What are steel frame homes? And what makes them different from other types of homes? The main difference is that the home’s frame is made from steel, not wood–which is the most common material for house frames.
While wood frames have distinct advantages over steel ones, steel has benefits as well, some of which might surprise you. Did you know, for example, that steel is recyclable?
In this article, we’ll weigh pros and cons to the different materials–steel, wood, and concrete–as well as explore the concept of steel frame homes more generally.
Home or House Frame
The frame for a typical home consists of a concrete foundation, either at ground level with a concrete slab or a basement with a concrete floor and walls made of a material such as brick or cement.
A typical frame sits on top of the foundation and consists of the following basic components (though note that this list is not exhaustive and components will vary based on the house structure):
These make up the fundamental structure of a home. Most other materials are used to cover, trim, decorate, and insulate it.
The three materials used to frame houses are solid wood (timber), steel, and concrete. These materials have very different properties, yet all serve well in framing a house. Sometimes engineered wood (composite) is used as well.
Let’s look at wood, steel, and concrete one-by-one:
This is the most common material used in a house frame. It has also been used much longer than the other two, going back millennia. Wood has always been abundant and easily sourced and reproduced. This is changing, though.
Most homes are still being built with wood frames. However, timber conservation efforts have had a significant impact on raising lumber prices.” At some point, a shift might need to occur.
That shift would be to one of the other materials used in house framing.
Even though concrete is the material used for most home foundations, it might seem surprising to hear of it being used to build entire houses. Also, unlike wood and steel, with concrete as a building material, the house itself is the frame.
Concrete houses have some striking designs, though–whether ones that emulate more traditional houses or those meant to highlight the properties of the concrete itself.
Concrete also is a very flexible material–not only in terms of the shape it can take but also its protective properties. A particularly protective concrete-based material is Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs).
According to Bob Vila: “With this system, concrete is poured into permanent forms. The forms are made of insulating material, either interlocking blocks, panels, or planks…
The panel and planks are interconnected with plastic or metal ties and the blocks with special grooves or interlocking teeth.”
Now, we’ll consider the attribute of steel frame homes in detail.
Steel Frame Homes: Pros and Cons
Steel frame homes are structured more like those with wood frames, meaning they’re built by assembling various components–not poured or molded like concrete or concrete-based material. This is the framing method of choice for architecture firms in Toronto, New York, and other prominent North American cities.
Much like commercial steel frame commercial buildings, which have been built for many years, steel frame homes use I-beams in place of wooden studs, joists, rafters, and other components. In fact, often they’re built entirely with metal.
Steel frame homes are only slightly more expensive than their wood frame counterparts. “A 1,500-square-foot, wood-framed home priced at $120,000 might cost $126,000 to $138,000 with a steel frame.”
Pros of Steel Frame Construction
Steel is durable, waterproof, earthquake-resistant, and fire-resistant. Steel is also impervious to termites. Of course, these attributes refer to the steel itself, not necessarily any materials attached to it, such as drywall.
Steel weighs less than wood and a steel frame home takes less time to construct than one made from wood.
Steel is moldable–not for an entire house, as with concrete, but for special parts. And steel beams can be cut with a metal saw or a blowtorch. They can also be cut with a water jet. Read more about this surprising technique if you’re interested.
Cons of Steel Frame Construction
A steel frame home is not more energy-efficient than a home with a wood frame. “Steel is much more of a conductive material than wood. Therefore, “the most conductive path in a steel frame home is the steel itself.
Heat will move quickly from inside the home to the steel studs in the walls. In addition to leaving you cold, thermal bridging can create black staining on the cold portions of the walls.” This means higher heating and air conditioning bills as well.
One effective way for a homeowner can counteract these problems is to wrap insulation board around the steel beams themselves, in addition to the insulation typically placed between studs.
Another option for building with a steel frame: “many construction companies offer hybrid steel/wood buildings, which take advantage of the strength, durability and support benefits offered by steel, paired with the insulatory properties of wood.”
Are Steel Frame Homes the Future?
Yes, even though they may not be the choice of every home builder, we believe there will be more steel frame homes in the future. Given steel’s recyclability, there are environmental advantages to using this material in homes.
And homeowners surely will come to appreciate steel’s ability to resist severe weather and other perils. Already, solutions to some of steel’s drawbacks have been put forward. Steel’s long-term durability and overall value are unchallenged as well.
So keep your eyes open for more steel frame homes–that is, if you can even tell them apart from the more traditionally built homes you see out there. And be sure to take a look at our blog for more innovative home-building ideas.