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The Past, Present, and Future of Cold-Formed Steel Framing

New developments indicate that cold-formed steel framing’s popularity will only continue to grow.

Steel, as we know it today first, gained traction in the 1700s. A clockmaker named Benjamin Huntsman grew frustrated with the limitations of iron and started heating iron and carbon mixtures over a bed of roasted coals. This produced the strongest steel in all of Europe and transformed Huntsman’s hometown, Sheffield, into a premier steel manufacturer. Before the turn of the century, steel framing was used for fireproof mills, which were popular in the textile and agriculture industries. Its popularity continued to grow with the introduction of cold-formed steel.

The history of cold-formed steel

Cold-formed steel gained traction in the 1850s in both the U.S. and England. The initial use was more experimental than essential. The portable iron houses advertised during the 1849 California Gold Rush seemed gimmicky, but actually contained several cold-formed steel components. By the 1920s and ‘30s, there was still no identifiable standard for cold-formed steel construction, but more builders were taking a chance. The Virginia Baptist Hospital, which was built in 1925, is believed to be one of the first examples of a commercial building with cold-formed steel framing. By the 1940s, more than 2500 homes had been built by Lustron Homes, complete with framing, fixtures, and furniture crafted from cold-formed steel.

The History of Cold Formed Steel Framing - iSPAN Systems
The Virginia Baptist Hospital, which was built in 1925, is believed to be one of the first examples of a commercial building with cold-formed steel framing.

Commercial applications following the post-war boom

As time went on, the general public and builders alike began to trust cold-formed steel framing for a wide array of applications. After World War II, architects like Donald Wexler incorporated cold-formed steel framing into new housing developments, which were designed to combat a growing housing crisis. However, builders found it difficult to profit from these homes and many, like Lustron Homes, closed up shop.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, cold-formed steel framing took off in the commercial market. Taller buildings needed construction materials that were non-combustible and lightweight. Cold-formed steel was the answer. It was used in newly introduced systems like interior shaft walls, curtain walls, and exterior framing embellished with brick veneer. Also during this time, new steel technology (e.g. studs that could be nailed) was introduced, making steel construction faster and easier, and thus cheaper.

Rising opportunities with cold-formed steel framing

Fast forward to today, cold-formed steel framing is a preferred building method for many builders. Among its many advantages, cold-formed steel has the best strength-to-weight ratio of the most popular building materials, it’s durable (and resistant to mold, termites, and rot), it’s infinitely recyclable making it sustainable (and ideal for green buildings), and it’s cost-efficient (offering cost savings upfront and over time due to reduced maintenance needs and faster construction times). But perhaps what makes cold-formed steel most attractive is its stability.

In 2014, engineering researchers in Alaska found that cold-formed steel buildings suffered little to no damage during seismic tests2, which means they could provide great safety during real-world seismic events. This is of major importance in places like California, where experts predict a major earthquake could happen any day3.

Cold-formed steel as a complete building structure - iSPAN Systems
The construction of a condominium building using TotalFraming. A complete structural solution using cold-formed steel.

The use of cold-formed steel as a complete building structure

Over the last 15 years, entire buildings have been constructed using cold-formed steel as the central structural component. With for example TotalFraming, cold-formed wall panels are combined with Composite TotalJoist, a complete concrete flooring system, to create higher quality structures that are more marketable, delivered in a shorter timeframe, and easier to assemble on- or off-site.

The joists used in these buildings are lighter and stronger, which creates larger joist spans and allows for more complex building designs. And paired with load-bearing, pre-panelized walls, developers and building owners receive a single source structural solution.

Why cold-formed steel framing is a superior construction method for the future

Though cold-formed steel framing has been around for over a century and seems to be growing exponentially in popularity, this is just the beginning. As the severity of natural disasters increases, cold-formed steel could become a go-to material to keep structures standing in the face of strong winds over 200 mph. And with the ongoing push toward eco-friendly buildings, cold-formed steel could provide further benefits, as it offers exceptional energy savings compared to other materials. Cold-formed steel framing may even become the default for residential high rises, as its durability is desirable in urban areas where these buildings are most popular.

The possibilities are endless, and despite its lengthy history, cold-formed steel framing’s story is just getting started.


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