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Cold-Formed Steel Offers Cost-Competitive Solution



The fire-inhibiting properties of steel make it an attractive material in the commercial building industry.

From apartments and condominiums to hotels, motels and office buildings, cold-formed steel is finding its way into more and more load bearing, mid-rise projects.

Total shipments of cold-formed steel have increased by 46% in the last decade, with most of the steel being used in multifamily and commercial construction. With the skyrocketing price of land, labor and materials, its use is expected to grow for some time.

The Reasons Why

As baby boomers age, they seek to downsize and many are drawn to the advantages of a more urban lifestyle. These trends mean more demand for more mixed use, mid-rise and multifamily projects throughout the country.

There’s also a lot more pressure on developers to maximize their return on investment because of the scarcity of available land for construction projects and off-the-chart costs.

One of the most logical solutions to this dilemma is more mid-rise projects because more stories and higher density translate into increased revenue from the same urban footprint.

Steel framing for mid-rise projects enables builders to build taller projects faster than they can with other materials. In addition, the demand for cold-formed steel has grown because building codes specifications for non-combustible materials around the country are on the rise — and steel does not burn or contribute fuel to a fire. Building codes now permit steel framing to be used in structures taller than the four-story height limit imposed on wood-framed buildings.

According to George Richards, a principal with the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based engineering firm Borm Engineering, choosing cold formed steel for multifamily or hospitality structures like hotels and motels makes good financial sense as well.

“For these types of structures, you’re looking at a very short span and a lot of wall compared to the floor area,” Richards said. “Previously, the structural system was always built with concrete or red iron, while steel framing has traditionally been used for the interior walls.”

“With cold-formed steel, you are utilizing all of the things in the structural system that you would use in the interior partition” Richards said. “This saves you from having to also buy materials for walls, which is going to save you a lot of money and time.”

Steel framing as the structural material for mid-rise projects offers builders and developers other opportunities to increase their bottom lines as well, including:

  • Lower construction costs: Steel framing has a higher strength-to-weight ratio compared to traditional building materials, so less material is required to carry the same structural loads.

    Since cold-formed steel also allows for designs that use wider stud spacing and varying thicknesses of material, it can cut construction costs by as much as 20% compared to traditional concrete or structural steel systems. Steel is also lighter, so less concrete is needed at the foundation.

  • Faster construction cycles: More efficient construction methods such as panelization can reduce the construction schedule by as much as 120 days or more depending on the scope of the project.

    A shorter construction schedule not only helps building owners earn money on their investments faster since they can move clients in sooner, it lowers financing costs and cuts down on the exposure to liability and construction related insurance claims.

  • Lower insurance premiums: Steel’s non-combustibility played an important role in developing the Zurich Builders Risk Insurance program, since that program recognizes steel framing as non-combustible and therefore superior construction.  Available nationwide, this program can reduce premiums by as much as 25% to 75% when steel framing is used for all the structural elements in commercial construction projects.

    For example, the builder of a 400-unit multi-occupancy structure in Ohio received two prices for builders’ risk insurance: $1.6 million if framed with wood, compared to $320,000 with steel.

    In addition, there can be significant savings on construction and ownership insurance costs, including general liability, worker’s compensation and commercial property.

Larry Williams is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Steel Framing Alliance (SFA), a national network of members that represents the full spectrum of trades and professions within the construction industry. For more informaiton, e-mail Williams, call him at 202-785-2022, or visit the SFA Web site at

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