Construction Cost Comparison: Cold-Formed Steel Vs. Concrete Vs. Wood

Cold-Formed Steel ConstructionNew NRMCA study explores the advantages of building commercial structures with ICF and cold-formed steel

In a recent cost comparison study, the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) explored whether cold-formed steel, concrete, or wood was the best building material for a new Fairfield Inn & Suites in St. Louis, Missouri. Generally speaking, cold-formed steel helps lower construction costs for several reasons. Among them, it shortens project cycles, enables construction to continue during winter months, and results in lower insurance rates. And compared to wood, cold-formed steel has less limitations on height, produces less waste, and results in a higher quality product. These advantages hold true concerning the Fairfield Inn, but the cost savings are not immediately clear when looking at the overall costs.

Construction cost and operating income comparison

At first glance, it might seem as if wood is the most cost-effective option.

Wood Frame Construction CostICF – Hollow Core Construction CostICF – iSPAN Construction Cost
$8,958,325$ 9,374,129$9,293,594


The NRMCA study compared wood frame construction, ICF combined with Hollow Core panels, and ICF combined with iSPAN Systems’ cold-formed steel framing. It’s clear that wood framing has the lowest upfront cost. This is due primarily to the fact that wood is a natural resource that’s typically available in abundance – it doesn’t need to be poured, mixed, or created. However, a closer look at operating income paints a different picture.

Whether ICF is combined with Hollow Core panels or iSPAN’s cold-formed steel systems, it results in higher operating income than wood. The savings are significant:

Estimated Energy Savings – 10%
Property Insurance Savings – 37%
Increased Occupancy – 5%

Concrete’s thermal mass improves energy efficiency and helps maintain internal temperatures without excessive heating and cooling. This results in lower energy costs. Property insurance rates are generally lower for concrete buildings. And, a concrete hotel will have lower vacancy rates due to increased thermal comfort and reduced noise.

So, even though wood may appear to be the best option before construction, concrete, combined with either Hollow Core or iSPAN’s cold-formed steel framing systems, makes more financial sense during construction and once construction is completed.

Wood frame construction vs. ICF wall construction

Additionally, the NRMCA study showed that ICF wall construction requires a less complex process than wood frame construction, resulting in further cost savings.

Wood Frame Construction

  1. Install stud wall
  2. Brace wall
  3. Install fire stops
  4. Install sheathing
  5. Install electrical (no plumbing in exterior)
  6. Install insulation
  7. Install continuous insulation
  8. Install house wrap
  9. Install exterior finish
  10. Install gypsum wallboard

ICF Wall Construction

  1. Install forms
  2. Install reinforcement
  3. Brace walls
  4. Pour concrete
  5. Install electrical and plumbing
  6. Install interior and exterior finish

Unlike wood frame construction, ICF wall construction doesn’t require fire stops, sheathing, house wrap, gypsum wallboard, or separate steps for insulation and continuous insulation. Because there are fewer steps, ICF wall construction uses fewer materials and requires fewer special trades.

Additionally, when ICF is combined with one of iSPAN’s cold-formed steel framing systems, the components can be assembled off-site with minimal labour, further reducing the need for special trades and special building materials.

Cold-Formed Steel Construction

Flooring and roofing system differences

After assessing operating income and the construction process, ICF has some clear advantages over wood. But one question still remains – Hollow Core Panels or iSPAN’s cold-formed steel framing systems? To draw conclusions, the study factored in the differences between each flooring and roofing system.

iSPAN’s floor and roof systems are quick and easy to install, and they’re designed to work with a variety of building materials, including ICF. Composite TotalJoist utilizes the Total-Lewis-Deck under a concrete slab to create a stable floor. The Total-Lewis-Deck forms a strong, permanent bond with the concrete and acts as a reinforcement for the slab. Among its many benefits, Composite TotalJoist offers higher acoustic and fire ratings than wood flooring systems. Plus, fast, simple installation means the hotel could be finished ahead of schedule and see a quicker return on its investment.

ICF floor and roof systems are more labour-intensive. ICF walls are installed one story at a time. Then, precast Hollow Core Planks are placed on top of the walls. Sometimes, a concrete topping or a thin leveling layer is required to even out the plank and accommodate the chosen finishes. And in many cases, special details need to be worked out to ensure the Hollow Core Planks’ compatibility with ICF construction. This could mean more materials, more labour, and a longer construction schedule.

Case studies

The NRMCA study also provided case studies of several other hotels that had used ICF instead of wood construction. For example, the Candlewood Suites in Omaha, Nebraska used ICF because it reduced the total construction schedule, improved energy efficiency, and provided superior noise abatement. The 82-suite hotel was able to save money on construction and continue saving once it was open for business.

Similarly, ICF enabled the Holiday Inn Express in Louisville, Kentucky to shave nearly 6 months off its construction schedule, reaching completion in just 10 months.


Overall, wood frame construction has the lowest upfront cost, because it’s readily available. However, it requires several special trades and longer construction timeframes. ICF combined with Hollow Core can save money and reduce the schedule, but Hollow Core also requires additional materials for its flooring. ICF with cold-formed steel framing can save the most time, with easy-to-install systems that require fewer materials and special trades. ICF and cold-formed steel could provide a visually appealing, durable Fairfield Inn & Suites with the shortest project schedule.

To find out more about iSPAN Systems’ cold-formed steel framing, contact us today.

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