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Q&A Spotlight

Building With Steel Framing

Is there a place for this thermally conductive material in high-performance buildings?

Mixed blessing? For all of its many advantages, light-gauge steel framing is rarely mentioned in the same breath with energy-efficient building. One builder wonders whether thermal bridging is a problem that can be solved.
Image Credit: Charles Miller/Fine Homebuilding magazine

Sal Lombardo is planning a new home in the New York-New Jersey area (Climate Zone 5) and is looking at a long list of high-performance construction options: double-stud walls, structural insulated panels, insulating concrete forms, Larsen trusses, and walls built with light-gauge steel framing.

Wait a minute. Steel framing, as in the stuff that leaks heat through the building envelope like a proverbial sieve? Maybe, Lombardo says, it deserves another look.

“Steel seems like a really good option,” Lombardo writes in a Q&A post at GreenBuildingAdvisor. “Almost unheard of in my area, despite being upwards of 60% recycled, it lasts forever (relatively speaking), is super strong, straight, creates minimal waste, is not affected by termites, pests, or mold, and is equal or close to wood in cost (depending on who you ask).

“I know it has very high thermal conductivity. However, there are configurations that can abate this significantly,” he adds, such as a double layer of 2-in. polyiso foam on the exterior.

“Why isn’t it more popular?” Lombardo asks. “Am I missing something?”

Those questions are the topic for this month’s Q&A Spotlight.

You’ll get a good, but not great, wall

According to GBA senior editor Martin Holladay, the main problem with steel framing is thermal bridging. Because the effect is so pronounced, all of the wall insulation should go on the outside. Insulation placed in stud cavities won’t accomplish much.

“You’re right that it’s possible to install two layers of 2-inch polyiso, giving you R-26,” Holladay writes, “That’s OK, but it’s not great.”

If Lombardo could add even more insulation on the outside of the wall — 6 in. rather than the 4 in. he has proposed — he’ll end up with a “pretty decent wall,” Holladay says. “Just remember to keep all of your insulation on the exterior side of your wall framing.”

Holladay wrote that cavity insulation in steel framing is “basically worthless” — an assessment that he later admitted was a slight exaggeration — and pointed to comments by Joseph Lstiburek of Building Science Corporation: “Put an R-19 batt in a steel stud wall and you are lucky to get R-5 to R-6 in the real world. That’s equal thermal resistance wise to about 1 inch of rigid insulation installed on the outside of the steel studs.” (For more information from Lstiburek, see “A Bridge Too Far.”)

Holladay also pointed to GBA’s own Encyclopedia, which cites a California Energy Commission claim that a steel stud conducts 10 times as much heat as dimensional lumber. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory has found that thermal bridging in a wood-framed wall lowers the effectiveness of cavity insulation by 10%, but performance drops a whopping 55% in a wall framed with steel.

Aren’t we overstating the problem?

Lombardo isn’t alone in wondering why steel framing doesn’t get more serious attention.

“I am also curious as to why steel hasn’t caught up a little more attention in residential framing in Canada and the USA,” writes Jin Kazama. “I tend to like concrete because of its long-term life. Steel and aluminum are also materials I favor because of the same factor.”

Steel framing is very inexpensive when considered from a weight/strength standpoint, he adds. Kazama points in particular to the buildings designed by Blue Sky Building Systems as an intriguing use of steel framing.

Referring to research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, James Morgan writes that the effect of using steel framing is more complicated than the California Energy Commission would suggest. “I could find no suggestion that the tests support omitting cavity insulation,” he says, “and the tests show a pretty good R-20 wall with just 2 in. of continuous outside insulation. If you’re headed for R-30 and beyond, though, I can see why piling foam board insulation on the outside of the wall would ultimately lead to a strategy of leaving the cavity empty — why bother with filling a perfectly good service cavity with fiber to get a measly R-9 or so when you can get the same results by adding another inch or so of polyiso on the outside? But this strategy would apply to a wood-framed wall equally well, once you transition from seeing external insulation as thermal bridge and condensation protection to seeing it as the complete insulation package.”

Morgan says that an Oak Ridge National Lab research paper mentions advanced technologies using steel studs that “suggest the potential for a thermally efficient structural alternative to wood framing.”

Insulating a steel wall has its challenges

If a steel-framed wall is to have cavity insulation, there is still the question of what kind and how it should be installed. Dense-packed cellulose is often placed behind a “scrim,” Morgan says, that’s simple to attach to wood framing but not so easy with steel studs.

And if Lombardo is considering the use of fiberglass batts, he’ll find problems there as well. “Fiberglass batts are not the best choice,” he writes. “If you do go in that direction, a standard 14.5-in. batt designed for wood studs will not fit correctly. The batt has to be the full width of the stud bay and must fit into the web of the steel stud which is not so easy to achieve consistently.”

Lombardo has read about a technique for wrapping steel framing in “Stud Snuggler” foam to reduce thermal bridging, which might be adapted to a DIY-friendly approach. And Johns Manville’s Spider Custom Insulation, which is blown-in fiberglass, also has possibilities.

Moreover, says Dorsett, batts in widths that do fit steel framing area available in both fiberglass and rock wool.

But in the end, he says, there’s still the problem of thermal bridging. “There really isn’t a good way around the high thermal conductivity of steel though, even at 24-in. o.c. framing the whole-wall R values will always come in at about half the center-cavity R, whereas with wood studs and R3.2-R4/inch cavity fill the whole wall values come in at something on the order of 75% of the center-cavity value even at 16-in. o.c. spacing,” Dorsett says.

In case of fire, you’re on your own

In addition to thermal bridging, there’s another problem with steel framing, says Jon Leeth, and that’s what happens in the case of a serious structure fire. “The primary reason I opted not to frame my house with steel was by advice from my insulator (cellulose) who is also a fireman,” Leeth says. “His firefighting perspective was that a burning structure will give fairly reliable clues to structural stability when framed with wood. Metal structures get to that magical temperature where the metal turns very quickly from solid to liquid.

“He said as soon as they determine a structure is steel-framed, all firefighting efforts are immediately limited to the exterior of the building. Absolute evacuation and no re-entry aside from human rescue effort. They would not fight the fire on the inside if the building was believed to be evacuated.”

Those concerns are echoed by Malcolm Taylor, president of his local fire department. “Houses framed with steel studs still contain all the other combustible structural components and contents that fuel fires,” Taylor writes. “The unpredictable collapse of light steel stud walls is a well known phenomenon. Whether that’s enough of a worry to influence your choice of materials when building a home is another question.”

Our expert’s opinion

Here’s how GBA technical director Peter Yost looks at the question:

When I was at the NAHB Research Center not long after Hurricane Andrew, we had a big light-gauge steel-framing project down in Homestead, Florida. They had a very experienced steel framer as the lead contractor and I was amazed at how fast they were at fastening with tapped screws — not nails — and wielding their screw guns as well or better than I swung a hammer. And their cut list accuracy meant very little framing waste, with what they generated very easy to recycle.

So those who think you can’t make steel framing efficient economically I say this: There is a learning curve with any job site change, and switching to steel is simply one of them.

Another real advantage of light-gauge steel framing is the ability to gauge to the load; it is a much better use of materials to be able to move from 12 to 25 gauge as the load/application allows. And as a formed material, every framing member is true, every time.

But from a hygrothermal standpoint, I can only add — to the excellent points already made regarding energy performance — these two:

  • Condensation. Even small thermal bridging sets up for significant risk of interstitial condensation, exacerbated by the next point.
  • Buffering capacity. This is the amount of water that a material or assembly can “hold” or tolerate without deterioration (for more, see this research paper). Joe Lstiburek is famous for many things, but his “Joe math” attracts a lot of us builder types. Here is one of my favorites: For a 2,000-sq.-ft. home framed with steel, the hygric buffer capacity is about 5 gallons of water; wood-framed, it’s about 50 gallons; and for masonry walls it’s approximately 5,000 gallons.

So, when condensation happens in a steel-framed assembly, it’s the really low hygric buffer capacity that ramps up the significance of that condensation. The wall may have very little tolerance for that moisture.

My conclusion: if you are considering light-gauge steel framing, use the BSC “perfect wall” approach. Keep all of your R-value to the exterior, and let that steel be part of the interior conditions (or nearly so) of the building. And the more severe the climate, the more stringent my recommendation is.


  1. Jin Kazama | | #1

    in reponse to the lead question here ..
    """Is there a place for this thermally conductive material in high-performance buildings? """

    i'd put the emphasis on the word " IN " in " INside "
    Although i am a complete n00b at all this game, i was questionning in wall insulation in any building type even before beginning to understand the whys ...this type of info only contributes to adding more to it.

    We need to move insulation to the exterior and stop worrying about all the condensation and thermal bridging problems.

    Blueskybuildings offer some embedded fastening strips in their exterior insulation, this type of product is what needs to be designed more and use for thick exterior insulation shells.
    Probably many other manufacturer of rigid insulation also provide similar products, and we should favor those.

    The only problem i see with steel framing is how to get a perfect seal.
    Maybe using some fiberglass faced polyisoboards or something similar, screwed to the exterior of the building and then wraped completely with peel&stick similarly to Remote/Persist ,
    Could be done with SIS product from DOW also??

    Then, why not add something like 1" of insulation to the interior of the wall, in between metal studs ?
    a wall calculated dew point/vapor membrane is possible as pointed out by Martin a few times,
    and i don't see why covering ~90% of the free space inside the walls, leaving the metal frame incovered couldn't help with efficiency.

    Then again, if we look at the Blueskybulding system, a different approach is necessary for air sealing and insulation placement/fastening.

    Metal framing has been used in commercial/industrial buildings for decades,
    why couldn't it be used successfully in green residential buildings ?

    As for the fire resistance, i'd like to see a light gauge residential building ( not a 6 story multi building please ) after a regular fire ... i still believe that some are referring to beam type steel construction in large buildings with very high fire temperatures fueled by uncommon in residential combustibles. I do understand the weakness of steel tensile VS temperature,
    but the steel has to reach this temperature before it plasticizes, and fire needs fuel.

    I don't believe a wood framed house where a 5gallon of car fuel was light would give more chance to inhabitants than steel framed one... regular residential fire usually start slowly in a specific location, and need combustible material to spread before temperature gets high and melt everything down. Likely by then, everybody is out already. ( hopefully! )

  2. Brian / | | #2

    Commonsense question
    What amount of insulation would be needed on the exterior and interior to get the thermal conductivity to that of a wood stud without?

    It would seem like you would just add an R-5 to the exterior and an R-5 to the interior and then your cavity insulation would become significant.

    If you are going to use a double stud system then it would have all the advantage at that point unless I am missing something.

  3. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Brian
    Of course each layer of rigid foam improves the thermal performance of a steel-framed wall. If you want to build a steel-framed wall with rigid foam on the exterior, and rigid foam on the interior, you are of course free to do so.

    Most builders would conclude, however, that such a wall is fussy and expensive to build, and not worth the trouble compared to other easier (and more affordable) options.

  4. Brian / | | #4

    in response
    I understand the productivity of certain building systems but if we are just interested in the easiest or most productive way we would not have green building advisor.

    I am wondering at what point would the conductivity of steel become irrelevant compared to wood? When we establish that then we can dial in the details based on the climate zone and so on.

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Response to Brian
    Q. "At what point would the conductivity of steel become irrelevant compared to wood?"

    A. As the article on this page explains: when all of the insulation is installed on the exterior side of the steel framing.

  6. Jin Kazama | | #6

    Brian : i would add that in
    Brian : i would add that in between studs, once can add insulation depending on the stud depths..
    might be labor intensive, but it might same 1-2" of exterior insulation if high R is required.

    It would be very wise to leave the studs all uncovred, and to make sure that the cavity is not filled
    so that warm air from the interior can always work around and the structural parts are at near interior temps, this would prevent condensation on frame parts, but still permit some higher R.

    I do not believe that using light gauge with something akind fo SIS panels as sheathing and exterior insulation would have a large impact on labor cost vs regular wood framing..not with an ligh gauge steel framing experienced team.

    And to produce as straight and true walls as with metal framing, a wood framing team would need to invest alot more time and discard many bad wood material, probably even surpassing labor cost of the light gauge team.

  7. Rob Fisher | | #7

    Of course steel studs can work
    As the article indicates, if you build a "perfect wall" as described by BSC, then building with steel studs is no different than wood studs. The details of the "perfect wall" are key though. As a society we have built many commercial buildings with steel studs, there is no reason we should not be able to do it with residential buildings. Whether we have the designers and builders skilled enough to do it is another question.

    Steel has properties that are both beneficial and detrimental when building. The weight to strength ratio is great. Its straight, and available in very long lengths. Fire is an issue though. Given that steel can lose significant strength at 1000 degrees (less than half of its melting point), and a house fire can reach that temperature in a few minutes, structural failure is a serious concern. Even though I am personally not a fan of sprinklers in wood stud buildings, fire sprinklers should probably be mandatory in a steel stud house given the potential for structural failure in such a short time.

  8. Mike Keesee | | #8

    Steel Framing
    I'd like to echo Mr. Fisher's comments and add this. If I'm not mistaken, most, if not all, new Japanese production homes use steel framing. However, the Japanese are very smart about how they use steel. They take advantage of steel's strength and don't do stick for stick replacement like our framers do (they really like open floor plans which were based on traditional design which use these massive cedar beams. Of course they don't have any more massive cedars, but they are the most impressive wood framed buildings I've ever seen). Second, they don't like fires either so they fireproof the steel, just like we do in commercial. Third, they put the insulation on the outside of the wall. And, by the way, they've been building zero energy homes since the early 2000s.... thousands of them with steel framing. But they build their produciton homes in factories and use only their own employess (sorry, no subs. When I spoke to Japanese PV folks about how we build homes they looked at be dumbfounded and asked "you let other companies' workers build your house?!). So, I think steel could be used and has a place in new home production. The real issue is that produciton home building is stuck in its won't change, obselete mind set of building homes the way they build homes. And I don't have an answer to that. The bottom line is that the Japanese wouldn't tolerate the way we build a house, but for some reason we do. Cost is a relative concept.....

  9. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Response to Mike Keesee
    It's ironic that you posted this comment ("The bottom line is that the Japanese wouldn't tolerate the way we build a house, but for some reason we do") on the same day that Eric Matsuzawa posted a question on our Q&A forum that describes an unbelievably sub-standard wall system used in Japan: Energy inefficient Japanese walls.

  10. Mike Keesee | | #10

    Steel Framing
    Hi Martin,

    I can't comment on all Japanese builders, just the ones I'm familar with- the large produciton builders like Misawa, Panasonic or Sekisui. But th eposting looks like a site built, custom, site built wood frame wall to me, not the modular models I've seen. I imagine that there's low end builders in Japan, too.

  11. Geo Graf | | #11

    steel studs
    I have used 1 1/2" and 7/8" hats running horz. The 1 1/2 on the out side and the 7/8 on the inside. This cuts down on the heat transfer. I though of using a thin rubber spacer between the hat and the stud but have not tried this yet. I used the spray foam in the walls. It goes behind the studs and gives good coverage.

    I lived in this house for 3 years and had no problems with this system.

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