Prices for existing and newly built homes have been increasing rapidly since the housing market began to rebound after the pause created by the pandemic in early spring 2020. One big culprit for newly built homes: the rising cost of lumber. Lumber prices were up 340 percent in May 2021 compared to May 2020, adding an average of nearly $36,000 to the cost of building a new home, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
Nearly 90 percent of single-family homes are built with wood framing. Lumber is also needed for cabinets, doors, windows, floors and decks. Builders often look for alternative materials that are durable, sustainable and cost-effective yet still meet code requirements. When costs rise as quickly as lumber prices have this year, builders are particularly interested in finding other materials that offer the same benefits as wood at a lower cost. Lumber prices are high due to shortages, so besides looking for a lower cost, builders are looking for materials that are readily available so they can avoid construction delays.
“For at least five years, the U.S. has faced a deep housing shortage, affordability issues due to rising costs of land, labor and materials, along with a shortage of materials,” says Amit Haller, CEO of Veev, a homebuilding company in the San Francisco Bay area. “The pandemic exacerbated a supply chain disruption into a worldwide problem.”
Haller’s company and others have been working on solutions to reduce production time and ease the strain on lumber producers in order to accelerate the production of more sustainable and durable homes.
Alternatives to Lumber
Every jurisdiction has its own code requirements that may limit options for builders. In addition, climate and geographical differences can impact choices. Some materials, construction techniques and architectural styles are better suited to locations with high winds, heavy rain and hurricanes, while others can be more resilient to wildfires and earthquakes. Among the options that builders can use are:
Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs)
These building panels, which can be used as floors, walls and roofs in residential buildings, are made by sandwiching rigid foam plastic insulation between two pieces of sheathing materials. The panels are manufactured in a factory, but they can be custom designed for various projects. The four- or eight-inch-thick panels are stronger than wood-framed wall systems and offer high levels of insulation and airtightness. SIPs are often sandwiched between oriented strand board or plywood, which reduces the amount of lumber needed to about 7 percent of the average building, according to Energy Panel Structures Inc.
Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs)
ICFs are a similar product to SIPs, but instead of the rigid foam being the “filling” of the sandwich, the insulated foam is the exterior sheathing material. Inside the foam is a layer of concrete. Buildings constructed with ICFs require almost no wood, and ICFs offer fire and moisture resistance, durability, energy efficiency and noise reduction. ICF walls also protect against high winds and debris.
High-Performance Surface (HPS)
Manufactured in a factory like SIPs and ICFs, HPS walls are like “super-smart Lego pieces,” says Haller, adding that the HPS material is similar to Corian. It can be used for cabinets and trim in addition to exterior construction.
“HPS has been used for hospital walls because it’s antibacterial, mold-free, can’t be scratched and is maintenance-free forever,” Haller says. “Digital printing techniques mean that you can add any texture or pattern you want to the material in the factory. So even though it’s completely maintenance-free, you can design it to look like wood and you can paint it.”
While HPS costs about 25 times more than drywall, in combination with steel framing it eliminates the need for wood. For builders, the ease of installation reduces labor costs, says Haller. For homeowners and apartment owners, the lack of maintenance requirements and high level of energy efficiency saves money.
“You can drill into it to install a big TV and for lighter-weight items up to as much as 20 pounds, you can use 3M stickers to hang items because the HPS material is strong and nothing will peel off,” he says.
Steel framing is far more common in commercial buildings rather than homes, in part because it lacks insulation. But steel-framed buildings are more durable, fire-resistant, wind-resistant and earthquake-resistant than wood-framed buildings. In addition, steel is not as susceptible to pests and moisture as wood.
Residential builders have resisted steel-framed construction in part because of the special skills and tools required compared to wood-framed buildings that can add to construction costs. Veev combines steel framing with HPS panels to build homes in the San Francisco Bay area that eliminate the need for wood.
“Steel-framed buildings can be designed for areas prone to earthquakes, and steel doesn’t settle over time like wood does,” Haller says. “Steel is also more soundproof than wood, so it’s a good choice for condos, townhouses and multistory single-family homes.”
Fiber Cement Siding
Wood siding requires painting and sealing every few years to prevent mold, mildew, pest invasions and rotting. While vinyl and aluminum siding are options, both are susceptible to warping, denting and fading over time. A more durable but costlier alternative to a wood exterior is fiber cement siding, which is storm and fire-resistant and available in a variety of colors and styles.
Sustainability and Wood Alternatives
While wood is a renewable resource rather than a manmade material, wood alternatives have their environmental benefits too. Factory-built panels, including SIPs, ICFs and HPS materials, are precision-cut, which reduces waste compared to wood-framing done on construction sites, according to Haller. Any leftover HPS material can be used for doors or interior trim, he says.
“The steel-framed panels we create reduce the need for truck space by 40 times compared to transporting wood to a building site,” Haller says. “These are airtight homes with increased energy efficiency compared to wood.”
As affordability and sustainability concerns continue to grow, homebuilders are likely to shift their emphasis from wood-framed homes to lumber alternatives in the coming years. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the benefits of these alternatives starting today.
Michele Lerner is an award-winning freelance writer, editor and author who has been writing about real estate, personal finance and business topics for more than two decades.