Steel vs timber framing — the pros and cons

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New home under construction using steel frames against cloudy sky

Steel framing versus timber framing — it’s a case of the tried and true against a still comparatively new method of construction framing. There are pros and cons for both, so take a look at the arguments for and against . . .

Steel Frames — the pros

Stability and strength

Steel is the epitome of stable. It remains straight and true throughout the building process, which can save time and energy. It provides straighter walls and sharper corners.

Steel has a high strength-to-weight ratio which actually allows buildings to be built with less framing. That can mean a longer span and larger windows.

Ease of use

Steel framing is about a third of the weight of its timber counterpart, so is easier to move around on site. That means great health and safety benefits for builders and labourers.

Because a steel frame can be manufactured based on the house plans, precision is guaranteed. Even the holes can be pre-punched for fixings and running cabling.

Moisture and fire-resistant

Steel simply does not absorb moisture. That is a benefit when building on wet sites as you don’t have to wait for framing to dry out to proceed with the build. It is also a long-term benefit with less chance of moisture retention in the house.

If you experience the unfortunate event of a house fire then the steel framing will not add fuel to the fire because it does not burn.

Steel Framing — the cons

Insulation

Steel framed homes are thought to be harder to insulate than their wooden counterparts. Steel framing requires a thermal break to be included as part of the insulation process.

This is because steel heats up quicker than wood. If a thermal break is not included then the warm steel can cause condensation within the walls of the home and, over time, the moisture can compromise the wall’s integrity.

Live wires and fire

Because steel is a conductor, there is a serious risk if any live wires come into contact with the framing. Circuit breakers are required to prevent against this potentially lethal hazard.

While steel frames do not catch fire, they can severely buckle if they are exposed to the intense heat of a fire. If they buckle, then an extensive amount of the frame will need to be replaced due to how steel framing is fixed together.

Much of it interlocks so it is not as simple to replace as timber.

Rust

Timber does not rust, but steel can. Steel frames are galvanised as part of the manufacturing process, but if the frame is cut, scratched or drilled after manufacture then rust can creep in.

Timber Frames — the pros

Tried and true

You do not need research to prove that timber frames work — hundreds of years of building history prove that. It is still the more popular choice, with more than 1.5 million kiwi homes boasting home-grown, sustainable wooden frames.

Easy to build with

Any home builder will be able to build a solid and secure house with timber framing. It can easily be trimmed or shaped on site to suit modifications or changes in plans.

Warm and safe

Timber is a natural insulator, gathering heat in the day and slowly releasing it at night. Timber framing easily meets insulation standards without the need for thermal barriers, or other special methods.

Timber is strong, providing solid framing foundations for a home. It also performs well in seismic testing with its ability to absorb movement and sudden tremors.

Timber Frames — the cons

Labour costs

While the price of steel and timber frames are comparative, the cost of labour to work with each material is not. Much of a steel frame can be manufactured off site and erected very quickly by skilled and unskilled labourers.

Timber frames need to be constructed by skilled builders, who spend time cutting wood to size, drilling holes for cabling, and framing sections up. Therefore, labour costs are going to be a lot higher for wooden frames.

Vulnerable to pests

Any number of pests can compromise the integrity of timber. That ranges from termites to possums. Timber is a lot easier to chew through than steel.

Vulnerable to moisture

Timber will always absorb moisture. It expands when it gets wet and then contracts when it dries out. This can cause the attached coverings to warp and crack over time.

It can also cause nasties such as mould and fungi, which pose major health risks.

So there it is — a selection of positives and negatives for each building material.

Which option is best? That is for the individual to decide because, ultimately, it will come down to the material that the builder is most comfortable using.