Steel framed homes are no longer a new innovation, in fact they represent technology that’s now been in use and a proven performer for many years. Perhaps the reason that some prospective homeowners still see steel frames as ‘new’ is that simply compared to the centuries that timber frames have been the norm, steel is certainly more of a recent arrival. At the time it was introduced some eyebrows were raised but as steel frames have come into common use they’re now most often seen as yet another option to be considered when building a home or even choosing a home builder. Let’s take a moment to compare what steel framed homes have to offer when help up alongside traditional timber.
At the risk of sounding obvious, steel is stronger than timber. Crucially, the structure formed by a complete steel frame is significantly stronger than a traditional timber frame. This makes a steel framed home the right choice for areas that experience significant weather events such as strong or cyclonic winds.
Because of the way a steel framed home is held together securely by brackets, screws and bolts, the frame is far less prone to movement than a timber frame. The movement that’s quite common in a timber framed home is what can lead to cracks in plasterboard and gaps in cornices. It’s not just movement in the earth that can cause this, but also the shrinking and warping that timber is often prone to. While a steel framed home is not 100 percent free of movement, it is far less likely to move to the extent that a timber frame can.
Termites have been part of the territory for so long in Australia that dealing with them seems almost to fall into the same category as home security. “Now that we have a new home, what will we do to prevent termites?” Steel framed homes are very much a case of ‘prevention rather than cure’ in that they are simply not affected by termites, borers or any type of vermin that gnaws wood. So owners of homes with steel frames enjoy peace of mind along with the savings that come with never having to hand over money for termite treatments.
It’s easy to assume that with all the energy use involved in the manufacturing of steel, it would be a less sustainable material compared to timber. The truth isn’t quite so clear-cut.
Steel manufacturing has been refined into a very efficient process. In addition to this, steel is efficient in use – less of it is needed to build a structure of equivalent strength to timber, and steel itself is completely recyclable, which offsets its carbon footprint. There’s also little or no waste in the construction process of a steel framed home.
By comparison, timber production often relies on forest clearing and the clearing of land. Not all forest timber is suitable for construction, so there’s waste involved right from the start. And if you’ve ever visited a home construction site where a timber frame is being built, you’ll have seen piles of off cuts and skips full of unused chunks of timber. The lack of precision in the timber frame construction process can lead to a lot of waste.
This is an interesting area that can hold some surprises for those not familiar with the details of the two comparative construction processes.
Timber prices at the time of writing were rising sharply, although basic materials costs still showed steel more expensive than timber. However, these costs cannot be compared in isolation – some context is needed to help understand the full story.
Construction of a timber framed home often happens on site and can involve more labour and more waste. Steel framed components are assembled off-site. There is almost no waste and construction is far more streamlined. In short, with a steel framed home you’re are not paying for anything you don’t need, and construction costs can be lower. So in the end, costs between the two methods are not too dissimilar and are approaching parity as timber prices continue to rise more sharply.
As a non-combustible material, steel is an excellent choice as a home framing material in fire risk areas, and for any homeowner who has concerns about fire. Steel frames can withstand temperatures of up to 600 degrees Celsius without losing strength.
It’s the inherent strength and rigidity of steel that makes it a frame material that offers greater flexibility of design. With relative ease, steel framing can be adapted to create special shapes, build bigger living spaces and allow for bigger windows, too. It’s high strength to weight ratio allows designers to create equivalent structures with less material than would be needed if timber was used.
While timber frames remain a common sight in Australian home construction, the landscape is changing, and it’s testament to the advantages of steel frames that few people today see them as anything novel or unusual – they’re simply an accepted option.
The family home being the largest investment that many of us will ever make, it’s certainly worth pausing to consider the choice of the frame that will comprise the bones of your new home. Merely opening the case for steel with strength, sustainability and a complete lack of termite trouble begins to build a compelling argument. Decisions regarding floor plans and finishes might be more exciting, but it would be unwise to rush through your choice of frame material without discussing all the facts with us first.