Now that we have a solid understanding of the different construction methods available for residential building, let’s investigate the pros and cons of each to get a better sense of which will be the best fit for your new home.
The Methods: Their Merits and Downsides
1. Platform/Stick Framing with Wood
Pros – There are a number of reasons why wood platform framing makes up over 80% of new home construction in the United States. Historically, wood has been enormously popular in Canada and the US because of its natural abundance – when populations started to boom, both countries were very heavily forested, making the material an easy choice.<
Today, platform wood framing remains the favored method for home construction for a number of reasons: wood is still relatively abundant, the cost of materials is low (compared with other methods), and wood components are easily customizable. Additionally, the lumber used in home construction is easy to modify on site, doesn’t require heavy equipment for assembly, and platform frames can be put together in a relatively short time frame.
Above all, the major reason that wood platform framing comprises such a large portion of the home construction market is builder/contractor familiarity. Most builders have been working with wood platform framing for years, meaning this method of building is extremely familiar to contractors and their workers. Many prefer to continue using a method that they know well, rather than branch out into new areas that don’t yet command such a large portion of the market.
Cons – While the merits of platform framing are well-known, the downsides of using this method are less widely discussed. One of platform framing’s biggest downsides is waste; while the frame is being constructed, lumber is repeatedly shaped and resized on site, creating a tremendous amount of environmental waste, not to mention a financial loss to the client.
Other major cons to wood platform framing include its risk to homeowners’ health (wood plays host to mold and mildew that can make homes toxic) and a home’s longevity (the wood used in platform framing is subject to rot and termites that can compromise your home’s structural integrity, requiring major repairs down the line).
An often-overlooked disadvantage to wood platform framing is the limited range of architectural styles and elements that are possible with this construction method. While platform framing works well for traditional home designs (eg. pitched roofs, load-bearing walls with standard-sized windows), clients looking to build a home with more modern architectural elements (large spans, cantilevers, large and/or numerous windows) might find that their design isn’t possible using this traditional framing method.
2. Engineered Wood Products (EWPs)
Pros – Engineered wood products (EWPs) – panels and beams made with particles of wood adhered together – are most commonly used in conjunction with wood platform frames, with EWPs attached to the platform frame to provide additional structural support. Often, SIPs are used to form the roofs of homes built using other construction methods, and are selected because they are such great insulators.
There has been an increasing trend in the number of homes built using EWPs (particularly Structural Insulated Panels – SIPs) as a stand-alone structural support system for home construction. SIPs are strong enough to be used as load-bearing walls, and have the added benefit of built-in insulation.
EWPs are a great option for clients looking for larger spans and open ceilings that are not possible with dimensional lumber and platform framing. Beams made of engineered wood can provide additional strength and length, making additional architectural elements and styles (higher ceilings, bigger spans) possible when EWPs are used together with platform framing.
Cons – The downside of constructing your home’s structural support system with SIPs are the limitations on customization – because the panels are load bearing, there is a limit to how many cuts and holes can be made before their structural integrity is compromised. Also, SIPs and beams made of manufactured wood are costly, and can bring additional financial strain to a building a home.
3. Light-Gauge Steel Framing
Pros – Light-gauge steel frames are assembled in a similar manner to wood platform framing, and have some of the same advantages. Steel is easy to manufacture and is frequently made from recycled material, which cuts both the environmental impact and the cost to the consumer. Additionally, light-gauge steel is very easy to customize as it can be folded and punched at the factory to exactly meet the client’s specifications. Steel is a great option for clients looking to branch out into other design styles, as this method adapts particularly well to the clean, more minimalist lines and wide open spaces of modern design; lighter cold-pressed steel allows for 25’-30’ spans (as opposed to the 15’-16’ spans possible with wood framing), with even larger spans possible with the thicker, hot-pressed beams. Full-window walls and extended overhangs are also commonly seen with steel-framed structures.
Another upside to steel framing is the precision with which steel parts are manufactured. Because parts are manufactured off-site to exact specifications, clients can be assured that what whatever they specify on their plans will be exactly what shows up on site, with the factory precision greatly reducing the chance of errors made and modifications needed on the job site.
Additionally, when assembled properly frames made of steel are much more durable than those made of wood, meaning that homeowners who choose steel framing typically have fewer environmental-related issues down the line (steel is impervious to mold, mildew, rot and termites, the issues that commonly plague wood structures), and have less to worry about when it comes to their health.
Cons – While the demand for steel-framed homes is growing, the limited number of builders knowledgeable about this building method and a higher materials cost can make steel framing less appealing to some clients. Also, while steel parts are easy to customize at the manufacturer, they are more difficult to adjust on site, making it harder to make changes on site after the pieces have been fabricated.
Pros – One of the major advantages of concrete is its durability – there’s a reason why it’s used to pave roads and build bridges. Concrete can also be poured into almost any form, making it ideal for clients looking for shapes and elements that fall outside of the standard options available with wood and steel framing. Additionally, concrete provides very effective thermal mass, as it absorbs and retains heat well, keeping concrete buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Cons – On the downside, concrete can be a big contributor to pollution, as cement, one of the main elements in concrete, is a major producer of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Many people tend stay away from concrete because of its aesthetics – concrete can look very heavy when used in buildings (think the brutalist architecture of the mid-1900’s), and if not kept clean quickly appear dirty and run-down.
5. Other methods
Pros – Other construction methods like masonry and rammed-earth blocks share some of the same pros as concrete, in particular their thermal mass, which translates to energy efficiency. These methods are best implemented in areas where the raw material is plentiful, as it more environmentally friendly to produce blocks on site, be they of brick, stone or earth.
Cons – Something to keep in mind is that these other construction methods perform poorly in areas with to seismic activity, making them less desirable in earthquake-prone California. Additionally these construction methods require skilled labor, and are all time and cost intensive.
Clients looking to build a home should consider the elements that are most important to their project, and select a construction method accordingly. While cost is very often a deciding factor, a client building a custom home has the option to explore the different methods available, and to find one that matches their design, location and budget.