Higher densities are not the only factor driving the shift from wood to concrete and steel. It's also about limiting liability. Water intrusion through walls, windows and roofs can create huge construction defect issues. The most important advantage to using concrete and steel construction is the materials’ resistance to expansion or contraction due to variations in moisture and temperature. Because concrete and steel don’t support fungal growth, using concrete and steel also helps prevent mold problems. And steel framing has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any building material — it doesn’t rot, warp, split or crack, or serve as a banquet for termites.
Building with concrete and steel also helps with phasing and value engineering — it eliminates worries about the fluctuating costs of lumber, which we see as becoming increasingly important. In the last year, lumber prices have increased about 50% and plywood prices have increased about 100%. It should be noted, however, that steel also can be expensive and difficult to obtain right now because it’s in high demand, here and in other countries such as China.
Building with concrete and steel helps eliminate waste — a huge advantage, especially with larger buildings. By using steel panelization, builders see very little waste, and any unused steel can be recycled. In fact, about 60% of the steel used in steel panelization already comes from recycled products. Another advantage: there’s less mess on the job site itself, so cleanup time is minimized.
The use of concrete and steel does not present any major obstacles to design. In most instances it actually helps, because it can be more flexible. There are occasional design issues in which other materials have to be used to create an architectural detail, but concrete and steel work well with other materials. And steel framing creates further benefits by going up straight and true.
Some architectural operations can be achieved only with steel framing. Panelized construction of steel stud walls makes it possible to mock up entire floors before development actually starts so that design changes can be made prior to the final fabrication. This can be an extraordinary opportunity to fine-tune final designs for maximum benefit.
While I believe concrete and steel is inherently a better type of construction, it is more complex and difficult. It requires a trained workforce in many instances — and sometimes those workers can be hard to come by. There aren’t a lot of people trained in this area yet, at least not in the residential construction industry. That puts those in the commercial construction industry in a good position to move into high-rise construction.
Making the change from wood to concrete and steel construction can be difficult, but once you do, it is easier in the long run. Builders can order panels with all studs and rough openings pre-cut for the "carpenter" to assemble. These panels can result in easier installation for workers — more of an assembly process. Ultimately, this helps reduce construction time and creates a more consistent product, since framing pieces are manufactured in a controlled environment and once on-site are impervious to weather.
Style, But Within Budget
One of the challenges of designing a high-rise is creating an “urban quality” design in a cost-effective manner. Density is part of the solution, since increasing density allows for better profits. In fact, higher densities may be the only way to make urban projects pencil out because of high land costs. It costs between $250 to $300 a square foot to build high-density projects of steel or concrete.
There are other issues as well: When you go higher, the city may require larger setbacks and more parking. Today’s developers are finding public/private partnerships crucial to developing high-rise housing. Cooperation with local jurisdictions pays off, from the initial vision state to gaining the necessary approvals.
Many high-rise communities are benefiting from striking exterior designs that are made possible by architectural creativity and fresh thinking. These structures have assumed a new sense of scale and character — they offer a mix of low- and high-rise buildings, which helps create nice streetscapes.
A new breed of buyers and renters demands high design; they want to live somewhere that’s cool and contemporary. Today’s looks are much more modern, although many draw upon elements of traditional design. Many of the newest high-rises are offering never-before-seen architectural features — both inside and out. These unique designs feature vibrant color schemes, eclectic detailing, commercial windows and the creative use of different materials such as industrial metal siding and concrete block.
The move towards higher-density housing in urban areas and the drive to provide a variety of first-class amenities and appointments represent a trend that is emerging in cities throughout the nation. According to demographics experts, these communities are catering to more sophisticated renters and buyers who are changing the face of multifamily design. It can be a challenging market to satisfy, but with the proper planning and know-how, multifamily developers are successfully appealing to this market by providing exceptional floor plan design, distinctive architecture, lifestyle conveniences and five-star luxuries.
Thomas Cox is the senior principal with Thomas P. Cox: Architects (TCA), which offers a wide range of contemporary architectural design in single and high-density multifamily residential, mixed-use and urban infill projects. TCA has received awards from the American Institute of Architects, Gold Nugget Awards at the PCBC, NAHB’s Pillars of the Industry, the Best in American Living Awards and the Urban Land Institute. TCA is currently designing high-profile projects with leading developers throughout California and the Western United States.
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