Professor Mark Z. Jacobson & Charles Bovet | Photo © Vicki Thompson

Can steel construction crack California’s homebuilding market?

June 16, 2016, Silicon Valley Business Journal

Inside BONE Structure’s quest to transform the industry.

Despite big advances in technology and construction materials, homebuilding in the United States has remained remarkably stable over the years. A Canadian company just gaining momentum in the massive California market is trying to change that.

The company, BONE Structure, is under way on its first custom home in Northern California: The 3,200-square-foot Palo Alto residence of Stanford Prof. Mark Z. Jacobson. When complete, it will look just like any other high-end, contemporary home in Silicon Valley. But it’s what’s underneath — the bones, if you will — that company executives say is game changing.

The pitch? A steel skeleton that’s custom designed, manufactured elsewhere, shipped in and assembled on-site in as little as 10 days — and by as few as five people. The company is betting on sustainable features and quality to give its product an edge in a market dominated by wood. If it’s successful, it could radically transform a multi-billion-dollar pillar of California’s economy and set the path for a new era of environmental efficiency regulations.

“It’s good to be able to set an example,” said Jacobson, whose professional life involves researching ways the U.S. can consume less energy, emit less air pollution and understand global warming. He’s designed the house to meet net-zero energy standards.

Based in Laval, Quebec, BONE Structure was founded in 2005 by Marc A. Bovet, a former marketing executive and director at Bombardier. Today the company has completed 250 residences in Canada and has about 20 in the pipeline in California, including five more in Palo Alto.

A BONE house isn’t a traditional manufactured home, or a housing unit finished elsewhere and then placed onto a piece of land such as Vallejo-based Blu Homes. Buyers work with a BONE project manager on each step – from the design to permitting and finishes. The structural elements are then fabricated in a plant and shipped to the site. Once on location, the metal frame itself is then assembled by an authorized builder. The company will even contact city building and planning departments to educate them on the process and technology.

That frame provides the precision that makes BONE Structure special, said Charles Bovet, Marc’s son who heads up the new San Francisco office. There’s no on-site cutting, no nails (one type of screw is used to put it all together), and every part is referenced to a 3D plan. (You can tour the Palo Alto house June 24 through June 26 by clicking here.)

There are benefits to the metal system: It allows for huge windows and big spans — up to 25 by 50 feet — without the need for load bearing walls; is impervious to mold or termites; and allows for easy expansion or reconfiguration. For builders, the approach reduces risk and the chance of surprises during construction, BONE says. For architects, BONE touts the wide-open interior spaces and design precision the system allows.


BONE Structure hopes its system is just the start of a revolution in residential construction. For now, the system is decidedly high end, but the company says it’s following a Tesla-style model on the way to industry change. That means transitioning to more mass-market price points as it scales up. Bovet says BONE Structure would love to partner with production homebuilders like KB Home or D.R. Horton, and he says California’s toughening energy requirements are making big builders take a look at new technologies.

“Our objective is to work our way to the Model 3,” Bovet said, referring to Tesla’s planned $35,000 car, slated to hit the market in 2017.

Some experts are skeptical of the that possibility, though. In Silicon Valley, a single-family detached home can be constructed for $90 to $95 per square foot not counting the land cost. It’s cheaper in lower-cost areas, such as the Central Valley, where it may be $65 a foot. BONE Structure says its homes in California start at about $275 per square foot.

Homebuilding consultant Kent Robertson said there was a movement to use steel studs in homes in the 1990s, but it never really caught on. One reason: The homebuilding industry is resistant to big changes. But there are also structural factors in the industry that reinforce the status quo.

“Lumber is not that expensive these days,” he said. He adds, “We have seen some real budget and schedule disasters when codes required a shift from wood to metal framing. I can’t speak for all of the reasons for that, but one obvious one is that there is a much larger pool of unorganized labor and inspectors expert in wood framing,” whereas “the pool of framers and inspectors with the expertise to complete all the innovative detail work necessary for metal framing is pretty small.”

Stilll, BONE Structure’s Bovet said the company can train any contractor in the process and has already inked several agreements in California. And it expects to get a boost from increasing energy regulations. California has a goal of making all new homes “zero net energy” by 2020. All BONE Structure homes are “zero net ready,” Bovet said, and adds that they can be made to meet the goal with very little extra.

Robertson acknowledges that steel will likely be one way that designers use to meet new energy requirements, but he said we won’t know for sure how it shakes out until the regulatory mandates take effect.

Back on Valdez Place, Jacobson says he budgeted $1.5 million for the house, not including land costs, and says he’s happy with the process so far. He’s excited about living in a house with no gas hookup and that should produce more energy than he uses, thanks to rooftop solar panels.

Written by Nathan Donato-Weinstein
June 16, 2016 | Silicon Valley Business Journal | Read the article online
Photos by Vicki Thompson