With the rocketing labor and material costs of urban development, Ellisdale Construction employs a radical new technique to maximize construction efficiency in the Washington D.C. area. Using light gauge metal, Ellisdale is achieving much more affordable and quicker results.
Ellisdale was founded by partners Kevin Ash and Rich Ward in 2004. Both brought much experience in construction and development to the table when they decided to collaborate and pool a considerable amount of knowledge.
Initially focused on wood podium-style construction, the partners at Ellisdale quickly recognized a growing gap in industry coverage and moved to fill it. “We started to service a specific niche in multifamily housing, where small- and mid-sized projects were underserved by general contractors,” Ash recalls. Through simple adaptation, Ash and Ward propelled Ellisdale Construction into high-rise construction using light gauge metal. “We applied our skill set to metal, and we found that we could compete in high-rise construction with that product type,” Ash recalls.
Today, Ellisdale is very much in the business of high-rise residential development and construction, working out of its headquarters in Leesburg, Virginia. From boutique housing to affordable multifamily units, the company handles every aspect of the construction process, working closely with architects and engineers through each step of development. From small beginnings, Ellisdale has evolved to take on the unique and demanding requirements of urban development. “We’ve grown, year in and year out, to take on larger projects that are still as complex, if not more complex, today,” Ash says proudly.
Being in an urban area, Ellisdale must address the challenge of building on smaller, more compact building plots. Further, construction in a dense urban area means smaller construction sites and challenging logistical demands. Buildings are often multipurpose, providing office space as well as residences and often requiring attached parking garages. “You’re not just building an office building,” Ash explains, “and you’re not just building an apartment building… there are a lot of components to it.”
Ellisdale has another challenge in the form of a Congressional law. Due to the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, buildings in the District of Columbia have a maximum height limit of 130 feet (~40 meters). Developers seeking to surpass this limit may do so only through a special amendment to the law. This puts a heavy damper on high-rise construction, compounded by the lack of space in such a tightly-developed urban area.
Lighter and faster
But while other developers might balk at such restrictions, Ash views the limit as an advantage to Ellisdale’s business model. “Light gauge metal, as a system, works perfectly in Washington, D.C., because of the height limit,” he says.
High-rise construction techniques have traditionally involved cast-in-place concrete reinforced by steel rebar. But light gauge metal uses multiple horizontal truss wall panels, all standardized. By using these wall panels, the structure transfers weight equally among them. While the flooring structure remains concrete, this approach eliminates concrete pillars and heavy rebar, supported by I-beams, and greatly reduces material costs.
Through this system, Ellisdale can work with multiple subcontractors who typically manufacture these metal wall panels off-site in an ‘assembly line’ manufacturing process. Ash says that by manufacturing these panels at a much earlier stage in the construction process, Ellisdale and its subcontractors can address numerous questions in the construction process such as window and cabinet sizes as well as bathroom layouts. “Those things are all coordinated with the wall-panel manufacturer well in advance,” he says. Once these questions are addressed and all panels are complete, they can be shipped to the worksite via flatbed trailer and assembled there.
A huge advantage
By ensuring the majority of components are prefabricated, Ellisdale greatly reduces both construction costs and the time required. The result is a product that costs less and is built quicker, for a result comparable to traditional construction techniques. “To be able to build it less expensively and faster is a huge advantage,” Ash says. He estimates using light gauge metal can reduce construction costs by up to 10 percent.
While Ellisdale is embracing light gauge metal in residential construction, the technology itself originated in the hospitality industry. “Hotels have been using it for quite some time, but very few people were using it in housing,” Ash says, adding that he first discovered this building methodology in 2000. He relates how, traditionally, low-rise homes (six stories or fewer) had been made with wood, while anything taller was made with concrete. “That’s just the way it had always been,” he recalls. But now, light-gauge metal is challenging those traditional construction standards.
In Ash’s mind, the concept of using light gauge metal is a self-evident solution, reflecting modern market conditions. “Our labor rates have gone through the roof, our costs of construction have gone through the roof,” he reports. “So anytime there’s a market change, you can implement new things faster.” To him, this new trend can help businesses cope with higher labor costs and a reduced labor market, leading to a cheaper and more efficient building process.
Ignoring the promise
Despite the promises of light gauge metal, Ash acknowledges the slowness of the construction industry to take advantage of it. “Whenever you’re trying to change fifty years of history, it’s slow to take on,” he says. This conservatism has led to some clients being hesitant to receive this building methodology.
But Ash sees this reluctance as an opportunity for Ellisdale to showcase its expertise. “We had to show them, through executing projects, that it is a viable and, in my opinion, a better option than cast-in-place.”
Recently, Ellisdale has used its projects to prove just that. The Aspen, opened in September 2016, is a 110-foot, 133-unit apartment building in Northwest D.C. that went from ground-breaking to completion in only ten months. Ash believes the Aspen vindicates the benefits and practicality of light gauge metal. “People questioned the height that you could build with metal, and we proved to them that we could do it with the execution of the Aspen,” he says.
He describes this project as the “catalyst” for Ellisdale’s recent growth. To him, the icing on the cake was when prestigious developer Greystar bought the building. “They felt the Aspen was a very quality project in a great location, and they bought that asset.”
A second Ellisdale building involving light gauge metal is the Adele, containing both office space and 14 luxury apartments, just three blocks from the White House. Tightly squeezed between two adjacent properties, the Adele would have been a challenge to traditional cast-in-place concrete and rebar methods. But by using light gauge metal, Ellisdale was able to not only complete the highest level condo property in D.C. but bring in what Ash describes as “some of the highest outsales that Washington has ever seen.”
With both of these projects under Ellisdale’s belt, Ash believes this legitimizes the benefits of light gauge metal, putting doubts to rest. “It’s taken time and several projects to show that this is the right product for this market, and I think executing those two projects has opened the eyes of the market.”
A natural leader
With Ellisdale’s recent success, the company is enjoying unprecedented attention from regional and national developers such as Toll Brothers, Penzance, Peterson, and others. To Ash, Ellisdale’s experience in light gauge metal makes it a natural leader in this new market. “In our experience, no general contractor in Washington D.C. has built as many light gauge metal buildings as we have,” he says. “With anything in life, experience matters, and we have more experience in this marketplace than anybody building this product type.”
Yet despite this new boom in business, Ellisdale’s attention remains focused on its core market. Ash hopes to bring light gauge metal to the East Coast and specifically the Mid-Atlantic region, which he says has long been a proponent of cast-in-place concrete.
“We continue to strive to bring new technologies and new techniques to the industry that we have always specialized in, which is urban in-fill redevelopment,” he says. Above all, Ash hopes light gauge metal will continue to prove itself an alternative to traditional cast-in-place methods. “If you could build something less expensive and faster and it’s comparable, then why not?”