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Building Methods Compared: Cold-formed Steel Vs. Precast Construction

If you’re a builder or architect, you’ve likely already had a discussion or two with colleagues over which is better: cold-formed steel or precast construction.

Cold-formed steel (CFS) is manufactured by rolling and stamping steel, and is often used in the construction industry for wall, flooring and ceiling supports, such as beams, joists and decking. Here at iSPAN, CFS is used for our TotalJoist and Composite TotalJoist products.  

Precast concrete is also made in specialized facilities. Panel templates are laid out, poured with concrete and set. Precast concrete can be used for ceiling supports and walls.

Cold-formed steel and precast concrete have much in common when it comes to construction applications, and each has its supporters. Let’s take a look at how the pros and cons are broken down to see if there’s one that’s superior to the other.

Pros of precast construction

  • Reliable – Concrete is poured offsite, and isn’t subject to the outside elements until transportation to the jobsite occurs. It’s not dependent on weather. And errors are confined to manufacturing centres, not job sites.
  • Appealing – Precast concrete is not just a structural element with a strong purpose; concrete can look nice, allowing stone to be embedded in the cement, and colours applied.
  • Durable – Concrete can’t burn, easily blow over, lose strength due to water, encourage insect and mould growth, or be negatively affected by fluctuating temperatures.
  • Versatile – Precast concrete has the strength to be used as walls and ceilings at varying building heights.
  • Sound Absorbing – Noise is always a major concern among occupants, and precast concrete helps to mitigate this interference.

Cons of precast concrete

  • Size Constraints – Precast concrete can’t be used in large rooms without additional column supports.
  • Material Handling Complications – There are additional costs for cranes to lift the heavy and awkward panels into place. Damage and safety are issues when dealing with complicated procedures.
  • Cost – Although some construction costs are reduced, transporting the panels from the manufacturing site to the jobsite can be cost prohibitive.
  • Wasted Space To accommodate mechanical, electrical and plumbing components, you will need to either install costly drop ceilings or add in unsightly bulkheads.

Cold Formed Steel vs Precast - iSPAN Systems

Pros of cold-formed steel

  • Acoustics – Those who work, live and play in a structure built using cold-formed steel will immediately understand that the acoustics are astounding – 60% better than precast concrete and 34% better than wood. 
  • Strength-to-Weight Ratio – Architects and designers will find that they have much more flexibility with cold-formed steel since it can span larger rooms and bear a greater load, even though cold-formed steel is far lighter than concrete. It works well in single-storey structures, such as commercial plazas, and excels in mid-rise buildings such as hotels, dorms and retirement homes.
  • Off-Site Fabrication – Cold-formed steel fabrication happens offsite in enclosed spaces, ensuring fabrication timelines are met.
  • Ease of Use – The light weight of cold-formed steel ensures that construction crews have an easier time handling and installing the much-lighter beams and joists, reducing fatigue/pain. Pre-cut access holes can also be easily created to allow trades (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) to run services efficiently and with ease.
  • Resilience – Cold-formed steel will not deteriorate due to many issues (warping, rotting wood, termites, etc.) found when dealing with common construction materials. Owners will also appreciate that cold-formed steel is fireproof, and is often made with recycled content.
  • Cost –  Initial construction cost can be more effective with precast, yet when we consider the total cost of building ownership of 25 years (maintenance, heating, cooling etc.) cold-formed steel often wins.

Cons of cold-formed steel

  • Building Height – This is currently limited to 12 storeys, though technology is rapidly advancing to reach even higher. 
  • Pre-Fabrication – This has many benefits, (see above!) but since each piece is custom made for your project, it may take more time than what you’re used to. We can help to walk you through a timeline to ensure surprises are avoided.
  • Firestopping – When you plan for firestopping with CFS ahead of time, this is not a problem, but it can be difficult when it’s not. We will gladly guide you through this planning process.
  • Manufacturing time – CFS is custom made for your project, and requires time to produce.

Cold-formed steel vs. precast construction. Who won?

It’s a tight race!

Precast construction is reliable, appealing and long-lasting. It also has the added benefit of noise reduction, which is important in multi-unit buildings like college dorms, hotels and long-term care residences.

Cold-formed steel has many benefits: it’s lightweight, which makes it far easier to handle; requires fewer tradespeople; its joist holes cut the time needed for follow-up trades; it’s reliable and long-lasting; and its insulation values are 60% higher than precast concrete construction.

Since cold-formed steel reduces transportation/delivery costs and ensures a safer onsite construction environment, they’re the winner in today’s construction material showdown.

If you’re interested in learning more about cold-formed steel and how it can be used to exceed your expectations on your next construction project, contact iSPAN and ask about our TotalFraming solution right now. We pride ourselves on providing superior cold-formed steel building systems, committed project support and on-site guidance.


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