Why Builders Stick with Lumber Despite Price Hikes and Shortages

Filed in Economics, Material Costs by on July 12, 2021 5 Comments

With builders grappling with record-high lumber prices and supply shortages over the past year, why are so few willing to switch away from traditional wood framing methods?

A June 2021 survey for the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) reveals several reasons, but one stands out above the rest.

More than four out of five builders (82%) cite a lack of workers and subcontractors with the necessary experience as a significant barrier to switching away from wood framing, which remains the dominant construction method for single-family homes in the United States, accounting for 91% of new homes completed in 2020. This would indicate that the typical framing crew is not ready to immediately start building homes out of concrete or steel.

After a lack of experienced workers, the No. 2 hurdle to switch from wood framing was the relative cost of materials, cited by 42% of builders. Not only have materials like steel and concrete tended to be more expensive than lumber historically, they have also recently been subject to their own shortages and price hikes.

The costs of re-designing and re-engineering homes to conform to a new construction method, buyer resistance, and difficulty obtaining inspections and approvals from local building departments were also each cited by more than 25% of home builders as significant barriers to switching away from traditional wood framing.

Only 5% of the builders indicated that none of the potential problems listed in the survey was a significant barrier.

Given all the reasons cited in the above chart, abandoning wood framing in favor of alternate construction methods doesn’t offer a quick, simple or easy solution to the problem of rising costs that are squeezing buyers with modest incomes out of the market for new homes.

NAHB senior economist Paul Emrath provides more analysis in this Eye on Housing blog post.


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Comments (5)

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  1. Ted Clifton says:

    Why are you even asking builders about concrete and steel, when the obvious choice are SIPS? Any carmpenter can install them, and they use less than half the total wood for exterior walls, while vastly improving the carbon footprint.

    • Bernard Lam says:

      Reengineering to SIP is actually not always straightforward. The problem is the lack of shear capacity compared to the traditional studs+panel with 3″OC nailing. That’s what I had to do for my house. I asked my engineer to use SIP and he would have had to add extensive steel moment frames and cross braces. If your engineer doesn’t need shearwalls for your location’s windload etc. Then it could be worth it. But as more and more custom homes want bigger open plans and double height spaces, less interior walls, what can you do when your engineer tells you SIP will be more costly due to the extra structural steel? That’s why SIPs are such a great match with post and beam houses where the all structural capacity is already taken care of by the post and beam structure. And the SIP is just there for insulation and gravity loads

  2. Contractor says:

    Hybrid is the answer.
    When lumber spiked back in 1993 I switched to steel framing for all interior non load bearing walls. No re-engineering required since it was only the non load bearing walls. Very little “learning curve” involved.

  3. Mark says:

    Interesting to see the Barriers – thanks NAHB – like the SIP comments too!
    Did you know Structural Insulated Panels have exceeded the 2018 IECC recommendations for thermal and air barrier performance? With every product there are pros, cons, and limitations. Since 1985 we’ve produced thousands of SIP projects for nearly every type of building design. Big Sky R-Control and Premier Building Systems have code acceptance in high seismic zones with some pretty impressive design values, load design charts and technical bulletins. Designing high performance envelopes is one step to achieving the call for net zero, not just for the payback but for comfort and survivability. The 5% of builders who have no barriers switching from stick framing to alternate methods are likely taking a system approach with higher energy performance in mind.

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