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From Wood to Metal – A Guide to Building Materials

In the distant past, the choice of what building material to use for a structure was usually based on what was most readily available. Local materials all had certain properties that made them less or more suited for particular uses. Bringing materials from far away was usually impractical. Nowadays, modern builders have access to dozens of different types of building materials, each one offering countless variations. This makes the choice of what material to use more complex, but potentially more rewarding, than ever before. Being informed about your options is a must!


Wood has been one of the most common building materials for thousands of years. There are many different kinds of wood, appropriate for structural construction, roofing, furniture, and far more. Certain types of wood can be more inexpensive, easier to put together, and even more fire resistant than options like concrete or steel. Wood is also desirable because, unlike metals, it is a renewable resource that can be used very responsibly. Wood is, however, subject to deterioration due to wet or windy weather conditions. It also attracts parasites that can weaken structures.

Metal & Steel

While there are many different types of metals that can be used for construction, the single most popular in the industrialized world is steel. Steel is an iron alloy that includes small amounts of various other metals. Steel has a very high strength-to-weight ratio, which makes it preferable for high-rise buildings, bridges, and many other large structures. It is also highly predictable for architects, engineers, and workers, and can support top-quality construction. However, steel is generally more expensive than other materials, and may corrode with air or water exposure.


Consisting of a mixture of cement and aggregates, concrete is the single most widely-used material for new construction. Concrete is highly durable and may last for about a century under a reasonable maintenance regimen. Because of concrete’s thermal properties, it can reduce a completed building’s energy costs by about 20%. It is also very safe and strong, with low susceptibility to fire and minimal maintenance needs. However, it is susceptible to cracking and has a low strength-to-weight ratio. Many “hardened” structures, such as bunkers, use concrete.


Although it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of construction, 50% of the world still lives in shelters made from earth. Modern forms of earthen construction are very popular for low-energy, “sustainable” structures. By using earth construction correctly, it becomes possible to develop simple, effective structures with natural heating and cooling properties. Earth can also be one of the most inexpensive methods of construction, which makes it ideal for experimental projects and for resolving housing challenges in areas with reduced infrastructure. However, earth construction is not appropriate for all areas. It can be vulnerable to various kinds of weather events and disasters, including hurricanes and earthquakes.


There are many other options when it comes to choosing an appropriate construction material. For example, “green” building projects often incorporate sand and other natural materials that are not frequently used in conventional construction. Recycled materials can also be used for structural purposes to reduce the overall cost of building and ownership. Likewise, some conventional materials can be used in innovative ways. Many people do not realize, for example, that glass can be employed as a structural agent in a way quite similar to concrete or steel. Even plastic, one of the most highly abundant byproducts of modern industrial society, has many different construction uses. When it comes to creative construction, a variety of options might be appropriate for any given project. There are always costs and benefits to consider!

By Alan Bernau Jr

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