Wooden Frames vs. Steel Frames: The Showdown

The Showdown

"In the left corner, we have Wood Frame. He's been a tried-and-true champion of the construction industry for centuries. But wait, folks! Is that a termite I see? And a little speckle of moisture rot? Oh, and don’t light a match; Wood Frame gets pretty burned up.I don't know; Wood Frame will have to put up a tough fight to win this round tonight.  In the right corner, we have the new kid on the block, Steel Frame. He may look a little stiff but boy, is he solid. That cold-formed training has paid off, and he's ready to stand up to tradition and show the world Steel Frame is the best choice for durability and longevity. Steel looks to have an incredible strength-to-weight ratio."  DING! DING!  These days, you have a lot of options when it comes to construction materials, but framing typically boils down to one of two choices: wood or steel. While wood has been the traditional choice, construction companies are migrating towards steel options.  Steel framing options can decrease your project's bottom line, from initial costs to labor costs, and you can pass on the long-term savings to the owner as savings in the form of low-maintenance durability.

ROUND 1: The Construction Timetable

They say time is money, and that's certainly the case when it comes to labor costs. In fact, labor is typically largest expense of any building project, so the more you can cut labor hours, the better. Wood-framed buildings require skilled laborers who must spend time cutting lumber to size, framing, and drilling holes for wiring among other things.  With steel frames and panels, you can have all of that done before it ever gets to your job site and the erection can be completed using a set of instructions and relatively untrained hands. The members and panels have often been pre-constructed at the manufacturer to make sure of hole spacing and fit.  Steel studs weigh one-third less than wood studs, making them easier to handle. Also, they can be installed at 24-inches on center. An additional time saver: there is no problem with creating square corners and straight walls.

Round 1 winner: Steel

ROUND 2: Design Flexibility

If you like higher-pitched roofs, interesting roof lines or custom eaves and overhangs you will have an easier time getting what you want from a wood-framed building. Typically, steel-framed buildings are built using lower roof lines, but that doesn't mean you couldn't create a high-peaked steel roof.  Another advantage of steel is prefabricated members and panels make it easier than ever when you're ready to add-on to your building. In most cases, you can easily add a complete and finished wing or expansion in a matter of days or weeks. Plus, continuing innovation makes it possible to have metal roof and siding facades that replicate traditional materials like tiles, wood, stone, etc.  

Steel wins Round 2 on points.

ROUND 3: Structural Strength and Integrity

Wood is tough, and it will put up a good fight in this round. The problem is that it is susceptible to pests, like termites and other burrowing insects. Wood absorbs moisture, expanding and contracting as the wood soaks up water and dries out. Eventually, drywall and other attached coverings can crack and warp with the wood.  Also, wood can't withstand the effects of violent seismic movement or other major climatic events. A little lighter fluid and a match are all it takes to burn a long-standing home, barn, or commercial building.  Did we mention the problem of consistency of product with wood? Different types of wood and wood from different regions can vary remarkably in quality and consistency. Not to mention the need to cull or sort each batch of wood.  At the end of construction, wood typically leaves a load of scrap and waste; 20% as compared to steel, which has about 2% waste.  Steel frames, on the other hand, are impervious to pests and resistant to fire. Their only weakness is condensation and moisture penetration, which is mitigated by the use of high-quality coatings, insulation, and moisture barriers. They can withstand incredibly high winds, which is why metal schools, churches, and municipal buildings are often used as evacuation centers in areas prone to hurricanes or tornadoes.  They can even withstand their fair share of seismic activity and are required on the west coast and other earthquake-prone areas for buildings that are three-stories or taller. Another strength for steel is that members are screwed together, a stronger joint than one secured with nails.  

Round 3 winner: Steel

ROUND 4: Lifetime Maintenance Requirements

A traditional wood-framed building requires a new coat of paint at least every four to seven years, with touch-ups on a regular basis. The average roof lasts for about 15 years or so. Wood also has a tendency to crack, warp, split, mold, and rot.  Steel-framed buildings with metal building components often have paneling and roof warranties that last 40 to 50 years. There is no splitting, warping, molding, mildewing, or cracking, so lifetime maintenance and upkeep costs of a steel-framed building are minimal.  Steel results in a lighter weight frame that doesn’t weigh as heavily on the foundation. Fewer cracks, fewer repairs.  Because steel is so durable and resistant to fire and other destructive actions, builders, and owners can get substantial discounts on risk insurance.

Round 4 winner: Steel

ROUND 5: Energy Efficiency

Wood has steel beat when it comes to heat transfer; steel easily transfers heat from one area to another. However, wood-framed buildings still need to be insulated, so dollar-for-dollar-savings are pretty balanced here.  However, wood must constantly be harvested and milled. There is little to no recycling of wood frames, they are typically torn down and hauled to the landfill.  Steel is made using both pre- and post-consumer recycled products to start with and can be completely recycled again at the end of its lifespan. That is a major bonus regarding carbon footprint and total lifecycle efficiency. Cool metal roofs also help to increase the energy efficiency of a steel framed building.  Contrary to myths, steel framing and paneling is not noisier than wood. Since most roofs have decking and everything is insulated, rain and hail are no louder on a steel roof than wood. In fact, wood has a tendency to creak when it shifts; that doesn’t happen with steel.  

Round 5 winner: Steel

"Whoa, folks! Will you look at that? It looks like Wood Frame just couldn't take that final energy efficiency blow from Steel Frame. It's a TKO!"