by ann zimmerman
STRONG, SUSTAINABLE, SAFE, AND ENABLING BOLD DESIGNS AND STRIKING ACCENTS, STEEL IS BECOMING AN ACCEPTABLE AND VALUED MATERIAL FOR BUILDING SUN VALLEY’S LUXURY MOUNTAIN 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
While not perhaps mainstream, Jeff Williams, Williams | Partners Architects in Ketchum, points out that the use of steel in residential construction has been going on a long time. “Frank Lloyd Wright used steel I-beams in some of his famous, higher budgeted homes more than 100 years ago to support his eccentrically long cantilevers. Later, many of the famous modernist mid-century homes by Mies Van Der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, and others were largely framed in steel, and it was expressed on the exterior. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a period of “high-tech” style homes that revisited the industrial look with overtly displayed steel use. In boutique/artistic home styles, it was generally used concealed in the structure.
Today’s use of steel has grown slowly from isolated use in the 1980s and 1990s to widespread use for both structural reasons and stylistic reasons.
Steel isn’t a new material. It was invented some 4,000 years ago and manufactured in brick furnaces. The process combines iron with carbon (about two percent of its weight) and sometimes adds metal alloys like nickel or chromium to resist corrosion. A progression of processes advanced steel making, but it remained expensive until the Industrial Revolution when it could be mass-produced with the Bessemer process, a system that blows air through the molten iron to remove impurities. Further advancements in the Post-WWII period replaced air with oxygen for the Basic Oxygen Steelmaking (BOS) process and refinements like cold-rolled steel. Now, manufacturers produce 1.3-billion tons of steel annually worldwide.
SUN VALLEY OPTS FOR STEEL
The homebuilding industry has now widely embraced steel. Having gained familiarity with steel through commercial projects, architects and builders are recognizing new applications for residences. This coincides with the shift to contemporary and modern designs, large open living plans, connections to outdoor living, and the green building movement. Another factor is how design now more honestly manifests materials.
From a contractor’s perspective, Charlie McWilliams, owner of McWilliams and Co., agrees with move toward more exposed steel. “It’s very common to see decorative steel, steel used for support, or both in homes today.”
Architect and planner Michael Blash, head of Michael Blash Architects in Ketchum, comments, “Steel is an elegant material: it bends, it spans long expanses, and it can be used in very artistic ways.” He has been designing homes with exposed steel for the last 10 to 15 years, and prior to that cased steel.
This time frame corresponds to that of Jeff Williams, who first started designing with exposed steel ten years ago. “Early mountain contemporary designs featured exposed steel, and this has evolved to design expressing the authenticity of the material. There has been a stylistic trend in the past to disguise and to hide steel, while now the trend is to show steel authentically as a raw material. By leaving beams visible, it makes manifest the structure inside the home.”
VERSATILITY IN DESIGN
Steel’s versatility and strength are other factors for bringing steel to the forefront. Its product consistency and strong performance characteristics allow for straight clean minimal lines, open floor plans, and maximizing the use of glass.
Michael Blash talks about how the use of steel opens up opportunities for him in his designs. According to Blash, one can see through homes with large expanses of glass, and steel offers rigidity when used with windows. Further, he can create larger clear spans over open space with steel than with timber. “An expansive open living space is possible by using imbedded steel. Further, steel allows decks to cantilever out with overhead rooflines,” he comments, referencing the dramatic projecting outdoor living spaces he creates that offer different vantage points and views to the surroundings.
“We have bigger homes and bigger rooms than years ago, and steel allows for these larger expanses without the interruption of supporting beams, even with the snow loads in this area,” adds Charlie McWilliams, commenting on the move to more open floor plans without interrupting walls for extra support.
Jeff Williams is in agreement about how large expanses require steel structurally, and mentions projects where he has used long span beams for uninterrupted space. He sees steel and glass as a natural pairing.
Charlie McWilliams, a noted skier in the area who has been building homes for 30 years and owned his own company for 20, comments on his experiences building with steel. “We live in a place of incredibly scenic area, and it’s common to have a lot of glass on one wall. These big beautiful windows that capture the views are only possible structurally because of support by steel moment frames.”
The use of steel for residences is not limited to structural support. Decorative innovations for steel seem red hot as far as style. For Jeff Williams, style was not what inspired him to design interiors with abundant steel over ten years ago. “Style is one thing, but I see steel as another important tool to create good design that is timeless and tasteful,” he explains.
Looking through a portfolio of completed Williams|Partners projects demonstrates the variety of uses Williams has found for steel and his frequent use of blackened steel (using Penetrol). The uses include steel fireplace doors, mantels, chimney caps, and steel boxes. For a contemporary home in the area that has received a lot of positive attention, steel allows the stair treads and risers to seem to float and the railing is steel cable. Steel makes a strong appearance in kitchens with countertops, backsplashes, and range hoods. A steel pivot door makes for an especially dramatic statement, and it sets the tone for more steel inside.
Michael Blash has similarly found decorative uses for steel both for interiors and the outside of the home, and points to how steel’s durability makes it a practical and wise material choice for mountain living. In one well-known riverside home with a grotto, Blash used steel extensively. “As a part-time home, I wanted it to be as maintenance-free as possible.” He has used a variety of steel products and sheathing material for the exterior, including ribbed industrial steel roofing. To resist wear and tear, he has also protectively sheathed the home with metal at the base, ground level, where impact and damage is more likely.
For steel in the interior, Michael Blash varies the finishes for different effects. His projects show steel fireplaces and chases, stairs and railings, kitchen shelving, range hoods, and a leathery finished supporting ceiling for a drive-through porte-cochere. While Blash uses some interesting finishes, he comments, “You really don’t have to do too much: wood and steel go together very well.” Similarly, Blash feels that black tones on steel go together very well with concrete. He sandblasts steel to allow it patina naturally, heats steel with chemicals for a variety of finishes, uses brushed steel, and paints. “I will also use the reverse of sheet steel for a striated effect that looks like board and batten,” he adds.
McWilliams comments that for buried steel, he paints it to resist corrosion. For exposed steel, the choice of finishes varies. “For some, we paint the beams, while others like the natural look of rust. In that case, we oil them.” We also frequently build with steel trim, especially in contemporary homes where the trend is to see the steel decoratively.”
Even in mountain landscapes, steel makes its appearance. Gabion walls are a sought-after application where steel or iron mesh hold loose rocks in place for a perimeter wall.
Jeff Williams created a stunning effect by linking the home to the landscaping with steel trellises. The finishes vary by the effect that he desires, and the results are strong with both oxidized and blackened steel.
Pointing out a roof he built that cantilevers 20 feet over a deck, Charlie McWilliams has similarly used steel for transitioning to the outdoors. “The roof had to be designed to withstand not only its own weight for that distance, but the additional burden of a major snow load.”
The fairly recent introduction of lift-and-slide glass doors are now important ways to link indoor and outdoor entertaining. Michael Blash designed a home where the wall of glass doors disappears to connect with the lanai. Additionally, instead of glass, Blash addresses the cooler climate to build walls that offer insulation in the winter that open for summertime enjoyment. “Much like an airplane hanger, the insulated walls withstand winter weather, and in the summer, the wall disappears. Structurally, these designs are very demanding, and I rely upon the strength of steel to allow for such a large opening.”
Blash succinctly justifies steel a useful material for landscaping. “It’s durable and not going anywhere.” He uses steel for overhangs, sunshades, bridges, and gates.
Outdoor art installations are another way steel is appearing outdoors according to Charlie McWilliams. “We have local artists who work very well in steel, and their art is one thing that sets this area apart in the use of steel.”
POINTS FOR SUSTAINABILITY
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 rates of recycling. Because it originates from recycled material, steel gains points on the LEED’s scoring.
When steel is used for roofing and prepainted a light color or granular coated, it reflects light and heat to save on cooling costs. And, as an additional environmental benefit, according to the American Iron & Steel Institute (AISI), the required energy for today’s steel production dropped 28 percent from 25 years ago.
Michael Blash uses steel overhangs for passive solar benefits. “I created a curving overhang with steel that follows the movement of the sun for shading,” he explains.
SAFER AND LONG-LIVED
One of steel’s other touted benefits is that it is safer. Compared to wood, it resists termites and fire. Experts at World Steel offer factsheets as to its superior wind resistance and ability to withstand earthquakes. According to AISI, 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.
“Steel is durable and it lasts,” Blash answers when asked about steel’s safety benefits.
Steel’s ability to withstand earthquakes is a major benefit to McWilliams. “We are now building to new local seismic standards that are as stringent as those in Northern California,” says Charlie McWilliams. “We are now building with more steel for the strength to meet shear and snow loads.”
Inside and out, and for strength, safety, and aesthetics, steel is part of homebuilding in the Sun Valley area.
Steel Counts for Numbers
Steel is the material of choice for many house numbers and identifying signs, and Troy Larsen, owner of Windy City Arts, explains why. “Steel works very well for both illuminated and non illuminated house numbers. It has a crisp appearance, it is extremely durable, it doesn’t break, and it is timeless.”
“Every piece of steel is unique and has its own personality,” adds Larsen, explaining the distinctive results from working with steel. Windy City Arts can cut numbers from a small steel plate and illuminate from behind, or create individual numbers. There are endless variations possible from different patinas ranging from rusted to polished, and a variety of natural looking colors, as well as painted finishes.
Variety and choices extend to placement. “We have mounted address numbers on walls, rocks, and the sides of buildings,” Larsen adds.