If steel frames and timber frames were locked in combat, which do you think would reign victorious? Would it be the veteran “timber,” which has been a trusted choice for a long time? Or would the winner be the new kid on the block, “steel,” known for being durable and strong? This blog will help you see what would happen in that showdown of strength, stability, and reliability between steel and timber frames.
Are Steel Frames a New Concept in Modern Housing?
Contrary to what many people think, steel frames have been around since the late 19th century. The Home Insurance Building in Chicago, Illinois, in the US, is one of the earliest examples of steel framing. The building was completed in 1885 and is believed to be the first-ever skyscraper in the world. Steel has been a part of the construction industry in Australia for over five decades.
World War II caused shortages in building materials, including timber, which eventually opened the door for producing other materials. This was when Econosteel was introduced in Australia and was primarily used to construct houses in the ACT. The technology later improved, paving the way for the introduction of galvanised steel in Sydney in 1968.
Today, steel is one of the primary materials for almost every building application worldwide. Computer technology made cutting and pre-fabricating steel frames possible using more versatile and affordable techniques.
What About Timber?
In contrast, timber has been a mainstay of construction since 100 BC. Ancient Romans and Egyptians generally used the material to build their roofs. Meanwhile, timber cladding became an essential character during the Anglo-Saxon period.
Despite the advancements in technology, timber frames are still quite popular. Roughly 80% of Australian homes have timber frames, and there is no reason they will go away anytime soon.
Comparing Steel Frames vs Timber Frames
To decide whether you should use steel frames or timber frames for your next building project, we will explore the qualities needed for successful construction. From there, you can use the information to determine which works better for your building requirements.
Which is Stronger?
Whilst timber has been used for centuries, steel is the epitome of strength. It has a higher strength-to-weight ratio, allowing buildings to use less framing than wood. This can result in more oversized windows and a longer span without needing bigger and heavier components.
Steel is also unsusceptible to rot, insect damage, and decay, unlike timber frames, which weaken over time. Steel is the answer if your building requires greater resistance to extreme conditions.
Which is More Stable?
When it comes to stability, steel will not let you down. This material will remain straight and true during and after the building process. It not only saves time and energy but also ensures you have straight walls and sharp corners for a more modern look.
Timber, though stable enough, can still warp, twist, and shrink within a few years, especially in areas with high humidity. This can quickly cause instability and structural issues but can be fixed with proper design and maintenance.
Which is Easier to Use?
The answer here is both. Steel frames are easy to use in certain respects, thanks to their uniformity and predictability. That means builders can depend on the frames’ consistency regarding their properties, shapes, and sizes.
Steel is also typically prefabricated offsite. The steel framing components are already pre-cut when delivered to the construction site. Fitting and finishing processes are minimal or even avoided, reducing the time spent customising the material.
As for timber, the frames can vary because you’re dealing with a natural material. Additionally, timber frames are cut and assembled onsite, making them more labour-intensive and time-consuming. However, timber frames are flexible and forgiving – even more so than steel frames. Therefore, you can argue that timber frames are more straightforward to modify according to the project’s specifications.
Which Offers Better Moisture Resistance?
The answer is obvious here. It’s steel. In general, steel frames are more moisture-resistant, which is why they are the top option for buildings in damp and humid environments. The inorganic material does not absorb moisture, unlike wood. So it will not rot even in areas prone to flooding. It is typically coated with treatments like painting or galvanisation to amp up steel’s corrosion resistance.
This is not to say that wood will quickly deteriorate in areas prone to moisture infiltration, like crawl spaces, roofs, and walls. Coating it with water-resistant sealants and pressure treatments is the secret to a long-lasting timber frame.
What about Fire Resistance?
Once again, steel takes the cake. After all, it is a non-combustible material, unlike combustible wood. This means steel does not burn or spread flames, thus providing greater protection against fire.
Another reason steel is a great choice is that it does not produce toxic gases or smoke when exposed to fire. Smoke inhalation and other health hazards relating to the fire incident can be significantly reduced.
Modern building practices use treatments, including intumescent paint and fire-retardant coating, to mitigate timber fire risk and damage. Despite the technology, timber frames offer a higher level of protection against fire than steel frames.
Which is More Energy Efficient?
It’s more complicated to determine the energy efficiency of the two frames. However, both timber and steel frames are energy efficient when designed and constructed to achieve the goal. The location, climate, and insulation materials also play a part in the overall energy performance of the materials.
In general, though, timber is energy efficient. After all, wood has natural insulation properties. This is why timber frames are lauded for their thermal conductivity, meaning they help decrease heat gain and loss. One more reason timber is a good choice if insulation is a primary concern is that it allows for greater flexibility in insulation. Unlike steel, you can design timber frames that create a tight, adequately insulated building envelope.
On the other hand, steel frames can be designed as energy-efficient when used in conjunction with high-performance insulators like rigid foam boards.
Which Has Less Impact on the Environment?
Here’s another “it depends” answer. Both steel and timber frames can have minimal environmental impacts but can also be severe based on various factors. For example, you can have sustainably and responsibly harvested wood. However, if manufacturing and end-of-life disposal are not done conscientiously, timber frames can still have a negative impact on the environment.
Nevertheless, timber frames are often considered the more environmentally friendly option than steel frames. Wood is a renewable resource, allowing for sustainable harvesting and replanting. Timber frames also have a lower carbon footprint in comparison to steel. That’s because wood retains carbon dioxide throughout its lifetime. This alone already helps lessen greenhouse gas emissions.
If locally sourced and processed, transportation emissions are greatly reduced. You also support local suppliers when purchasing timber frames.
But here’s the problem: timber frames can cause deforestation, soil erosion, and habitat destruction. That’s why harvesting wood should be done responsibly.
As for steel, the material can be designed and manufactured with sustainability in mind. It is also highly recyclable. Most new steel used in construction comes from recycled steel. Therefore, energy and resource requirements are much lower since producing new steel from raw materials is avoided.
Which is the More Cost-Effective Choice?
Both steel and timber frames can be cost-effective. It all depends on factors like the project requirements and costs of labour, materials, and construction.
Timber can be cost-effective because it is widely available and can be locally sourced. Therefore, transportation costs are reduced, allowing faster construction. Timber frames are also easy to use, which means lower labour costs. They are also generally more affordable than steel, although the prices vary based on the quality and type of wood.
The problem with timber frames is that they may require more frequent repairs and maintenance. Steel frames are sturdier and last longer, which lowers long-term costs. Timber may also need additional treatment for fires, moisture, and pest control, unlike steel.
Steel Frames vs Timber Frames Applications
Timber frames and steel frames are used in a wide variety of building applications and projects. Timber is often a popular component of residential construction, especially single-family and multi-family homes. Because steel frames are known for their strength and durability, they are more common in commercial construction, such as retail, offices, and mixed-use buildings.
Nevertheless, both can be used for different construction applications, including:
- Institutional buildings (schools, community centres, and libraries)
- Bridges and other outdoor structures
- Warehouses, factories, and other industrial buildings
- Historic or preservation projects
- Sports facilities like arenas and stadiums
- Tunnels and transportation structures
- Shopping centres and malls
The choice between steel frames and timber frames will depend on the specific requirements of the design, budget, resources, and available materials. The local climate and environmental conditions also have a role in the final decision.
Overall, if you want strength, stability, resiliency, and cost-efficiency based on long-term benefits, steel frames are certainly the superior choice. Whether your next building project is located in a bushfire-prone area or a high-humidity location, steel frames are perfect for the job.