Which is more sustainable?

It is an assumption to say timber is a greater sustainable option over cold-formed steel, it is simply not true.

Yes, timber is renewable, biodegradable and in the past has been less expensive than steel. Timber frames have been used for a millennia, but their future in framing has been called into question by the emergence of light-gauge steel (or CFS or cold-formed steel).

Timber's environmental downfall

While both timber and steel have their environmental challenges, we need to consider that building sustainably means being cognisant of the products chosen while considering the impact of the manufacturing of the product on the environment.

Did you know 37 per cent of tree cutting around the world is a result of tree harvesting? In 2022, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported that seven billion trees are lost to deforestation every year in support of traditional construction building practices.

It is also reported that clear-cutting trees emit 12 per cent of the world’s gas emissions while the iron and steel sector contribute between 7-9 per cent of direct greenhouse gas emissions.

The high figures from tree harvesting are a result of the pollutants emitted from the process of tearing the trees down but also as a result of the high carbon concertation released when trees die.  The Climate Council of Australia says, “Forests are vital carbon sinks, which means they absorb the carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere and emit clean air. However, when they are cut down during deforestation, the carbon stored within each tree is released back into the air, increasing emissions at an alarming rate.”

In Australia, according to a 2020 research paper written by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, it is reported that an “assessment of the relative vulnerability of forest and forestry-dependent communities indicated that 17 of 73 communities assessed across the six forest regions exhibit high to very high vulnerability, even in the absence of climate change.”

The report also stated “projected increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide in all scenarios may offset modelled declines in tree growth. Increases in pests, diseases, weeds, and fire and drought risks in a changing climate may impact negatively on tree growth.”

It ultimately concluded, “there is a projected decrease in wood supply from Australian forests by 2050 as a result of climate change”.

Which means we need to seriously consider alternatives to timber in construction as a matter of urgency.

Sustainable attributes of Cold Rolled Steel

A good point to understand about light-gauge steel right off the bat, is that it is manufactured with a proportion of recycled material and, is infinitely recyclable. 

The Steel Framing Industry Association (SFIA) states “while many products, including wood, can only be downcycled into a lower-quality product, steel can be recycled over and over again and remade without any loss of quality. Between 60 million and 80 million tonnes of steel are recycled annually, making steel a permanent resource”. 

It can be argued that the use of cold-rolled steel (CFS/light-gauge), in construction has the lowest amount of carbon emissions and waste. This ultimately has a positive effect on neighbouring resources.

The benefits of steel framing over timber are great, not only does light-gauge steel have the highest strength to weight ratio of any material, it is a low maintenance resource, long-lasting, is easier to manufacture and construct, and can be recycled in perpetuity – meaning nothing goes to waste.

Damien Clark, sustainable freelance journalist at The Green List,  puts it best “Whether you front-load the carbon release by using steel, or back-load it by using timber, the true benefit comes from offsetting the lifetime carbon emissions of the building.”  Overall, the sustainable and practical benefits of using steel framing far outweigh those of traditional timber frames.

About Diamond Steel Frames

At Diamond Steel Frames, we use TRUECORE® steel, a light-gauge steel framing system that has been a leader in the construction market for decades.  Not only is TRUECORE® steel lightweight, fire-proof, mould-proof, and termite-proof, it also won’t bow or bend.

The Team at Diamond Steel Framing Systems can be contacted at diamondsteelframes.com.au