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Building Resilience: Why Cold-Formed Steel Framing Tops Lumber in Fire Safety

Submitted by Jenny Hull on

Resilient building design has become a paramount consideration in modern construction. As the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, including fires, continue to rise, it is crucial to employ materials that can withstand these challenges. However, rising construction costs have contributed to a growing shift toward the use of lumber in low- and mid-rise structures, which puts them at a greater risk of catastrophic damage and loss. Let’s explore some of the advantages cold-formed steel—known for its exceptional strength, durability, and fire resistance—has over lumber in enhancing overall building resilience and reducing insurance costs.

The Growing Prevalence of Lumber Construction
In recent years, there has been a concerning trend in the construction industry: the increasing use of lumber in commercial and multifamily structures. However, it comes with a significant trade-off in terms of fire safety.

According to data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fires in buildings under construction, renovation, or demolition accounted for an estimated annual average of 4,300 incidents from 2016 to 2020. Lumber-framed structures, especially those in the early stages of construction, are highly susceptible to rapid fire spread. This not only endangers the lives of construction workers but also poses a substantial financial risk. Fires can also have lasting negative impacts on the environment, including air contamination, contamination from water runoff, and other environmental discharges from burned materials.

The Economic Cost of Fires in the United States
The economic repercussions of fires in the United States are staggering. Each year, fires cost the nation billions of dollars in damages, firefighting efforts, and insurance claims. The U.S. Fire Administration reported that in 2021 alone, direct property loss due to residential building fires amounted to approximately $8.9 billion. Moreover, the indirect costs—including medical expenses, lost productivity, and insurance premiums—further compound this financial burden.

The use of lumber in construction, particularly in taller buildings, contributes to these costs by increasing the likelihood of fires and exacerbating their destructive potential. As a result, the construction industry is faced with a pressing need to adopt materials that not only enhance safety but also reduce the economic impact of fires.

Cold-Formed Steel: A Resilient Solution for Fire Safety
Cold-formed steel framing offers a compelling solution to the fire safety challenges posed by lumber construction. Its unique properties make it an ideal choice for resilient building design, with fire resistance standing out as a key advantage.

Cold-formed steel is inherently non-combustible, meaning it does not contribute to the spread of fire. When exposed to high temperatures, steel retains its structural integrity, providing valuable time for occupants to evacuate and firefighters to control the fire.

Because of its fire-resistant properties, builders and property owners can benefit significantly from lower insurance premiums when they opt for cold-formed steel framing. Insurance companies recognize the reduced risk associated with steel structures and offer more favorable rates as a result. The exact insurance savings can vary widely based on factors such as location, building type, coverage limits, and insurer policies, but according to the Steel Framing Industry Association (SFIA), builders could save 25 to 75 percent on risk insurance by building with steel. This substantial cost saving not only makes steel-framed buildings more financially attractive but also underscores the lower-risk profile associated with steel construction.

Building Codes Governing Lumber Use in High-Rise Buildings
It's essential to highlight the relevant building codes and regulations that govern the use of lumber in high-rise buildings. In the United States, the International Building Code (IBC) provides guidelines for construction practices, including structural requirements and fire safety measures. While IBC allows for the use of wood in many building types, there are restrictions and limitations, especially in taller structures.

For instance, in Type I and Type II construction, which pertain to high-rise and multi-story buildings, the IBC places strict limitations on the use of combustible materials, such as wood. These regulations are designed to enhance fire safety and reduce the risk of catastrophic fires in densely populated areas. For these types of buildings, building code recognizes cold-formed steel as an approved, non-combustible material.

In a world increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters and fires, resilient building design is not merely a desirable choice—it's a necessity. The economic cost of fires in the United States serves as a stark reminder of the need to prioritize fire safety in construction. Cold-formed steel framing emerges as a superior alternative to lumber, offering exceptional fire resistance, reduced insurance costs, and compliance with stringent building codes. By choosing cold-formed steel over wood, builders and property owners can contribute to safer, more resilient communities while mitigating the financial and environmental risks associated with fires.

In an era defined by uncertainty, cold-formed steel stands as a beacon of strength and security in the construction industry.