Many buildings, from homes to churches to barns, which have been constructed traditionally with wood are now being built with steel. Which is more cost effective?
Which is easier to build with?
Which has the least environmental impact?
Both the steel industry and the lumber industry claim superiority. When it comes to the environmental issues, the facts are somewhat complicated and the issue is not that cut and dried. However, there are many facts that we are sure of. Educate yourself, and make your own decision…
- The price of steel has remained stable for a long time- this allows accurate budget estimates. Wood costs fluctuate wildly.
- Because steel is a manufactured commodity, product quality is assured. Steel studs have no knots, twists, splits or other defects often associated with wood studs.
- Due to frequent lumber shortages, "green" wood is often used in building projects. That can result in warping, cracking and splitting – all of which cause decreased energy efficiency.
- Preengineered steel buildings are erected much faster than traditional buildings.
- Steel buildings have a better track record in both earthquakes and hurricanes.
- Steel is one of the strongest building materials available, many times stronger than wood.
- Steel is non-flammable - it will actually contain a fire and keep it from spreading. Wood framing is one of the biggest hazards in a fire.
- Safe from termites, rot and mold, and drying out - it won’t shrink, warp or swell.
- Sturdy and durable - free of high maintenance costs. Walls stay straight, floors are flat, doors and windows do not stick.
- The difference becomes even more dramatic over time- years from now a steel building will be as straight, as sturdy, and as beautiful as the day you moved in.
- Long lifespan, long warranties on the structure, roof and painted exterior finish (a metal roof lasts 2-3 times longer than an asphalt shingle roof)
- Steel is the most recycled material on earth- all new steel is currently produced with recycled steel
- Steel buildings are pre-engineered for cost efficiency as well as ease and speed of construction
- Steel studs and joists are pre-punched with holes to allow the passage of electrical, telephone, TV cables, etc.,- a huge time and money saver when erecting the building.
Despite all these unarguable advantages, there remain many misconceptions and half-truths about steel framing.
The main one is:
Building with steel is more expensive than wood…
Once upon a time, this was quite true. In the past, the quality of lumber was much better and much cheaper than it is today- cheaper than steel. This is no longer the case! With the rising cost of lumber and the steady price of steel, the cost of steel-framed home construction is comparable to wood-framed homes.
Since wood prices fluctuate often, while steel prices remain consistent, an actual price difference is difficult to determine. However, we are cutting down trees faster than we are growing them back... On the other hand, steel is abundant, partly because it is fully recyclable, and competitively priced!
Another aspect of the misconception about the cost of steel framing is this- years ago wood framers would build steel frame homes with no knowledge of the true strength of steel. Because of this lack of knowledge and experience with metal framing, they used an unnecessary amount of steel, driving up the cost.
Today, steel buildings are pre-engineered creating structures with very little waste and which use only the exact amount of steel studs required for the individual building. Steel is so much stronger than wood, the amount of studs needed to frame a house is much less.
Steel construction has also been around long enough now that there is a large pool of experienced framers who can erect a pre-engineered steel building quickly and cost efficiently.
#1. A steel building is more likely to be struck by lightning than a wooden framed building…
This is NOT the case! A steel framed structure is no more likely to be hit by lightning than a wood framed structure.
However, there is a significant difference if the building is actually hit! When lightning hits a wood framed structure, it bursts a hole through the roof and sets it on fire. With steel framing, solid I-Beam columns provide multiple grounding points. The lightning is conducted out through these columns, dissipating the energy safely, with little or no structural damage.
Some insurance companies actually label steel framing as "Superior Construction" and offer discounts on insurance up to 35%. Check with your insurance carrier for more details.
#2. Steel buildings are ugly and look different from other conventionally built buildings…
Steel buildings can look identical to any other site built, conventional ones, if desired.
Steel structures can have any type of brick, wood siding, vinyl siding, stucco or stone facades to create beautiful exteriors. All common building materials are compatible with steel framing. No longer the unattractive rectangular box buildings of yesterday, the modern steel building engineers are leaders in innovative and stylish design.
Doors and windows can be placed anywhere you like, usually as many as you like! If you are building a steel home, you can even have a fireplace. This is much safer than in a traditional home because the structure is not flammable.
The inside framing of a steel building can be covered with sheet rock and then painted. Open span designs let you design any floor plan you want, and yes - you can even move the interior walls if you decide at some point to remodel.
#3. Steel buildings are hard to cool in the summer, hard to heat in the winter…
The exact opposite is true - steel buildings are actually designed, engineered and constructed to be energy efficient. The temperature stays more constant and the building actually feels more comfortable. The savings in energy costs for heating and cooling a properly engineered and outfitted steel building are considerable.
Efficient and innovative, radiant barrier insulation installed to the roof and walls acts as a thermal break and stops 97% of radiant heat penetration in the summer and radiant heat loss in the winter. (Regular insulation doesn`t stop radiant heat.)
Click here for more info about radiant insulation
A steel building can have a “cool roof” colored roof system. This is a heat reflective coating on the steel for energy efficiency. These types of roof panels have reflective properties capable of lowering the temperature of the roof up to 100 degrees! Steel roofs are virtually maintenance free, and last 2-3 times longer than an asphalt shingle roof.
Another exciting difference in a steel framed structure is that the exterior wall studs are up to 6”-8”, as opposed to wood framing which is done with a 4” stud. Of course, modern 2 x 4’s are only 3-5/8 inches wide, which means the wall could not even hold enough insulation for an R-13.
The wider steel stud allows you to use much more wall insulation, if you live in a climate where that is called for. You can fill the cavity with enough insulation (fiberglass, cellulose, etc.) for an R-19. If you add foil insulation, your wall could have an effective R-value of 30 or better. This results in tremendous energy savings as well as a much quieter building.
Air leakage from expansion cracks is less because steel doesn`t warp or expand/contract as humidity changes. These advantages can help reduce heating and cooling costs by 50% or more.
While steel buildings have become hugely popular in the area of commercial, agricultural and institutional buildings, they are just starting to catch on for home building. Home builders still prefer to use wood, if for no other reason than it has been the backbone of housing construction for centuries.
Click here for more info about building a steel home!
Today’s computer engineered steel buildings have many advantages over the metal buildings of even fifty years ago, as well as any traditional types of construction including wood, brick or masonry.
The cost savings of metal building systems come primarily from the fact that their various sections are pre-built inside a factory, before being shipped to the construction site. There is very little waste at the actual construction site.
The term, “pre-engineered or prefabricated metal buildings system” refers to the current design, engineering and manufacturing process of today’s metal buildings. The process of designing and engineering a metal building has been greatly improved over the years, due to the implementation of sophisticated computer aided design and drafting (CADD) of the building. A pre-engineered building purchased today is highly technologically advanced.
The use of the word “system” refers to the fact that all the differing components of the building are engineered to the required specifications and load codes, and shipped together to the job site. Nothing needs to be out sourced from other vendors. Windows, doors, roofing, trim- all are custom fit to each building. This pre-designed system is therefore extremely efficient, and easy to assemble, as each part is a perfect fit to each other part.
Each steel building, and all its components, can be custom designed to the customer’s needs, preferences and specifications. Local and national building codes are factored in as well, creating a building that is engineered to meet the specific “load” conditions required in that area.
As with the ongoing debate over “paper or plastic”, from an environmental standpoint the preferable building material is not easy to determine. Wood lays claim to being the most energy-efficient of common framing materials, by a significant margin. Since it grows naturally, obviously less energy is required to produce it than steel or concrete, another popular building material.
Organizations for the lumber industry assert, “Wood is the "greenest" building product.” The Canadian Wood Council claims that wood wins out over steel in terms of the producing less greenhouse gases, air pollution and solid waste.
However, there is much more to be considered…
One of the main issues with both materials is the source: for steel, miners dig must iron ore out of the earth. For wood, trees must be cut down. (Virtually all U.S. framing lumber now comes from sustainable pine forests.)
The steel industry concedes the point that it takes a lot of energy to process the raw materials for new steel. However, one of steel`s primary environmental selling points is that it is endlessly recyclable, and all new steel manufactured in the U.S. today is made with recycled steel.
Did you know…
“A typical 2000-square-foot home requires about 40 to 50 trees, about an acre’s
worth of forest! With steel, only the equivalent of about six scrapped
automobiles is needed.”
-The Steel Recycling Institute
Steel has earned the nickname, “the EnviroMetal.” Steel is the most recycled material on the planet!
Take a look at these impressive facts:
- 2 out of 3 pounds of new steel today are made out of old steel.
- Almost 76 million tons of steel were recycled in the US in 2006.
- More than 100 billion pounds of steel are recycled annually, not only from used cans, but also from discarded automobiles and demolished bridges.
- Every ton of steel that is recycled saves approx. 2,500 pounds of iron ore and 1,400 pounds of coal.
- New steel made with recycled steel is vastly energy efficient, needing only ¼- 1/3 (approx) of the energy required to make steel from raw materials!
- Greenhouse gas emissions per ton of steel shipped have been reduced by nearly 45% since 1975.
- Both air and water emissions from steel production are a whopping 90% lower today than just 10 years ago.
- More than 95 percent of the water used for steelmaking is recycled
- Almost all the hazardous waste once generated by the steel industry is now being recycled for beneficial use.
This highly efficient use of materials results in a lower “carbon footprint.” Just as steel itself is environmentally friendly, there are also many benefits to the environment and to the purchaser from building with steel...
- Metal buildings have a long lifecycle, they don’t need to be frequently repaired or replaced like wood. Some manufacturers guarantee their buildings structurally for 50 years.
- Steel building materials do not release pollutants, although you must check with your manufacturer about the paints and coatings used on the steel if this is a concern for you.
- Steel buildings are energy efficient to operate and maintain.
- Research on “cool metal roofing” proves that the reflective properties of steel roofs provide significant savings in energy consumption. (“Cool metal roofing” uses heat-deflecting coatings that significantly decrease heat build up inside a building.)
- Heat and cooling loss, especially around doors, windows, foundation, and roofing, are significantly lower than other types of construction.
- The insulation used in steel structures also makes a huge difference to the energy efficiency of the building. Insulation such as “TempShield” is both ICC-ES recognized and Energy Star qualified.
(ICC-ES is a nonprofit corporation that does technical evaluations of building components, methods, and materials.)
Steel is an excellent choice for sustainability. The World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987 (U.N. Brundtland Report), explains the concept of sustainability in this way: “Meeting the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
When you choose a steel building system, you can feel confident that you have made an environmentally responsible choice, and are building for a sustainable tomorrow. Ultimately, consumers and builders must weigh the facts, and make the decision as to which product to use: wood or steel.
Yet another option available to you, when considering steel vs. wood, is light gauge steel. As with regular steel these buildings have the same advantages – i.e., termite, fire and fungus proof, etc. With light gauge steel there will be less stress on the foundation, equipment and installers, home owners’ insurance will be cheaper and most importantly, you are going “green”.
The Steel Recycling Institute, http://www.sustainable-steel.org/, http://www.recycle-steel.org/buyrecycled.html
American iron and steel institute, http://www.steel.org/AM/Template.cfm?
Building Green http://www.buildinggreen.com/search/index.cfm?q=steel+vs+wood
The Honolulu Advertiser http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2004/Feb/09/ln/ln05a.html