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Steel frames find a voice in residential

Last month the Steel Construction Institute launched the Steel Homes Group to promote the material's use in residential construction. Joanna Booth talks to group co-ordinator Graham Raven

How did the Steel Homes Group come about?

The idea was mooted about a year ago when a couple of our members approached us. Steel frames are an emerging method of construction in the residential sector and the industry didn't have a focus for it.The Government likes to have an industry body to talk to rather than going to companies directly, which was a pretty substantial motivation.

Who is involved?

We launched a month ago and we've already got 13 members.Our membership base is the steel frame system suppliers, and we're well beyond critical mass in recruiting those. As the organisation matures we'd like to involve the supply chain too.

What is the group trying to achieve?

We want to raise the profile of steel frames.We'll really start waving the flag at the Offsite 2005 conference in June. Steel frames have been one of the greatest successes of the past 25 years, and our market share is still growing. Between 2003 and 2004 we doubled the number of high-rise units built, which we think is indicative of what will happen in the residential market.

Why hasn't the housing market embraced steel frame construction in the past?

Cost has always been an issue but I think we've reached parity with other methods.

The residential market has traditionally just tried to substitute off-site construction at the last minute, and to get the benefits it needs to be factored in from early design.Things are changing. Our members are partnering with major house builders. Fusion Building Systems is working with Persimmon, and Framing Solutions with Redrow.They wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't cost-effective.

What has made the housing market start to use steel?

We need more houses, and quickly - at least that's what the Barker Report suggests. Off-site construction is very much in tune with what the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is calling for, especially with current skills shortages.The market is also more receptive as a lot of guys who used to work in commercial building moved on when that market went iffy.

They've taken the knowledge of steel frames with them.

Is there a danger that dropping building costs will result in low-quality housing?

Established architects such as HTA and Sheppard Robson are starting to work with off-site steel frames so the process is becoming increasingly design rather than engineering led. It's not about just putting up boxes.

Is the modular industry large enough to cope with the increased demand?

We've reached a position where people are confident enough to invest in the future rather than waiting to see what will happen, so new factories are being built all the time.