Advocates for the increased use of steel in everything from automobile parts to home decorating items have launched an aggressive marketing campaign to make the public more aware and accepting of the product. And while progress is being made, industry officials say one market that has proved challenging is the residential construction business in Massachusetts and throughout New England.

Areas of the country such as the South and West seem to have welcomed the use of steel in building new homes more rapidly than contractors in the Northeast, but that has not stopped national steel alliances from continuing their work touting the product and all its benefits.

“There has been a more recent push to really get the word out,” said Lisa Stevens, manager of marketing and public relations for the Washington, D.C.-based North American Steel Framing Alliance. The most noticed marketing efforts, she said, have been advertisements taken out by another industry organization, The Steel Alliance, which runs the Web site to promote steel in most aspects of everyday life. NASFA, meanwhile, “wants to let the consumer know that steel is the building material of choice,” Stevens said.

“Steel studs are more reliable, and they’re always straight, and for interior walls they’re very easy to use,” said David DelPorto, president of Concord-based Sustainable Strategies, an engineering firm that works to design environmentally friendly buildings. “To me, steel is a much more sustainable material. It’s stronger, and it lasts longer.

“It’s lighter, it’s quicker to put up, and it leaves the forest in place,” he continued. “I don’t see any detractions from using it.”

One major obstacle, Stevens said, has been making steel products as available and easy to use as their wooden counterparts, which still dominate the residential construction market. Because it claims previous statistics weren’t accurate and has only recently begun a new system of tracking of steel in the market, NAFSA does not release detailed market-share data. However, the organization estimates that steel is used in about 3 percent to 6 percent of new construction projects nationwide.

“Probably 99.99 percent of steel is used in commercial construction,” Stevens said. “We’ve got this product, and we know it can build a better house, but how do we bring it to the market?”

One of the steps taken involved getting steel manufacturers to develop standard dimensions, much like those used in lumber. “We also developed a nomenclature system so, for example, everyone knows what a two-by-four for steel is,” Stevens said.

“Lumber is also easy because it has prescriptive standards, where steel is typically used only in specially engineered houses. We’re trying to establish those standards, too,” she said.

Also, the industry is working on developing new tools that will, for example, make screwing steel studs together quicker and easier. In many cases today, that process takes more time than using nails with lumber. Since time is money in residential construction, Steven said steel would be more readily accepted once working with the product results in less construction time.

“We’re developing a tool,” she said. “Once that happens, then we’ll be able to get more into the market. But we need that level playing field first.”

Another obstacle standing between steel products and construction sites is training and education for contractors. “It’s a slow-turning wheel when it comes to education,” Stevens said. In addition to training code enforcement officers nationwide about the use of steel studs to facilitate in the permitting process, the steel industry is looking to educate more builders and subcontractors in how to work with the material.

The industry appears to be focusing those efforts on builders just entering the field who have not become set in their ways, Stevens said. “For some framers, the hammer is an extension of their arm. If you ask them to put a screw gun in their hand instead of a hammer, it’s a big deal for them, even though it’s not really that different.”

She added that the industry is developing a training curriculum for vocational high schools and community colleges.

The marketing appears to be working in some parts of the country, though not as effectively in the Bay State. “It seems to be in use a lot in the Sun Belt and in areas where termites or wildfires are a problem,” said Holly Blumenthal, communications director for The Steel Alliance.

“In Hawaii, specifically on the island of Oahu, there’s a 60 percent market share in steel,” Stevens said. “They have a huge termite problem there. They have the Formosan termite that eats wood faster than any other type. They literally cannot use untreated lumber in building there, and treated lumber is very expensive to produce and ship to Hawaii.” Texas and the other Gulf States also use a higher percentage of steel because of termite issues.

“They use it a lot in California because steel doesn’t burn, and there’s constantly a threat of wildfires in that state,” she added.

“But around here,” DelPorto said, “they think, ‘It’s steel, it’s cold and bad.’ It doesn’t have that warm and fuzzy concept like wood has.”

“They’re more innovative in the West than in the East,” Stevens said. “At least, they’re willing to try new things a little quicker.”

She added that in Massachusetts, “It could be a thermal issue.” Since steel is an excellent conductor of heat, builders might worry about loss of heat in the winter through the steel studs. She added that with insulation it is possible to have a more efficient house using steel instead of wood.

To combat the thermal issue, DelPorto said engineers are currently working on designing steel studs that are less conducive to transferring heat.

Steven also attributed the area’s lack of steel-framed residences to the overall lack of new construction that goes on in Massachusetts, regardless of whether it is because of permitting issues or lack of developable land.

“There has not been a lot of building going on in the last 10 years,” she said. “When there is a lot of new construction, there is usually a desire to learn the most about the new materials available on the market, but that hasn’t happened up there yet.”

“Once builders become familiar with it, they’ll swear by it,” DelPorto said. “And as time goes on, I think it will become the majority, not the new kid on the block.”

Homebuilders Steeling for New Construction Material

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min