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wood vs. steel framing in construction

For those of you in construction, you are familiar with the age old debate about the use of wood framing versus steel framing.  When you are building, you want to make sure the framing lasts and is within the budget.  Both wood framing and steel framing have their benefits and limitations.  However, one constant has remained the same in this debate.  Wood is a non-sustainable resource whose price fluctuates with its supply.  Metal, has remained steady in cost with new processes and technology making it cheaper, stronger, and lighter.

examining the characteristics of wood and steel framing

the argument for steel framing

Metal framing offers several advantages over wood framing.  The main advantages of steel are:

  • Metal stud framing can cost less
  • It is stronger than wood,  Steel frame buildings hold up better against high winds and earthquakes.
  • Steel can increase density and the number of stories
  • Steel is non-combustible, so in the event of a fire there is less chance of losing the structure, which is also safer for the inhabitants in a fire.
  • metal will not rot or be affected by termites or insects
  • Metal studs are made of at least 25% recycled material, and are completely recyclable for future use.
  • Less waste is produced when using metal stud framing because every piece of stud, no matter how small, can be used.
  • Steel promotes better air quality as it is not organic and does not emit VOC’s as wood does.
  • A metal framing system is much easier to erect than wood framing.  Steel will stay straight, can be bent, and the whole structure can be screwed together, rather than swinging a hammer all day.
costs of metal stud framing

As you analyze the cost of using a steel framing system, know that the initial cost of steel vs. wood is higher (~3% higher) when you include labor.  Steel framing materials cost less than wood, but labor costs are usually higher.  The average cost of metal framing a house is $9.50/sf to $11.00/sf, with the materials usually being about 30% of this (~$3/sf).  The cost savings of metal stud framing comes over time in the form of lower maintenance costs.  Metal studs do not warp or split, avoiding screw pops and drywall cracks.   Wood rot, insect damage, or mold will not take hold.  Insurance costs will be less due to the lack of flammability.

There also is an environmental cost of using steel framing in construction.  Even with high levels of recycled content, steel manufacturing remains one of the most energy intensive industrial sectors.  As an example, galvanizing steel requires 83 times more water than treating wood with borate.

the argument for using wood in framing
  • Wood is easier to work with and therefore easier to find contractors to perform the work, which can reduce the lead time.
  • Wood studs can be used to provide load-bearing wall structures, whereas standard steel studs cannot.
  • Wood has a higher insulating capacity than steel.
costs of wood stud framing

Labor to build with wood stud framing is cheaper than metal stud framing, however the wood material is more expensive in most markets.  To compound this, the price of softwood lumber has skyrocketed more than 30 percent recently, leaving you exposed to more risk of construction costs coming in above budget.

Rising material costs are adding pressure to a building market already challenged by labor productivity issues and cost overruns.  Steel prices are also rising, and the recent tariffs are affecting many building materials.  If costs are your main driver for choosing between wood vs. steel framing, get quotes for both, and keep an eye on the costs for each.  Here is one resource.

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