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Artistic steelclad light-diffusing boxes designed and fabricated by Acutech hang over this contemporary kitchen on Whitefish Mountain. Construction by Bear Mountain Builders. PHOTO Gibeon Photography

STRONG, SUSTAINABLE, SAFE,
AND ENABLING BOLD DESIGNS AND STRIKING ACCENTS,
STEEL IS BECOMING AN ACCEPTABLE AND VALUED MATERIAL
FOR BUILDING FLATHEAD VALLEY’S LUXURY MOUNTAIN HOMES

by ann zimmerman

STEEL MOVES INTO HOMES

If I were to rewrite the tale of Three Little Pigs today, the wisest pig would opt to build his home from steel. With steel construction, the wee pig could lavishly entertain his pig brothers in the expanse of an open floor plan supported by strong overhead steel beams; he can vigilantly stand lookout for the wolf from the stunning cantilevered deck reaching over the hillside supported by steel girders; and he would find the huffs and puffs of the wolf entirely inconsequential because steel construction can withstand hurricane-force winds.

Steel for residential construction has come of age. First gaining acceptance as a material for high-rises and commercial buildings, steel’s entry into residential construction is recent, but professionals are now rapidly experimenting and developing interesting new applications.

As recently as 1995, steel was considered a new and not yet fully accepted residential material when an exploratory examination of steel in residential construction by the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs concluded that it was a valuable material. According to that report, steel framing is easily adapted to difficult architectural details, such as arched or vaulted ceilings; plumbing and electrical trades adapt to steel framing with little apparent cost impact; and fastening techniques and products were increasingly available to increase productivity.

STEEL’S PRODUCT CONSISTENCY AND STRONG PERFORMANCE CHARACTERISTICS ALLOW FOR STRAIGHT, CLEAN, MINIMAL LINES, OPEN FLOOR PLANS, AND MAXIMIZING THE USE OF GLASS.

VERSATILITY IN DESIGN

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Heavy hammered-steel railing in an Iron Horse lodge-style retreat.

Steel’s versatility and strength bring steel to the forefront, especially for contemporary and modern homes. Its product consistency and strong performance characteristics allow for straight, clean, minimal lines, open floor plans, and maximizing the use of glass. Acutech works closely with builders, architects, designers and homeowners to provide architectural steel specific to projects. “Another thing we make are the full steel assemblies for skylights, architectural moving window walls, and pivot doors,” owner Dean Grommet adds.

Advances in steel, structural support of steel moment frames, and new steel windows make it possible for Bigfork Builders to open homes to the outdoors more than they have ever been able to in the past. “Immense lift-and-slide doors open the great rooms to patios for one sweeping connected space,” describes Brad Reedstrom of BigFork Builders. “We also install lift-and-slide doors in corners. They open to the right and to the left without a center post. It’s very impressive that it can be done structurally.”

Bigfork Builders finds the advances in steel-framed windows and steel doors excellent for constructing homes in the Flathead Valley. “Steel windows have minimal frames to maximize sight lines,” explains Reedstrom. “In cold climates, it is essential that windows and doors have a thermal break to minimize transmitting cold. We are impressed with Arcadia Windows because the windows and doors have thermally broken stainless steel, which has proven to perform extremely well.”

Improved strength is another benefit of new steel doors and windows. Reedstrom clarifies, “New laser-cut windows and doors are cut from a solid plate of steel. There are no attachments or welds, and the result is more strength.” Steel pivot doors create a striking entry, and this is another new product Reedstrom says is in demand.

DECORATIVE USES INSIDE

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Steel fireplace by Acutech pull this Whitefish Mountain home together. Construction by Bear Mountain Builders. PHOTO Gibeon Photography

The use of steel for residences is definitely not limited to structural support. Decorative innovations for steel inside seem red-hot as far as style in many different forms.

Steel has inspired the artist in Dean Grommet, and while he has a hearty following for highly technical steel production, his reputation as an artist is also growing. Galleries in Whitefish and Jackson feature his Native American iron art, and he is receiving a growing number of custom commissions.

“HANDCRAFTED ITEMS ARE MOVING, DRAMATIC, AND EMOTIONAL. THEY ARE THE JEWELS THAT FINISH A HOME TO GIVE IT A SOUL.”
–Dean Grommet, Acutech

“Handcrafted items are moving, dramatic, and emotional. They are the jewels that finish a home to give it a soul,” Grommet answers, when asked about his pieces. He continues to explain, “Acutech creates original designs such as traditional fireplaces, sconces, and chandeliers that are hand-forged and hand-hammered into interesting features and shapes. For contemporary homes, we create cleaner, more angular, and geometric pieces with smooth finishes. We work with different patinas and heat for further variations in coloration.”

Acutech’s distinctive metal accents also include steel and copper kitchen range hoods, backsplashes, metal cladding, railings, lighting, and countertops. With the water-jet cutter, Grommet and his crew cut stone and tile and then inlay metal for distinctive decorative tile and countertop pieces. They also create unique furniture. “Our custom metal furniture is generally modern and more suitable for contemporary lodge-style homes,” says Grommet. However, the firm’s heaviest demand for interior pieces includes fireplaces, fireplace screens, wall cladding, and custom lighting. “The chandelier in a great room or dining room can cement the theme and feeling of the room. A dramatic and artistically crafted chandelier is an artful expression.”

“…IN ITS NATURAL STATE, THERE IS AN INNATE BEAUTY TO STEEL WITH ITS VARIATIONS THAT MAKE IT INTERESTING.”
–Brad Reedstrom, Bigfork Builders

When asked how he works with an architect, interior designer, or homeowner, Grommet responds, “They can come to us with a concept, and we help design and engineer the piece,” he says, referencing Acutech’s CAD rendering, 3-D printing, and prototype abilities. “They may also see pieces we have finished and want something similar.”

Brad Reedstrom reports that Bigfork Builders is similarly using more and more steel in the interior of homes in the form of interior beams, fireplace mantels, and supports for hanging lighting and cabinets. Also, he observes the proliferation of steel in design accents and furniture, commenting, “Some expect interior steel to feel cold and industrial, but that really isn’t the case.” Reedstrom mentions the variety of beautiful finishes available for interior steel through heat treatments, bluing, and a variety of patinas, but adds, “in its natural state, there is an innate beauty to steel with its variations that make it interesting.”

STEEL USES GROW ON THE EXTERIOR

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A hand-forged, hand-polished, and patinated steel headdress sculpture by Acutech owner, Dean Grommet, sold at the Whitefish Community Foundation Summer Art Social held at Iron Horse Golf Club.

Steel is proving to be just as useful outside the home, and new applications are emerging through new products and innovations by builders and architects. “The creative uses of steel and finishes are really endless, and we are seeing architects exploring possibilities and engineers finding new applications because of its strength,” explains Brad Reedstrom. Bigfork Builders has used metal siding, cladding, and exterior trim. “Railings are a fantastic use of steel on the exterior. Structurally, they are very sturdy and without a lot of mass to obstruct views. Another interesting thing we have done is to repurpose cable from the ski resorts for railings.”

Acutech has graced many homes in the area with metal chimney caps, handrails, metal cladding, chandeliers, firepits, and ornamental iron. “We heat, forge, and hammer iron. Hand-smithed ornamental and wrought-iron works particularly well with Montana lodge-style homes,” Grommet observes and adds, “Steel requires significantly less maintenance than exterior wood applications.”

POINTS FOR SUSTAINABILITY

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Five-foot-tall custom steel fireplace screen by Acutech in another Iron Horse home. BUILDER Great Northern Homes ARCHITECT Timber Forge Design

For a number of reasons, steel is considered sustainable and a useful material to assist with green building certification. Often compared with the wood products it replaces, steel is completely recyclable. In contrast to other recyclables like paper fiber, there is no limit to the number of times steel may be recycled without a loss of quality. Because steel is often prefabricated in the factory, it is cut to precise dimensions for less waste at the job site, and the cuttings at the factory are standard sizes that can be welded together for new pieces, again creating less waste. Additionally, any waste at the factories has extremely high recycling rates. Because it originates from recycled material, steel gains points on the LEED’s scoring.

“ONE OF STEEL’S BENEFITS IS ITS LONGEVITY. IT DOESN’T DETERIORATE.”
–Brad Reedstrom, Bigfork Builders

SAFER AND LONG-LIVED

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Massive forged-steel fire basket by Acutech replaces traditional fireplace grates for a stunning fireplace finish.

“One of steel’s benefits is its longevity,” comments Reedstrom. “It doesn’t deteriorate. While, as a builder, I find wood accommodating, it is vulnerable to water, humidity, and insects. Also, Montana is the third most seismically active state. Despite our desire for views and vistas, homes must be structurally sound. For that, we can rely on steel.”

Experts at World Steel offer fact sheets as to steel’s superior wind resistance and ability to withstand earthquakes. According to experts, steel has the highest strength to weight ratio of all building materials, and this affects the cost of transportation and the volume of space that support materials occupy in the home.

Inside and out, and for strength, safety, and aesthetics, steel is part of homebuilding in the Flathead Valley area today, and it appears that it will remain so for years to come.