When the project is completed, I’ll give a more nuanced reflection on the use of steel in residential construction. At this point, I’m pretty satisfied with the outcome, but the process was pretty painful. The short version of the process is (a) the architects create a beautiful form, (b) the structural engineers are asked to make it work, (c) they have to use lots of steel to realize the vision because of things like seismic requirements and snow loads, (d) a steel company “details” each part from what can only be characterized as a suggestive design by the structural engineers, (e) someone checks it carefully (me, in this case), (f) the steel shows up, (g) the framers integrate it into the structure, and (sometimes) (h) the welder comes out to fix mistakes on site.
We had only a few mistakes, and they were the supplier’s errors, so were fixed at no cost to me. What’s challenging about steel is all the coordination and the inability to adapt much during the process. On the other hand, the stuff is remarkably inexpensive, really strong, and looks nice when exposed (in my opinion).
In the interests of completeness, I should also add that a lot of the steel in this house is architectural in addition to structural. We are using tie rods, beams, and channels as aesthetic features. They’re really nice features, and worth the cost. I have no reservations about our use of steel in this way. My main regret is that we didn’t do a bit more creative problem solving in steps (a) through (c) to find design solutions that did not require as much hidden steel…which is expensive with no visual pay off. (The structural engineers point out that having the house survive a heavy snow fall or an earthquake is a pretty important design requirement. Agreed. But, in some cases with a bit more coordination, the architects could move a window three inches to fit two more 2x6s in the wall and thus eliminate an expensive, tricky piece of steel.)