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Central North Dakota startup aims to make homebuilding faster, less costly

Jared Stober, left, and Juan Carlos Dominguez, co-owners of Nordic Steel Systems, show a 6-by-8-foot wall panel in back with an anchor system that is concrete-free in front. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

MANDAN, N.D. — A startup company making prebuilt home frames in Mandan is aiming to make the homebuilding process both less time-consuming and less expensive.

Nordic Steel Systems, which frames homes with steel rather than wood, could change the way houses have been constructed for the past few decades or more, according to JC Dominguez, co-founder of the company.

"The methodology we employ isn't revolutionary but close to it," Dominguez said.

Steel frame construction has often been reserved for commercial construction because it’s more expensive than wood, but Dominguez and his partner, Jared Stober, say they’ve found a way to make it affordable for the average homebuyer.

According to the National Association of Homebuilders, labor costs and the cost of wood are the top two factors slowing home construction.

Nordic Steel finds savings for homebuilders and their customers by cutting back on labor. The company builds its framing panels to match the building plan. The panels are numbered and shipped to the job site in order of assembly. Because the panels are pre-built, Dominguez and Stober say they can reduce a builder's labor cost by 30 percent as well as decrease time to complete a building.

Stober said the framers are among the highest-paid workers on a job site because it's a highly skilled position. But with Nordic Steel, he said, they estimate a crew of four could assemble the prebuilt panels in hours rather than days.

“We’re trying to change the methodology,” said Dominguez, adding that if homeowners start to see homes go up in days rather than weeks, they will want the same.

Because the learning curve to make Nordic Steel panels is low, the partners aim to employ more at-risk people in the community, giving them a chance at work. Stober said they hope to start with two to six employees. If the business takes off, they may employ as many as 100 people.

“We’re always trying to foster primary sector businesses,” said Ellen Huber, Mandan’s business development director. “They really are the new wealth creators within a community. We know, from the vantage point of a strong, diverse local economy, we need manufacturing and tech-based business as part of the community.”

Dominguez said Nordic Steel sets itself apart in other ways, too.

A pier system eliminates the need for a foundation if a homeowner chooses, allowing for a home to be built cost-effectively even in the most remote areas.

Because steel is recycled, it resonates well with those who want to be environmentally friendly. Prefabricated panels mean no cutting or waste on the job site, either.

Nordic Steel offers the option of magnesium oxide-coated manufactured wood as the sheeting portion of its panels, making them impervious to fire and water. A radiant heat barrier can be included to reduce cooling costs.

Finally, lumber costs rise year to year because it takes 25 to 30 years to grow a tree. Steel is “endlessly recyclable,” Dominguez said.

As growth additives are being applied to new trees, it's also resulting in less-dense materials. Trees that used to result in 80 percent lumber are now getting down to 60 percent.

"When it hits 50/50, it’s going to be a problem," Dominguez said. "Steel is a far better alternative."

Nordic Steel has been waiting as a builder in Reno, Nev., prepares to erect a home using its prefabricated panels.

"We plan to explode in our marketing campaign," Stober said of when the Reno building is complete. "We want to really be aggressive getting our products into the market."

Right now, the pair is bending the steel by hand.

"Ultimately, the process could benefit from automation," he said.