end product looks exactly like a wood-framed house except that it gleams in the sun before the drywall and exterior covering are added.

But others say stick-for-stick systems are overbuilt; they use too much material and too much labor and cost more than is necessary.

The alternative is an "engineered system," designed by a structural engineer to take advantage of the strength and other qualities of steel. Using an engineer adds to design costs but can pay for itself by cutting material costs.

"Because steel is so much stronger than wood, you can use a lot less of it to frame a whole house, or just a room, as long as it is designed by an engineer to be safe," Martin said.

The most common engineered systems are horizontal girt and superstructure framing, said Justus.

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