Selecting the right building material for your house can be the most important decision of your build, but for some, it can feel like one of the more tedious choices, riddled with budget, location and time constraints. To simplify the process, we investigate the pros and cons of each — so you can sit back, relax and ponder what building material is best for your home.
By Danielle Pope
There was once a nursery rhyme about three little pigs who were forced to choose building materials to protect them from a big bad wolf. With their earnest efforts in straw, sticks and bricks, the pigs hoped to preserve their safety and live peaceful lives. As the story goes, building material matters.
Fortunately, today’s market of building options will prevent any wolf — or Mother Nature — from huffing and puffing and blowing your house down. From traditional wood-frame structures, to steel and concrete, to new fabrications like foam and cross-laminated timber, materials are as varied as the homes they’re used to create.
More Than Sticks: Wood Houses
Wooden houses have been a staple of B.C. architecture for hundreds of years. According to builder Matt Doyle, there are a multitude of reasons to choose timber as the basis of a home.
“B.C.’s forestry industry is a big reason we see so many wood homes here — but there are a lot of benefits to working with wood products,” says Doyle, managing director and Chief Operating Officer of the BC Home Builders Corporation.
Wood is one of the most cost effective, easiest and versatile materials to work with, says Doyle. Construction only requires a moderate skill level, build time can be predictable and finances can focus on other areas — from insulation and interiors, to landscaping. It’s also a material with leniency for change, so walls or windows can be added and subtracted with ease.
Wood comes with some challenges, of course, including susceptibility to the elements — from fire and flood, to insects and wear. While treatments prolong durability, a wood-framed house will settle and require renovations over time.
“One of the first questions you have to address at the start of a project is what kind of environment you’re looking for inside the home,” says Doyle. “That will help you figure out what’s possible, and what’s not.”
If you’re aiming for large, open layouts, for example, long, supportive beams will be needed, which steel is commonly used for rather than wood. While new builds have the luxury of choice, renovations — especially with older houses — are often locked into using wood products. Addressing environmental concerns is even more complex.
“People worry that using wood has an impact on the forests,” says Doyle. “That’s true, but manufacturing steel and concrete can be water heavy, so you have to decide what’s right by you.”
Man of Steel: Steel Houses
Dennis Rogers has always been impressed with the tenacity of steel. The material is completely non-combustible, with light gauge steel handling up to 1,400 degrees Celsius. It’s also sturdy enough to survive natural disasters, from earthquakes to hurricanes.
Rogers, owner of InSteel Structures, says steel can boost the strength, straightness and durability of any building. The material can also now be created through 3-D prints and can be prefabricated off site by engineers, meaning installation is getting easier.
“Building with steel is going to be 30 to 40 per cent faster than building with wood, and you can create a structure 12 storeys high with confidence, as opposed to a five-storey wood building,” says Rogers. “In a world where urban sprawl is an issue, and we have to build up, steel is the way forward.”
Most steel is shipped to B.C., making it slightly more costly to work with. It’s also more challenging to insulate, meaning budgets must factor in support for managing heat and cold. However, the payoff of a material resistant to West Coast mould, rot and bugs could be worth it.
“If I was to build a house today, no doubt in my mind it would be with light gauge steel, which is the best for surviving earthquakes,” says Rogers. “That’s good future planning.”
A Concrete Concept: Concrete Houses
When it comes to premium building materials, concrete has become the luxury choice. With versatility in its use, a finish that stands on its own and a focus on sustainability, this material stacks up against the rest.
Its natural materials (cement, stone and sand) make it easy to source and build onsite, and concrete also strengthens as it ages. The raw look has become a design trend, and concrete can create net-zero-energy buildings with excellent insulation against heat and cold, as well as unparalleled soundproofing. This material is also resilient to most natural disasters, including fires, and stands up well to West Coast woes.
The cost of labour and expertise involved with laying the material makes this a serious investment, though. As well, plans for a home have to be certain, as changing the layout once created is difficult.
“We mostly see concrete in high-end homes, because that reflects the expense,” says Doyle. “If done properly, however, your upkeep is almost nothing, and it only gets stronger the longer it sits there. This is a material that’s going to last.”
Something Different: Foam and CLT Houses
Two newer materials on the market have given architects and designers another consideration. Foam foundations are hollow blocks assembled like Lego pieces, then filled with steel rods and concrete to create a structure. These “insulated concrete forms” come in a range of sizes to accommodate any project. The dimensions work for precision builds based on preconceived measurements and can be made almost entirely off site, with nominal construction time. The blocks are prepared so drywall can easily be installed on the interior, and siding can be affixed to the exterior.
“This is the ultimate choice when it comes to zero waste, because everything is prepared ahead of time,” says Todd Martin, principal of Knot in a Box Design. “These blocks are so easy to move; you can haul in an entire building on a few semitrucks — but they do take up a lot of space, and you need forethought going in.”
The blocks take up a few millimetres more than traditional foundations, but compensate with superior airtight efficiency — making this a top pick for noise cancellation, insulation and stability.
Cross-laminated timber (CLT), an ultra- strong engineered wood, is just entering the North American market and could change how all types of buildings are constructed. Given the material’s versatility, steadfastness and sustainability, supporters see its promise — especially for a wood market like B.C. Architect Greg Dowling constructed Canada’s first CLT structure in North America, when he built his home in West Vancouver.
When Dowling built his house, he special ordered pre-cut CLT from Austria. Now, with a number of manufacturers in North America, including one in the Okanagan, Dowling says the product won’t take long to become popular. CLT has also shown remarkable resistance to earthquakes, as the wood is strong but flexible.
“This material requires knowledge from the designer, but it’s the most practical option when it comes long-term benefits and sustainability,” says Dowling. “Building my home was an experiment, but it galvanized my belief that CLT will be the way of the future.” No matter what material feels right, Doyle suggests learning as much as you can about what’s important to you for your home. And while there will always be natural adversaries to watch for, support is around the bend.
“What fascinates me is not what we are using today, but realizing this is constantly changing,” Doyle says. “In five years, technology and materials will be different, as will be the way we look at things. That’s exciting.”
Continue Reading: The Design-Build Approach of Adam Fryatt of MDRN Built.