The Home of the Future — Wood, Steel, or Concrete
Since the start of the pandemic, the national framing lumber composite by Random Lengths has increased by more than $600 dollars per thousand, which has more than doubled in cost. This has a lot of builders rethinking how their homes in the future should be constructed with some builders looking to full metal and concrete construction to see if there are cost benefits. It is a complicated decision, because each product category has its own unique challenges for construction and future availability.
The price for dimensional lumber has increased a lot over the last year, and the budgets for many construction project owners are overrun with huge price increases. Lumber has some unique benefits despite these higher prices. First, it is a totally renewable source of building materials, which is plentiful in the United States. Forestry is a thriving industry in Florida and across the South. Plus, new hybrids in trees are allowing for much faster growth times. Wood construction is easier, and a framing crew can generally frame a home as well as side and deck the house. Less subcontractors are needed for wood frame construction. More importantly, wood frame construction is more forgiving when changes are needed and for remodeling projects. Finally, despite the cost increase, framed construction remains the lower cost option when it comes to building a home.
Concrete construction for projects is plentiful in Central and South Florida. If installed properly, concrete walls add a great degree of protection from the elements and termites. The two big issues with masonry construction are labor and water infiltration. Good masonry crews that can install block and slabs without excessive cracking are hard to find and the same crews that block the walls cannot install trusses and decking. In this era of a tight labor market, the project owner is forced to find other crews to finish the job. Concrete is not immune to price increases as most concrete and blocks have increased in price from 10 to 20 percent in the last year. Shell contractors in the Orlando and Tampa areas are reporting block shortages with manufacturers instituting controlled inventories or allocations. Pre-poured concrete wall systems offer big challenges for installation and logistics when being considered for residential construction. Plus, the cost and safety factors are very difficult to overcome.
Concrete is made with sand and limestone in Florida and the natural minerals needed to make concrete are plentiful in the state. However, many Floridians are growing weary of the huge holes being dug into the ground, which are polluting waterways and aquifers. The phosphorus retention pound disaster in Manatee County, Florida highlights why more Floridians are opposed to this type of mining. Bringing in the raw materials to manufacturer block and concrete via rail or boat dramatically increase the price.
Steel framing is very popular for commercial projects and more residential contractors are incorporating steel framing into their designs. Good steel framers are very difficult to find, and a crew that installs steel framing rarely installs decking or interior wood walls. While steel framing offers a good straight wall, it is not forgiving when changes must be made to the project.
Since the first of the year, most steel framing has gone up 25 percent in price with a couple of pending increases announced for the summer. Anything that is made of steel has gone up in price and the worldwide demand for steel is outstripping resources. America’s steel industry is woefully behind and there appears to be a lack of will to expand manufacturing because of the uncertainty of a long-term payback. America simply does not have the scrapping capabilities as that of many other developing countries.
With all of this, in my view the home of the future will be the same as the home of the past—wood framing. My reasoning is simple: raw materials. With the stimulus bill and a potential huge infrastructure bill by the Biden Administration, steel and concrete will be in high demand globally, especially as the pandemic resolves itself. There could be huge shortages of concrete and steel if the country starts a major rebuilding of infrastructure. Wood, on the other hand, is plentiful in the United States and does not have the negative environmental impacts of steel and concrete.
Prices will find trading ranges, but first you must have the material. Even at much higher prices—considering the labor savings, environmental impact, availability, and renewable source—lumber remains the best value for construction projects.
Don Magruder is the CEO of RoMac Building Supply and host of Around the House, which can be seen at aroundthehouse.tv.