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Wood Buildings vs. Steel Buildings: The Definitive Guide

Have you made a choice on your building materials yet? At this stage of your planning process, you might not have an idea quite yet. But I’m impressed, because you’re actively taking an interest in finding what might be the best fit for your needs! Let’s start simple. Will you build a wood pole barn or a pre-engineered steel building? Wood and steel buildings are both widely used construction materials, but what’s the difference in the two, especially when it comes to your garage, workshop or personal space? How do the two materials stack up against each other?


steel buildingsWhether it’s your home office, new business, barn or even your house, you want your building to be durable and withstand the elements of your area. Pre-engineered steel buildings are designed to withstand snowfall, earthquakes and high winds. For example, if you live in the northern United States, your building will be designed to withstand a heavy snow load. A building in the southern U.S. might not need the same snow load, but might have a higher wind load rating on the building. Pre-engineered steel buildings are customized to your unique specifications. Wood buildings, like a pole barn, aren’t as strong as steel buildings. Wood can warp, rot, bend, and twist over the years. Do you want to take on the necessary future expenditures of replacing panels and boards every few years, or do you want to purchase a product that will last for decades? Do you want to have to replace parts because termites or other insects feasted on your building? Steel is impervious to termites and other little critters, and is constantly lauded as the strongest building material on the planet. Speaking of durability and standing up to the elements, did you know that steel is considered a noncombustible material? According to the International Building Code, “a noncombustible material will not ignite or burn when subjected to heat.” Steel is permitted in fire resistive (Type 1) and noncombustible (Type 2) levels on the relative fuel load scale. The other three categories are considered combustible and contain more wood and more combustibility as they are ranked further down the list. For example, a wood frame (Type 5) building will be the most combustible and will have the least resistance to fire. Of course, it’s a good idea to have proper fire safety equipment on hand, but should a fire break out, your pre-engineered steel building won’t encourage the spread of fire.


Pole barns are usually practical applications when the span is at 40 feet or less. If you decide to go past 40 feet, you’ll need an internal column or multiple poles in the middle of the building for support. Steel buildings are practical at almost any span and can extend to 300 feet without any internal column or intrusive bracing. Wood buildings usually utilize a truss system as well. Trusses can be beautiful and some are considered to be the height of artistic design, but these poles and truss systems take away valuable space inside wood buildings and limit their use. Furthermore, as a wood building grows in size during the design process, so does the building cost. More wood is necessary to shore up the building to make it possible for it to withstand those snow and wind loads. A steel building often utilizes a clear span design and boasts an “A” frame look. As far as engineering goes, steel building loads are transferred to the foundation from the roof to the walls and then to the foundation without any poles or truss systems. How is this accomplished? They are pre-engineered to your area! With all the space available, instead of some of the space, you can store aircraft, combines, livestock, hay, and anything else without any spacial difficulties.


steel buildingsOnce your building supplies arrive at your job site, the erection of wood and steel buildings are night and day. A pole barn arrives on site as raw lumber. It takes a construction specialist time to cut the lumber and fabricate the building on site. Yes, this often means it’s best to hire an experienced contractor to erect your wood pole barn, which is just an added cost to your overall project. Steel building components come to your job site ready to be erected. In fact, many people even choose to erect the building themselves. If you qualify for the Direct Buy process, you’ll receive easy to read construction drawings and a general erection manual to help you. Of course, you can always call your project manager (maybe me!) if you run into any difficulties.

Cost over lifespan

A wooden pole barn might cost less initially, but is the prospect of paying more money over a product’s lifetime sound like something you would like to do? In construction, cheaper doesn’t always mean better. You really get what you pay for, and when it comes to a building, it’s important to make an informed decision and think about how long you’ll actually use it. Comparing pole barns to metal buildings is honestly not comparing apples to apples. The primary material that a pole barn is constructed of – wood – is naturally inclined to decay. This means that over time, you will be spending valuable time and money on keeping your building standing.

If you’re thinking long term, and you should be, then you want your building to be an asset. Just having a structure on your property doesn’t mean your property value will increase. Only a permanent structure, generally with a foundation, will raise or maintain your property value. Permitting offices don’t usually consider wood pole barns to be permanent structures because they don’t require foundations. Now the asset you thought you had is just simply a liability.


steel buildingsSuperior strength also plays a huge role in the upkeep of your building. If your building can withstand your environment, it probably won’t need to be repaired often. Climate isn’t your only worry when it comes to upkeep. Building owners generally need to worry about a few everyday offenders. Mold can cause structural damage to a wood building if you let it run rampant. Mold and other insects feed on organic matter like wood, forcing the owner to deal with costly repairs if the infestation is left unchecked. Steel buildings aren’t comprised of any organic material and they won’t be affected by critters or mold – which translates to less work and minimal maintenance costs over time.

Moisture can also be a problem for both wood and steel buildings. Moisture left unchecked on a cheap steel building could cause rust, however, there are steps you can follow in the research process to protect your purchase. For example, buy a steel building from a manufacturer that offers pre-galvanized framing and refuses to use red oxide primer. There’s a reason many suppliers offer cheap red oxide primer on the framing of a building – its cheap, and the color red hides rust! It’s even harder to protect wood from moisture, and along with mold, rot could to be a problem if the wood gets wet and remains untreated.

While both building materials are widely used across the world, it’s up to you to make the right decision for property and your budget. What will you choose?

Photo courtesy: Blair Rideout