Building a home: Timber or steel frame?

Designing and building a home is a process of weighing up difference choices and picking the one that is right for you and your vision. By the time your home is finished you will have made hundreds (if not thousands!) of decisions, and one of the first you will encounter is the question of whether you want to build with a steel or timber frame.


If this was a simple question to answer, everyone would use the exact same materials and processes when constructing their home. However, as with the many other choices you will make during your home building journey, there are benefits and pitfalls associated with each of the options.


Here, we break down some of the factors you will likely need to consider when choosing whether you will build using a timber or steel frame.


Builder preference


The majority of builders have a preference for either timber or steel, with timber frame construction still accounting for a majority of residential builds in Australia. There is no doubt that each builder will have a strong argument why they would recommend one material over another, and like Ford versus Holden or milk versus dark chocolate, this preference is often based on not only a construction argument but also based on loyalty to the material, or simply that it’s what they are most familiar with.


Some builders may even base their preference on financial considerations, such as having a direct financial interest in, or relationship with, a particular supplier.


Risk of termites


Fear of termites is without a doubt the biggest reason some people have reservations about building with a timber frame.


Choosing steel will, of course, protect you completely from termites in the frame of the house. It’s important to remember though that technology has come a long way, the timber itself can now be treated specifically to shield against the pests, along with the use of physical barriers designed as an impenetrable shield to stop termites even getting to the timber. Unlike sprays, no ongoing maintenance is required.



Complexity of the build


The complexity of your build can also be a major factor in the decision between a timber or steel frame. Steel frames are fabricated in a factory, then transported and lifted into position, meaning the ability to modify on site is very limited, involving, for example, methods such as ‘chocking up’ a corner of the wall frame that is straight but the foundation it sits upon has some discrepancy in level. This means (in our opinion) that steel usually lends itself better to simpler builds.


A timber frame arrives to site as lumber and is crafted by carpenters into the exact measurements required. This means modifications can be made to account for any discrepancy, no matter how small, in the level of the concrete slab.


Even variations as small as a few millimetres can affect how a frame sits on top of the slab, so the ability for a carpenter to make alterations and ensure all levels are exact can be very valuable.


Timber frames also provide the opportunity to make changes to the plans if necessary, such as re-evaluating the positioning of a wall or size or shape of a window.


Noise


Whether you decide on timber or steel, there is no escaping the fact that your frame will expand and contract as your house heats up and cools down. This is particularly the case in the roof where temperatures are higher during the day and considerably cooler at night.


The difference will be in how much noise is created by each frame. Whereas the movement in a timber frame occurs in the timbers themselves and is silent, steel frames are pot riveted together, and as two pieces of steel riveted together move the connections of steel will pop. Steel frame fabricators have done a great job of minimising the noise created, but in our view, the noise is still audible and persistent.


Maintaining straight walls


Wall frames can also be affected by temperature, and if the temperature varies enough the framing can be susceptible to movement. A steel frame will protect you to a degree from this happening. Timber, on the other hand, is more susceptible, however quality carpenters and using the right amount of timber in the frames will help ensure that all your walls are straight.


Other options


If we use our chocolate analogy again, there are also clients that simply insist on white chocolate (or 90 per cent cocoa, or lactose-free …). They may want to consider concrete panels, double brick, mud brick, rammed earth to name a few.


At Adelaide Build Assist we’ve used all of these products on various projects and will continue to do so. These types of choices are always difficult because there for arguments for and against, for them all.


However, if we had to make a call on steel or timber, on balance, timber framing offers the most accurate results, preferred method by most custom builders and with no chance of noise.


Get advice


The best thing to do is ensure you work with an independent, experienced building advisor such as Adelaide Build Assist. The team at ABA will help you make the right decisions for your project, based on your needs, wants and budget.


Contact us for a no obligations discussion about your project.

CALL ABA FOR A NO OBLIGATION DISCUSSION ABOUT YOUR NEEDS

0428 033 028

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