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The home of the future: All-steel prototype showcases efficient construction method

When David McAdam, one of the founders of developer Blue Sky Homes LLC, bought a small piece of land in Yucca Valley, Calif., near Palm Springs, he wanted to build a home to use as a desert getaway. But he didn’t want to build it with wood. He knew the way wood could twist and warp in such an environment, so he instead thought of steel.

From that thought and on that piece of land, Palm Springs-based Blue Sky Homes developed a prototype 1,000-square-foot (93-m2), all-steel home in June. It was built by Solterra Development, a general contractor based in Palm Springs. Utilizing light-gauge galvanized steel to create a moment-resisting frame, the entire construction took eight weeks. McAdam expects Blue Sky Homes to develop more of these types of homes, which he believes can be erected even quicker.

“We think we could build that same house in five weeks without breaking a sweat,” he said. “They’re enormously simple. If you think about a rectangular structure sitting on the ground, that's your bidirectional frame, six legs. Because of this framing system, we knew we could just set our columns and not have to destroy the desert to do it—you wound the desert, it never heals. It takes vegetation many, many years to grow back.”

McAdam sees this system of residential steel framing as an entry into a largely untapped market—environmentally friendly, maintenance-free, easy-to-build prefabricated steel homes that are still customizable and architecturally satisfying.

The Prius of Homes

A pre-engineered light-gauge steel home is, in a way, a little bit like Toyota’s Prius. It’s not going to look like a conventional house and it may cost a bit more, but it should help pay for itself by being green and maintenance free.

The prototype two-bedroom, one-bath house features structural Cee Sections and energy-efficient Design Span hp roofing from AEP Span, West Sacramento, Calif., as well as 22-gauge Iron Ox flat sheet for the exterior walls from ASC Building Products, West Sacramento, and 22- and 18-gauge B-36 composite floor deck from ASC Steel Deck, West Sacramento. The steel was manufactured from at least 70 percent recycled material and is 100 percent recyclable.

Accelerated Building Technologies LLC, Moon Township, Pa., also provided its accel-E Steel Thermal Efficient Panel for the exterior wall panels. The accel-E S.T.E.P. wall system is made of expanded polystyrene and includes light-gauge steel studs that are thermally broken to improve their insulation quality.

The house sits above the rocky desert on six steel columns that rest on small concrete footings, requiring virtually no land grading. A seasonal stream runs underneath the house.

The bolt-together, moment-resisting framing system is considerably less labor intensive than conventional construction. “The speed in which you can put the product together is a huge benefit,” said Barret Hilzer, chief operating officer of Wildomar, Calif.-based FCP Inc., which developed the structural design and engineered, supplied and installed the prototype home. “It’s pre-engineered, and all of the steel components are manufactured to specification in the factory. Because of that, when the product shows up in the field, it simply bolts together very quickly, so there’s no field welding. How can you make this easier for the installer? Everybody looks at it and goes, ‘Wow, there wasn’t a single error and it went up fast.’ The installer becomes your best sales person.”

Each steel element of the house made in the factory is fabricated for a specific design, allowing for more design flexibility. These types of homes do not all have to look the same because different roof configurations allow for a variety of shapes and sizes.

Hilzer said the neat, modern look of a light-gauge steel home is something that people are looking for today. “We’ve learned to take and recycle, and I think our society is evolving into embracing these green structures and this clean look,” he said.

“We’re going to appeal to people who want something different,” McAdam added, noting that for people who are environmentally sensitive, this type of home will be highly valued. The home also features solar photovoltaic panels for electricity from Schüco USA, Newington, Conn., and thermal solar thermal panels from Vaillant Solar Systems, Solana, Calif., for generating hot water and space heating.

No Maintenance

“The house we built in Yucca Valley, as far as I can tell, the only maintenance that would ever be required is painting the drywall,” McAdam said. “There is nothing on the exterior that would require any kind of maintenance at all. Certainly over the life span of a home it’s a huge issue.”

A steel home is resistant to fire and impervious to mold and insects, such as termites. And Hilzer said the durability of the structure more than makes up for the marginal extra cost of buying pre-engineered steel.

“How many roofs out there can you say are really going to last through your lifetime as an adult? It’s one of the beauties of metal roofing,” Hilzer said. “It’s true, it is a better product. People are just finally learning that, and they’re using it for residential and commercial purposes rather than just metal buildings.

“We’re learning to embrace things that make sense, help our environment and give us more free time.”

The Right Time

McAdam said Blue Sky Homes is actively looking into constructing all-steel homes in urban areas. He said in certain areas where old, rotting buildings need to come down, there isn’t much room for additional construction. This is the kind of situation where he sees steel homes fitting in.

“For instance, in Southern California there’s a place called Venice Beach with narrow, tight lots. People are pulling down buildings that were built 100 years ago and putting up structures, and you can’t even get into these places, they’re so jammed,” McAdam said. “We can go up to three floors without any additional engineering. We could go in without disruption to the neighborhood and we have virtually no waste on-site. Everything comes ready to go.”

Hilzer said the timing for the kind of unconventional construction put into practice on the Yucca Valley home is just right, as economic conditions have caused people to realize the old way of doing things isn’t necessarily the best way anymore.

“I truly believe the good that’s going to come out of this downturn is that people are no longer going to be complacent,” Hilzer said. “They’re going to look at new ideas and adapt to those so that they can stay busy, keep working and be more profitable.”

Prototype All-Steel Residence, Yucca Valley, Calif.

Developer: Blue Sky Homes LLC, Palm Springs, Calif.

Architect: o2 Architecture, Palm Springs

Structural engineer, supplier and installer: FCP Inc., Wildomar, Calif.

General contractor: Solterra Development, Palm Springs

Metal building components: ASC Building Products, AEP Span and ASC Steel Deck (business units of ASC Profiles Inc., a BlueScope Steel company), West Sacramento, Calif.

Exterior wall panels: Accelerated Building Technologies LLC, Moon Township, Pa.

Photovoltaic solar panels: Schüco USA, Newington, Conn.

Solar thermal panels: Vaillant Solar Systems, Solana Beach, Calif.