The House of Steel

There are several materials other than wood you can use to build a structure, one of the most common is steel. Steel products are particularly versatile and can be applied in a variety of ways including fencing, gateways and even artwork; you can get more information on applications of things like sucker rods online. Steel is used very commonly in construction, and there are basically three types of steel used in the construction of a building, light gauge cold formed steel studs and joists, bar joists, and steel beams. It you are interested in getting steel for a construction project, then it might be a good idea to check out these steel i beam sizes to give you a better idea of what you should be looking for. These are most commonly used in commercial and institutions not so much because they are stronger and can handle more load, but because they are non-flammable and more dimensionally stable. Steel can also be used as part of sheet piling, and sheet piling contractors commonly use steel for for retaining walls, land reclamation and underground structures. Buildings that plan to be around for a hundred years can afford the upfront costs as the maintenance requirements of steel building materials are almost nil if they are properly protected from rusting. For masonry and timber, you may need a joist hanger.

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An example of a steel framed house

Light gauge cold formed steel studs and joists are basically extremely thin c-channels that are screwed together and are handled just like you would wood sections. In fact, there are locations where the dimensional stability and mold and termite resistance (in fact, imperviousness), have led to it being used in residential structures. They are also nice for tall walls where you may need more strength or straightness than wood can provide, in fact, wood is limitted in height by the code books while steel framing has been tested for walls twice or even three times as high while remaining straight the whole way up. You won’t find many 20′-0″ long 2×6’s that are straight and plumb. There are downsides to metal framing, steel is a fantastic thermal bridge so it will tend to suck heat out of a building. This can be controled by using some of the more new fangled studs and joists that have been designed to decrease this movement by removing sections of the web of the channel and by covering the entire exterior with a layer of continuous insulation as discussed in a previous post. Another drawback is that it is not quite like framing with wood and you really want a contractor who has experience in framing with steel. These contractors are not uncommon, but they are generally more expensive laborers than your standard carpenters.

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A typical single story bar joist application

Bar Joists are rarely used for anything other than commercial buildings. They are customizable top hung steel trusses that come in standard sizes and capacities and can be used for large floor or roof spans. They are non-flammable and very strong making them very economical for construction of large open spaces. They are usually finished off above with a corrugated steel deck and then a concrete topping coat for the floor above. Generally they will sit on steel girders, girder trusses, or masonry walls and can even be slopped to provide the roof slope on a flat roof. There is a wooden version of this with the steel web and wood flanges that is ideal for commercial structures that don’t have to be non-flammable (typically condos or apartment buildings that are sprinklered), but they don’t get used on many buildings. The best feature of the bar joist is that the open web allows you to run wiring, plumbing, and small mechanical ductwork through the structure which can save on floor to floor heights (important in an area with a low height restriction or very tall buildings trying to maximize floor space.) It also allows the use of the ceiling space as a plenum which can save a lot of money in return air ductwork in some instances, but is beyond the remit of this post to explain in detail.

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A Steel Beam, the I shape is
one of several standard shapes
including L’s, C’s, and Pipes

Structural steel is getting to be almost impossible to avoid. All but the simplest of houses are starting to incorpate a steel beam or two, and I’ve had houses incorporate steel beams that are larger than some commercial projects. Contractors tend not to be fans of steel beams because they are heavy, difficult to impossible to drill/cut through for wiring and plumbing, and difficult to cut on site. However, as long as people want large open spaces or walls looking at the ocean that are mostly glass, steel will be very common in structures. The most common uses are beams to support heavy loads on large spans or as a moment resistant frame for shear walls that are too small at the beach. The downsides of steel being in the way of construction can be minimized if the beams are dropped below the joists and if you want to get the beam pre-finished (powder coated, or at least primed and painted), you can have an architectural element in your home that is unique. Exposed steel in residential structures is getting more common, but many people dislike the industrial look and would prefer to wrap the beam in drywall or wood trim.

Steel is probably the third most common building material, behind wood and masonry, and can be used to great effect. The cost of steel has come down in recent years making it equivalent to engineered wood in many ways, only stronger. The added cost mostly comes into play when having to set beams in place (often you need a crane or a lot of strong laborers) and in the added labor costs (either experience or time depending on the type of steel and it’s location, see above.) Either way, steel is nothing to be afraid of and in some cases, might be the best option for your building.