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Metal Architecture
Thursday | 08 September, 2016 | 12:24 pm

Durable beauty

By Corinna Petry

Above: Designed by architect Carlo DiFede, this 6,800-square-foot, prefab home near Napa Valley, California, features EcoSteel's pre-insulated steel panels. Photo: Treve Johnson Photography

Strength and versatility harmonize as one firm ties together proven prefab steel technologies to produce stunning results

September 2016 - Many people might hear the words “prefab steel construction” and lapse into a brief nap or perhaps they picture boxy, uninspiring structures that look like parking garages, colorless warehouses or, at best, a Farm and Fleet store.

One company has exploded the myth of ugly when it comes to prefabricated steel structures. Founded in 2004, Eco- Steel has made a name for itself by partnering with high-end architects and developers to complete commercial and residential projects—each one with an original look and feel and built to survive fires, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes. This summer, wildfires in the West, especially across California and Nevada, charred scores of homes and businesses.

President Joss Hudson explains that EcoSteel simply used existing steel building technologies—structural erection, framing, roofing, insulated panels, cladding, trims, finishes and more—and developed an efficient system that packages them together in new and interesting ways. “We take what has been used for industrial construction for decades and make it beautiful.”

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Bendrew Jong designed this sprawling prefab home opposite Mount Diablo near Danville, California. It boasts 3-inch R24 wall panels and 5-inch R41 roof panels. Photo: Treve Johnson Photography

Lead times from steel fabrication shops are significantly shorter than material delivery typically experienced with competing building methods. Erectors assemble and finish projects in weeks, not months.

EcoSteel didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, says Hudson. The Newport Beach, California-based firm works with numerous North American contractors and subcontractors (fabricators and erectors) that are already certified and licensed in steel construction. “We aren’t building a new thing; we just have a more refined way to install it.”

As for the materials and methods, “We are taking proven industrial and commercial-grade components in aircraft and commercial refrigeration [among other applications] and bringing them into the architectural realm and to custom home-building.”

Disaster zones

The environment is changing rapidly, says Hudson. Look at a map of the Eastern seaboard, for example. Within a half-mile of the ocean, “It’s all flood zone.” When there is a storm surge in a FEMA flood zone, the water can either move in slowly and sit there, “rotting out a wood house, or move fast and rip out walls. So here is our answer: We have a raised platform,” Hudson says, citing a private EcoSteel home on Cusabo Island, South Carolina, built to withstand 140 mph winds and 14-foot storm surges.

At the other end of the nation, California regulators mandated that, by 2020, roofing can no longer be installed that consists of cedar or asphalt shingles because they are combustible. “That is driving people to metal components,” says Hudson. Steel roofing meets and exceeds mandated fire ratings.

Then there’s the green factor. California, again, wrote a more stringent building code for energy consumption that goes into effect in 2020. “All new residential construction must have a net-zero energy footprint,” says Hudson. Building panels must be insulated and, today, “nothing comes close to our R values,” he says, referring to the capacity of an insulating material to resist heat flow. The higher the R value, the greater the insulating power. EcoSteel-sourced insulated panels yield an R value of 8 per inch.

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Above: EcoSteel works with numerous North American fabricators and erectors that are already certified and licensed in steel construction technologies.
Below: The all-metal Anthrazit House features an EcoSteel bolted frame and custom roof, wall and trim components that provide a fire-resistant building envelope. Photos: Hector Magnus

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Connections

EcoSteel leverages Hudson’s 20 years of experience in the steel industry, along with Chief Marketing Officer Dan Atkinson’s background in software development and technology and CEO Jonathan Nassar’s expertise in software sales leadership and boutique real estate development. 

“We rely on architects to design [buildings] and help them realize the benefits of an EcoSteel structure. Everything starts with them but we have internal talent that helps them to achieve whatever the client is looking for,” Atkinson says.

“Most architects and contractors are not specialists in metal building products,” says Hudson. “So we take our experience in steel and translate that to a totally prefabricated steel system, from rain screens to finishes.” The know-how is critical. “The panel system has to be integrated to the structure. How many fasteners are required? How do you attach them to the structure and where?”

It’s a three-legged stool, says Nassar. The first leg is design, “which you adapt to the audience, whether it’s the architect or the client, plus we understand the scope, budgeting, the environment.”

The second leg is “engagement around engineers. Architects are good at drawing pretty pictures but they don’t always understand how it comes together. Engineering is critical,” continues Nassar. “EcoSteel also provides its customers with the strategically selected materials through its vast network of suppliers—that’s the third leg. So it’s design, engineering and supply. We focus on the integration.”

That “magic sauce” is EcoSteel’s intellectual property, says Hudson, adding, “Our competitive advantage is no other company in America or the world is taking a comprehensive view of an all-steel noncombustible home.” 

EcoSteel prefab buildings are erected “at the same price if not cheaper” than traditional housing designs “and much faster,” Hudson notes. “And the building lasts a lot longer,” Nassar says. The metal building product manufacturers EcoSteel sources from typically offer 20-year warranties. 

Regarding cost, “Clients are waking up, realizing, ‘I don’t need 8 to 10 percent of my project wasted in overages.’ Ninety-nine percent of contractors asked to build a steel home will overbid because it’s different and because their subcontractors don’t know how to use such systems,” Hudson says. 

But EcoSteel engineers quickly learned that “any certified and licensed steel contractor can assemble these projects,” he continues, explaining, “We use standard shapes like I beams. Standard shapes and connections. When pre-welding, we are using standard tools.”

Architects and engineers “don’t know how to exploit existing building technology,” claims Hudson. “I had a guy show me a polystyrene-and-wood chip [building product] and he’s just discovering an insulated wall product made from steel. People apparently are not reading modern construction technology publications.”

Time to market for a developer “is a big deal—the clock is ticking,” says Nassar. “Developing in tough climates, like Park City, Utah, where you only have seven months, they want a dry-in-shell [building] and be able to work inside when the snow flies.”

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Above: Slick new steel-and-glass construction was retrofitted onto an existing building in Hermosa Beach, California.
Below: An artist had to rebuild after a fire. Hector Magnus designed a non-combustible home where the owner could create and display art. Photos: Hector Magnus

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Success = growth

EcoSteel expects to open new offices this month in the San Francisco Bay Area and near Denver, and will soon branch into Canada. In the Bay Area, says Nassar, “We have several high-profile projects completed and more on the drawing board.” EcoSteel recently won its first residential project in British Columbia and will open an office there by first-quarter 2017.

Seismic requirements alone compel EcoSteel to move into San Francisco, says Atkinson. In Colorado, home building in towns like Aspen, Vail and Steamboat Springs have a seven-month window to dry in shell. “These markets make sense,” according to Atkinson, Hudson and Nassar.

None of this happened overnight. “I put together architecture partnership programs, some of which took years to turn into business,” recalls Atkinson. “It was a grass-roots effort to educate them about EcoSteel.”

To this day, says Nassar, EcoSteel offers continuous education, such as weekly webinars. “It’s a paradigm shift but many architects see the value.”

Visionary architects with well-heeled clients were early adopters. “We are doing a $25 million custom home in San Francisco,” Hudson says, but he notices a shift in the market. The trend for big, expensive homes, especially in a region where affordability is lacking, is “topping out.” 

“The smaller house movement is coming, 800 and 1,200 square feet with prices coming down from a traditional custom-built EcoSteel home, which ranges from $750,000 and $800,000,” Atkinson says. EcoSteel is ready for that. “We’re able to reach a much smaller price tag to compete in the affordable housing market.”

No limits

What’s so attractive about prefab steel construction to designers and building owners alike is that “we have no limits,” says Hudson.

“We can achieve things that cannot be achieved with traditional building materials,” Nassar says. “We can create lots of open space.”

Yet the structures comply with all current and future building codes for seismic, wind, flood and fire resistance; the supply chain is efficient; contract costs are contained; and the product is built to last. “That’s why our audience buys the systems,” he notes.

“You aren’t limited,” emphasizes Atkinson. “We had an open house on a project in Los Angeles last weekend.” Called Silver Lake, “The structure has no right angles. It’s all 30- and 60-degree angles.”

All-steel prefabricated housing—like the B-2 Stealth fighter, which also has no right angles—you may not have it on your radar but it’s coming. MM

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