By Iris Richmond. Jeffrey Prostor, president of Brookfield Homes, likes turning the tables. He asks people to imagine a history in which builders have been using steel, instead of wood, for the past 100 years. Imagine what would transpire if such a builder were approached by someone, product in hand, proposing the use of wood:

"Here's wood. Now, I have to warn you that it's heavier to carry and not as straight; it warps, cracks, and squeaks; it can catch fire; it doesn't span as well; and its price per foot will fluctuate. Did I mention that it's organic and therefore susceptible to mold? Oh, and there's this bug you should know about, it's called a termite ... ."

Prostor is sold on steel. In the early 1990s, he firmly pulled up a chair at the steel table and helped pioneer the use of a product that, until recently, had no infrastructure to support it.

Codes Catch Up

Prescriptive methods for working with steel took effect in 2000, when the material began to be covered in residential building codes. There are now more than 3,000 trained steel-code officials, and the membership base of the North American Steel Framing Alliance (NASFA) expanded from 52 to over 400 members in the last three years.

Photo: Dietrich Metal Framing

Taciturn Tiles: This diagram represents the Dietrich Metal Framing floor joists that should keep Centex's homes squeak-free.

"Today, it's easier for production builders to use steel. There are fewer hurdles in the way, but many are only dipping their toes," says Prostor, whose Costa Mesa, Calif., company builds 700 homes each year, half of them using steel. He cuts cycle time in half when working with steel. The use of steel in home building has increased 300 percent over the past three years, according to NASFA data, particularly in such locations as Hawaii, where 70 percent of all homes are built with some amount of steel.

Centex Slides In

Centex Homes' division in Columbus, Ohio, began using steel in its flooring systems to combat a constant thorn in its side. Of the roughly 300 homes built yearly by the division, 85 percent generated callbacks associated with floor squeaks and twists, humps, or dips in the floor.

"Frankly, there's nothing we hate more than having to put customers up in a hotel room for three days while our crew rips their floor up to fix wood joists that either twisted, bowed, or weren't installed properly to begin with," says Bob Gardner, purchasing and estimating manager for the division.

In early February, Centex partnered with Dietrich Metal Framing, a Worthington Industries company in Columbus and the largest manufacturer of steel products in the United States. The move marks the first use of steel undertaken by the division, which hopes to produce up to 200 hybrid homes during 2002, ranging in prices from $300,000 to $400,000.

"We believe that for builders unaccustomed to working with steel, it starts with the floor systems, where it's most cost-effective. We can come in 10 percent to 15 percent less on material costs, and there's less of a learning curve," says Chris Singleton, Dietrich's manager of business development.

This marks Centex's second attempt at giving Dietrich's TradeReady flooring system a go. Two years ago, the Denver division's trial run with Dietrich ended unsuccessfully with crews walking off jobs.

"The homes sold, but the project left everybody with a bad taste in their mouth with respect to steel," says Larry Leisge, construction services manager for the division. "It cost us three months, some egg on our face, and we were forced to abandon the project altogether because we had no support." When asked whether his division would ever try again, Leisge admits to feeling more than a little gun shy.

Jeff Prostor acknowledges that, despite advances, the steel industry is still struggling to penetrate the home building market. Training is a big part of it, he says, along with "a complete change in mindset and attitude."

Centex's Gardner credits Dietrich with supplying the complete package this time around, including expert trainers, and a long-term plan. Still, the division is starting small to test the waters, he says.

"I'm not trying to be ahead of the game. I'm just trying to put a better product in a house," says Gardner, who figures he can save $100 per house in warranty expenses. (Brookfield saves $300 to $450.) However, he considers them neither here nor there when weighed against more damaging, hidden costs.

"If you have problems with your wood, customers won't want to buy another Centex home. How do you measure that? Steel takes some of the guesswork out of making our homeowners happy."

Another Heavy Hitter

Lennar Homes reduced framing cycle time by 40 percent in its Southern California division since it began using steel a year and a half ago.

"We're always looking at alternative products and methods for operational efficiencies," says Dave Ball, the region's director of product development. "The steady decline in wood quality, coupled with its rising costs, prompted us to look forward in the marketplace five years and make the investment in steel now."

Lennar is expanding its steel operations -- including doing its own panelization -- from one to six California divisions, and it plans 10 hybrid communities for this calendar year.

"Steel is lighter than wood, which is easier on our crews, and lends itself better to panelization as a process," says Ball.

"There are less stucco cracks, we have cleaner jobsites, and liability costs are down by 20 percent for us, as well as for the homeowners. Bottom line: It's a wash for us right now, so we'll take the better product."

Chuck Robertson, president and COO of Whitepoint Homes and Steel Homes, a panelizing company, in Summerville, S.C., uses one word to describe the benefits of steel: profit.

"Steel escapes the vicious cycle of fluctuating costs -- 2 percent to 3 percent compared to 3 percent to 15 percent for wood -- and gives control back to the builder," says Robertson, who plans to build just under 100 homes this year.

Nicholas Lane, a framing contractor company based in Anaheim, Calif., which works with both Brookfield and Lennar, has been working with steel since 1993. "We would build all of our homes in steel if we could, but 40 percent of our clients still ask for wood," says Todd Setter, the company's director of client development.

Setter's appreciation for steel springs from the product's stronger weight ratio and longer spans, which allow framers to eliminate beams in the basement and take advantage of design possibilities that would be cost-prohibitive with wood.

"Many of Brookfield's homes, for example, look custom built, an added touch that comes at no extra cost to the builder, or to the purchaser," says Setter.