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Controlling Metal Roof Installation Costs

Labor, material waste, bad staging and inefficient ordering drive up costs

Mcn Special Feature Sept17 1
While it has many positive attributes such as durability, recyclability, appearance and damage resistance, metal roofing’s number one perceived demerit is its cost. And, with construction costs increasing—according to HIS Markit and the Procurement Executives Group, construction costs rose for the seventh consecutive month in 2017—more emphasis is being placed on metal roof installation and what can be done to lower its cost.

Can anything be done? Dale Nelson, president of Roof Hugger LLC, Lutz, Fla., contends that, “Absolutely you can control the cost of a metal roofing project. Metal is simply another material in a contractors’ basket of available products. It just happens to have a somewhat higher initial cost, but it also has a substantially lower lifetime cost.” While metal roofing installation entails many costs, the largest variable cost is usually labor. “[This] impacts rental costs, schedule and many other factors affecting the bottom line,” says Chad McLeish, vice president of estimating, Kalkreuth Roofing and Sheet Metal, Wheeling, W.Va. “Controlling costs can be accomplished most effectively with a well-trained crew and strong project management, especially with a complicated metal roofing system that demands expertise for a proper and timely installation.” Roof design, size and pitch will also affect labor costs.

James Russell, sheet metal supervisor, Harness Roofing, Springdale, Ark., believes labor costs can be reduced by manning metal roofing projects correctly. “Keep crews lean and efficient,” he says. “Sometimes a larger crew isn’t the answer. Too many men on the job can eat up your labor and your profits.”

Plan Ahead

To help control and minimize metal roof installation costs, a good first step is effective preplanning. “Any company can improve on controlling costs of metal roofing projects by simply spending more time and effort planning on the front end of a project rather than chasing its tail on the back end and watching their profits dribble away with every passing day,” says Larry W. Johnson, roofing and sheet metal operations manager, Chamberlin Roofing and Waterproofing, Houston. “Get out in front of your shop drawings, submittals, special equipment, understanding lead times, etc. The earlier you have all this in place, the better.”

Reid Ribble, CEO, of National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA), Rosemont, Ill., agrees that controlling costs of metal roofing projects starts at the beginning, specifically with the design process. “Before all other efforts to control costs are put in place, the number one cost driver is designing buildings suitable for this type of roof system,” he says. “When architects predetermine that they want a metal roof system, they can then design the building in a way that eliminates costs, such as labor and waste.”

The contractor’s pre-bid due diligence: that’s what Nelson and marketing consultant at Roof Hugger, Mark James, call the requisite preparation for metal roofing installation. They stress that the contractor must investigate the project thoroughly prior to estimating the work; especially so for retrofit projects. “[The contractor] must be totally familiar with the existing building and its roof support system, which the new sub-structural members will be attached to for satisfying required design loading,” they say. “Of course, on new projects, a set of bid documents is pretty much all you have other than interviews with the design professional and/or the building owner. Determine what their expectations are, and if you are a subcontractor on the project, then know what possible conflicts you may have with other trades on the job.”

Brendan Doyle, president of Brendan Doyle Associates, Fernandina Beach, Fla., says, “A vital and easily overlooked factor is for the metal reroof contractor to have solid working relationships with local structural engineers,” he adds. “Most reroof projects require an engineering evaluation of the existing structure. In the case of a tear-off and replace, most code officials require that the existing building be upgraded to current code. When doing a roofover, code officials will require engineering certification that the existing structure can handle any additional dead load imposed by the roof over reroof materials. In some jurisdictions, the adoption of International Existing Building Codes adds an extra layer of complexity to any engineering analysis required to satisfy permit requirements.”

Reggie Moore, president of Brenton Grey Co., Burlington, N.C., recommends thoroughly reviewing and comprehending any and all details in the roofing system at the start. “Duplicating procedures, call backs for leaks, using the improper materials in the wrong locations are all costly,” he cautions. “These may be the most important items to ensure the most cost-saving installation.”

MMS Northeast Inc., a sheet metal installer in Hampton Falls, N.H., spends a great deal of time on pre-project planning using team communication to determine the most efficient and safest method to complete roofing projects. “We include the suppliers, facilities/owners/tenants, superintendent, foreman and installers in preplanning discussions to ensure that all parties are aware of the scope of work and sequence of operations,” say its president Stephen D. Moore. “Stopping the work to let the owner know that 50 cars are parked in the way just costs money.”

A job-site visit should be part of this preparation, in addition to examining the bid documents. Roof Hugger suggests the following procedures be followed:

• What, if any, are the complexities of the project? Are there penetrations, steps, hips, valleys, tie-ins, power lines, etc.?
• What level of installer expertise will be needed to install the new roof?
• Is the specified new metal roofing capable of sustaining the specified design loads, primarily from a wind uplift standpoint? Of course, this is substantiated by results from industry-accepted testing standards.
• Obtaining absolute dimensions on an existing building for a retrofit project is vital. For new construction, make sure that the dimensions on the bid drawings are accurate.
• What are the safety precautions available for handling and installing materials? The safer it can be, the more efficient the work will be performed.
• What are your terms of the construction contract/sub-contract? A contractor must be prudent in his/her review of the legal documents governing the work. This will include liquidated damage clauses, bad weather delays, etc.

Staging Savings

An important element of metal roof installation cost savings and part of the preplanning process is effective construction staging. Efficient staging minimizes material handling and speeds the roofing process. “We like to work with material suppliers to package and ship metal roofing system components in a way that facilitates efficiency on the job site,” McLeish says. “Staying organized is a crucial factor for helping to control labor costs, and it starts with staging and setup on the job.” Three areas to consider when staging metal roofing materials are: location, prevention and orientation. The closer to the building, the more cost effective the installation will be. James says the questions, “Does the job site have adequate shakedown and staging area available in close proximity to the building?” and “Are there utility and other types of obstructions that will interfere with the installation?” must be asked early on to save labor costs.

“Staging for metal roofing matters, and it also can bring unique challenges to the installing contractor,” says Ribble. “Moving long panels into place on-site, even when they are roll formed, requires a different type of access to the roof and staging needs. This becomes even more difficult on buildings that are close together. Careful planning in advance, considering both materials staging and safety, are essential to metal roof system projects.”

Stephen Moore concurs that correct staging, unloading and shakeout is critical in helping to sequence the work efficiently, especially on projects where removal of the existing roof is involved. “In most cases, removal and installation of new materials needs to happen during the same day to maintain a tight roof,” he says. “In other cases, additional framing or spanning members are installed over the existing roof prior to installing new roofing. In all cases, there are many parts and pieces that must be unloaded, stored, hoisted to the roof surface and moved into place without damage. Replacement material and freight costs associated with new material can be very expensive.”

Material Waste

Correct metal roof material handling helps minimize cost, waste and loss. Johnson says flashing is a material that if not handled correctly, contributes to material waste. “Try to order flashing materials as close as possible to the time that it is needed in the installation process,” he says. “The longer the flashing pieces are out on a project, the more susceptible they are to damage from equipment or workers. Also, the longer any film-covered flashings are exposed to sunlight, the harder it is to remove the protective film. I’ve actually had trim that, no matter what I tried, I could not get the film off of and I was forced to throw them away. Postponing flashing delivery may also contribute to more accurate piece counts on each flashing detail as the structure takes shape, which may help in reducing over-ordering costs, as well.”

To minimize other metal roofing component waste, Johnson gives the following advice to prevent machinery, people and construction debris from taking their toll on painted metal roofing components:
• When at all possible, have a secure (hopefully fenced) area to store materials to keep them from being damaged.
• Have experienced forklift or crane operators that know how to handle metal in a way that allows for minimum damage.
• Tie stacks of trim together to minimize handling damage and for safety purposes as well.

Reggie Moore stresses keeping a watchful eye on material and equipment because, “Anything done to eliminate their duration on-site saves on costs,” he says. “Insulation installation systems and purlin glide systems allow the roofer to install more square footage per day reducing the overall time on a project, which reduces costs.” He gives the following additional cost-saving advice:

• Have all materials on-site prior to starting the project.
• Store insulation in close proximity to the location it will be installed.
• Keep an eye out well in advance for shortages (screws, sealants, etc.).
• Using a crane to stock roof panels is usually very costly if it is not owned by the erector. On large-scale projects that can be stocked from the rakes with forklifts [saves money]. Systems that allow panels to traverse along the roof are also a great time- and cost-saving method.

Controlling Other Costs

In his 40 years of doing metal roofs at Chamberlin, Johnson says he has found the biggest waste to be over ordering panels (or flat stock) for a project. He contends knowing how to estimate panel length is key, especially on hip or valley areas. “If the estimator isn’t well versed in computing increasing or decreasing panel size on cut-up roofs, it can be a huge accident waiting to happen (profit wise),” he says. “If you aren’t experienced in this, the very best option is to wait until you have an opportunity to physically measure the actual roof surface itself. The biggest losses I’ve seen are where the general contractor on a project pressures the roofing subcontractor into ordering off of the plans and ending up with 60 machine-seamed panels that are 4 inches too short, for example.”

To control costs, Nelson and James urge coordination with other trades. “Will you have easy access, will trades be working above or alongside you, could other trades be on the roof?” they ask. Also, they caution selecting a new metal roof system that will perform in accordance with the contract specifications, and then finding out that it will require its base structural substrate to be upgraded to accept the chosen metal roof will not be cost effective. “Select a roof with more-than-adequate testing results, performance characteristics and history.” 

From his industry experience and via working at NRCA, Ribble says the biggest waste of money in metal roof system installations occurs when the roof is very “cut up.” He acknowledges that this is stating the obvious, but unlike other types of roof coverings, metal roofing rarely allows for the use of cut-off pieces in other parts of the roof. “Informed customers need to understand the nuance of installing a metal roof system, while also understanding the very high-performance characteristics metal roofing brings to them,” he adds. “Costs always need to be weighed against life expectancy and performance. Metal roofing, even with waste, often becomes a less-expensive roof system than other options, when its life span is taken into account.”

And trained and well-educated metal roofers will help minimize costs. Doyle says effective, hands-on training helps get installation sequencing firmly in place. “Most of today’s high-end roof or reroof trim only allow a specific way of assembling a given detail,” he says. “Once it is incorrectly assembled, it is impossible to correct the errors. A similar thread runs through roof accessories. Skylights and roof curbs are particularly field-installation- sequence sensitive and again, once assembled incorrectly, are very difficult to correct. Written certification is a well-worthwhile process, especially on reroof fieldwork with a high degree of difficulty. It also helps build brand loyalty and reinforces brand quality. Manufacturers need to schedule training by their expert specialists on a regular basis.”

Even after the metal roofing installation is finished, to further control costs, Johnson advises being diligent about protecting your metal roof projects. He recommends taking hundreds of pictures of all panels, trim, details, etc., to show how it all looked when it was completed. “Email them all in a folder to your general contractor when you are done to prove the timeline of completion,” he says. “Other subcontractors on your project and even your general contractor as well, will never treat your roof with kid gloves. Do your utmost to protect what has been installed, be clear to the other crews on-site that the finishes are delicate, and document everything to help ensure that you don’t get stuck replacing panels or trim at your own expense that someone else damaged.