Wood Structures vs. Metal Structures


You can build a durable and attractive building from either metal or wood. In almost all cases metal construction means steel construction; aluminum, the only other metal material used in basic construction, has significant cost and strength disadvantages. Nearly all wood harvested for construction in the United States comes from softwood trees: fir, the predominent Western softwood, pine, spruce, or redwood. Over the past twenty-five years (as of May, 2010) composite wood products, an amalgam of wood fiber and plastic resins, have also become popular in some construction applications, such as prefabricated trusses, as high-quality large dimension construction softwoods have become scarce.

Cost Advantages of Wood Construction

  • You can build a wood-framed house for less than a steel-framed house. At one of the largest U.S. building supply houses, for example, a 2 x 4 x 8 foot metal stud currently costs almost $6; a wood stud with the same dimensions costs less than $3. You can build a wood-frame house with ordinary labor (no welders, for example), less need for heavy equipment, fewer code requirements, fewer building department inspections, and without having to hire on-site deputy inspectors to overlook on-site welding. A recent detailed cost comparison of two identical homes, one constructed with wood, the other with steel, showed that labor for wood construction cost about 25 percent less than for steel. Construction material for the wood house cost about 6 percent less.

Disadvantages of Wood Construction

  • Termites and similar kinds of wood-eating insects can quickly and severely damage a wood house. Uncontrolled moisture in basements and crawl-spaces will promote wet rot and dry rot, two related fungal decays. Lumber shortages have reduced the quality of U.S. construction lumber to some extent, with possible long-term consequences not yet completely understood.

Advantages of Steel Construction

  • Steel, pound for pound, will test better than wood for strength. This same strength advantage means that you can better execute certain residential designs in steel than in wood. Larger decks, for example, may need extensive and visually unappealing braces for support and increased rigidity with wood construction that you wouldn't need with steel. Some enthusiasts of steel construction have claimed that a steel house uses less energy in everyday use.

Disadvantages of Steel Construction

  • Steel construction costs more. The substantially increased oversight required by contemporary building codes not only raises costs, but it also adds a certain measure of uncertainty to the completion schedule. You will need a deputy inspector at the job site whenever on-site welding takes place. You will need to book him in advance, and the site may effectively shut down until he becomes available. This particularly affects steel moment frame construction (a steel moment frame uses heavy steel members, usually I-beams, to form a structural skeleton that supports the rest of the building).

A Comparison of the Aesthetics of Steel and Wood Construction

  • If your design uses steel primarily or exclusively for framing only, the result will look about the same as a wood building. If you use large steel members to form a visible steel moment frame, the house will look quite different, and the design will very probably probably look more contemporary and less traditional. You can see a well-known example of this kind of residential construction in References (below), GreatBuildings: Johnson House, "The Glass House."

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  • Photo Credit Residential Construction image by Chad McDermott from Fotolia.com construction worker, image by Greg Pickens from Fotolia.com
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  • "Residential Steel Framing Construction Guide"; E. N. Loree; 1994
  • "Steel-Frame House Construction"; Timothy Waite; 2010

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