Concrete vs. Wood: Which to Choose?

Concrete vs. Wood: Which to Choose?

Handyman's World is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

Two common building materials used in modern construction projects are wood and concrete. Both come in various sizes and forms for different applications.

One or the other may be better suited to the job you have in mind, so reading through this article will help you make a more informed decision as to which to choose.

Concrete and Wood: The Basics

Before we compare the similarities and differences of wood and concrete, we should start by defining what each is.

What Is Concrete?

Concrete is a building material that consists of a mixture of broken stone or gravel, sand, cement, and water. In construction, it is poured as a slab or into forms and molds.

Concrete has been used in construction for millennia. No one truly can know when it was first used to build with, but it’s generally agreed that the Roman Empire was the first to use concrete in the same way we do today.

Concrete can be poured on-site or supplied in prefabricated blocks.

What Are Solid and Engineered Wood?

Solid wood is a natural building material made from trees. Felled trees are processed in sawmills that cut the logs to useful dimensions for building with.

For construction purposes solid wood is usually supplied in standard sizes often referred to as dimensional lumber. There are different grades of wood that are defined by their strength and quality. Dimensional lumber is usually supplied pre-dried to ensure a low moisture content.

Engineered wood includes a range of different products including plywood, MDF (medium-density fibreboard), and OSB (oriented strand board).

Typically it is made from the same types of wood as solid building lumber. The off-cuts and scrap pieces from processing logs are combined with glues and plastics to form composite wood products. Glulam (glued laminated timber) and CLT (cross-laminated timber) are also extensively used in construction.

Similarities of Concrete and Wood

On the face of it, wood and concrete are fundamentally different. But let’s take a look at the similarities that wood and concrete do share.

1. Composite Materials

A composite material is defined as a material that is produced from two or more constituent materials.

Engineered wood products and concrete are both composite materials. Engineered wood is a composite of wood fibers or pieces and adhesives. Concrete is a composite of cement, sand, stone, and water.

2. Design Freedom

Both wood and concrete can be used to create interesting design features. With engineered wood products like glulam, wood can be formed to take any curve or shape the designer can imagine in much the same way formed concrete can.

3. Cracking Due To Shrinkage

Wood and concrete both contain a small amount of water, even in their fully ‘dry’ state. Wood with a high moisture content with crack or “check” when drying as it shrinks. When pouring concrete slabs, care must be taken to avoid cracking due to rapid drying or the absence of control joints.

4. Strength in Compression

Both materials share similar properties of strength in compression. Compressive strength refers to the ability of a material to withstand loads that reduce the size of that material when applied. This makes wood and concrete both suitable material with which to construct vertical posts or beams.

Differences Between Concrete and Wood

Wood and concrete are clearly very different, so let’s look at the main differences.

1. Tensile Strength

Tensile strength is the ability of a material to resist forces tearing it apart.

Without steel or fiber reinforcement, concrete is tensily weak compared to wood. Wood, by nature of its fibrous structure, can resist much higher tensile loads. This strength is enhanced in certain engineered wood products making it a material suitable for the construction of beams.

2. Resistance to Fire

Wood truly is a wonder material. It quite literally grows on trees, we build our homes, we heat our homes, and cook our food using wood. Risk of damage due to fire is a big issue in wooden structures. This can be, and has been a major problem throughout history if steps aren’t taken to avoid it.

On the other hand, concrete can not burn, it can’t be set on fire, and doesn’t emit any toxic fumes when exposed to fire. Concrete also has a low thermal conductivity. This means that if a fire occurs within a concrete structure, the heat is contained within, reducing the risk of fire spreading to adjacent buildings or structures.

3. Durability

Concrete is extremely durable. It can resist weather and time better than almost any other construction material. Proof is in the world’s oldest structures, constructed thousands of years ago and still standing to this day.

Wood is a natural material and as such is susceptible to natural processes.Rot and decay due to bacteria or fungal infestation can dramatically reduce the life of a wooden building. Measures can be taken to maximize the useful life of wooden structures and some wooden buildings can stand for many centuries.

4. Sustainability

Wood is a natural product that requires minimal steps before it can be used in construction. It can be argued that the environmental impact of construction using wood is less than that of using man made materials such as concrete.

I think everyone can agree that the demolition and recycling of a wooden building is far easier and environmentally friendly than a similar sized structure made of concrete.

Concrete vs. Wood: Which of the Two Should You Use?

So between wood and concrete, which is the best material to build with? Well it all depends on what you want that material to do in each part of your construction project. Wood is performs better or is more economical than concrete in some applications and vice versa.

Consider building a house for example:

1. Foundation

You want your foundation to be capable of carrying the whole structure above it, be resilient to the effects of weathering and rot, and insulate the structure and minimize the loss of heat. The clear choice here is concrete, it meets all requirements.

2. House Frame

The structure of your house needs to be able to resist forces in both tension and compression. In this case maybe you want to build with environmental impact in mind. The processing of the logs that make the boards to build the walls with, makes waste material. But this scrap wood can be processed and made into OSB for wall sheathing and subfloor.

Of course you may decide that you want the durability of concrete or the ability to manufacture concrete walls off site and simply drop them into position. A concrete block wall has a higher fire safety rating than that of a timber framed wall, these are all things to consider when considering what material to use where.

Summary

So in summary, both wood and concrete are effective building materials that each have their advantages and differences. The use of the structure and what part each material will play in its construction will dictate whether it should be wood or concrete.

Sometimes aesthetics may be very important and with today’s modern concrete and engineered wood products, anything is possible.

How Does Concrete Compare with Other Materials?

Below, you can find articles that compare concrete with: