Customizing Metal Buildings

Pre-engineered metal building systems have come a long way from the days of being just a box shape, or even strictly an agricultural building. Today, metal building systems can be used for everything from recreation and fitness facilities, to automotive shops, distilleries and breweries, and even residences.

Custom requests require engineers to think outside of the box when it comes to pre-engineered metal building systems

By Marcy Marro

Photo: Lara Swimmer

Jim Peckham, manager of marketing at Memphis, Tenn.-based Varco Pruden Buildings, a division of BlueScope Buildings North America Inc., says VP has been doing customized building solutions as far back as the 1950s. “At that time, steel buildings were typically pre-engineered and limited to specific dimensions and load conditions,” he explains. “VP introduced our custom concept approach that gave owners the flexibility to specify length, width and height, along with design issues such as column location, bay spacing and interior clearance.”

While all of those options were considered custom at the time, Peckham notes they are all standard today. “Now, owners and designers expect the building to be adaptable for framing sizes and locations, roof slopes, base elevations and any mix or variation they require. Plus, buildings need to work with virtually any exterior wall treatment including masonry, glass, wood and hybrid systems. Further, buildings should be energy efficient, weathertight and durable.”

Steve Olson, regional manager at Cornerstone Building Brands, Cary, N.C., adds that years ago, there was not much flexibility to a metal building simply due to the lack of sophistication of the programs being used to design the metal building components for the system. “With today’s technology and software, it is wide open what we can do. We are mostly limited to our imagination, and of course, budgets. We routinely customize for cranes, mezzanines, fascia systems, masonry exterior products and more.”

The Kennedy Tailing Wheels Preservation & Access project in Jackson, Calif., features a Rigid Frame building system from Varco Pruden Buildings, as well as insulated metal wall and roof panels from AEP Span. Photo courtesy of Varco Pruden Buildings.

Benefits of Customization

The ability to customize a pre-engineered metal building system offers the flexibility for builders and contractors to meet the needs of both the owners and the architects, explains Arthur E. Hance, president of Hance Construction Inc., Washington, N.J. In addition to being an authorized Butler Builder for Kansas City, Mo.-based Butler Manufacturing, the company has incorporated non-metal building components, as well as conventional framing with pre-engineered metal building framing.

Rick Hawks, AIA, NCARB, principal and managing partner at Omaha, Neb.-based Archi+Etc. LLC, says his firm has done metal building customizations to fit around large, industrial-sized pieces of equipment, to integrating laced columns for carrying utilities, as well as many specialized loads. “One of the main things with metal building systems is they are very economical way to get large open areas with no intermediate columns to get in the way,” he says. “This can be important on all different types of projects from industrial, recreational, and yes, even office spaces of today.”

“I think the primary benefit or opportunity is to take something ordinary and turn it into something extraordinary,” says Mark Roddy, FAIA, Mark Roddy Architect, Sacramento, Calif. “I think as architects we need to understand the limits and possibilities within the pre-engineered metal building system and then exploit and enhance them.”

“Most folks might think a typical metal building is not visually pleasing,” adds Trevor Cornelsen, PE, director of estimating at Star Buildings, Oklahoma City. “Customization leverages the strengths of a metal building and makes it look good.”

There are a variety of benefits for both the owner and the manufacturer and builder to customize a metal building system. For the owner, Peckham says benefits include the ability to have a building that meets their business needs and architectural expectations for less initial building cost and lower cost of ownership. For the manufacturer and the builder, Peckham says customizations mean they can effectively compete on virtually any low-rise building in their market.

Speed and economy are two additional benefits to customizing metal building systems. “Since we are engineering the metal building system, an architect or end user doesn’t have to separately pay a structural engineer to come up with a design to a standard box metal building to accommodate what they are looking for,” Olson adds.

Named Yard-Barn, Mark Roddy Architects submitted a winning proposal to use a pre-engineered metal building to gain efficiencies and shorten construction time as a solution for the City of Sacramento’s affordable housing shortage. Photo: Mark Roddy, FAIA

Working Together

When customizing a pre-engineered metal building system, it is important to get the manufacturer involved early in the process. And, the process of working with one manufacturer can differ from another. “In my experience it requires an in-depth knowledge of the metal building system and then being able to communicate how you expect them to help you customize the standard system,” Hance says.

Olson notes that for architects working with a metal building manufacturer, they don’t need to develop a full set of plans. “We can work with them on preliminary elevations and floor plans to show them how we can design what they are looking for. We provide guidance being mindful of the budget, while working with the aesthetic intent of the project.” And for the manufacturer, Olson says, “we can begin putting the project together from simply a rough sketch and develop it from there.”

For custom requests, it’s important to realize that more time may be needed since engineers are being asked to step beyond the norm. “The biggest challenge so far is getting engineers to step out of their standard metal building design comfort zone and think outside the box when it comes to solutions,” Hawks says. “They may have to also go back to the old way of calculating loads if the custom project does not fit into their standard modeling program that many use today. Also, some engineers are more open to changes while others are not and that is important to know upfront.”

Hance agrees, saying, “Getting engineers to approve what we want to do as it is outside their normal system. You end up taking of a lot of responsibility for how it turns out. Unexpected issues can happen when you deviate from a standard system offering.”

According to Peckham, the process can vary depending on the complexity of the project and the experience of the team. “The architect and the contractor need to work closely to ensure the project is designed to optimize the advantages of a building system,” he explains. “Often, a design-build arrangement is most productive. Communication is essential and like any working relationship, it must be built mutual understanding and trust.”

For the Whitcomb Art Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., architects at Lake | Flato worked closely with Star Buildings to achieve the proper building slopes required for daylighting.

Unique Projects

Lewis McNeel, AIA, associate, at Lake Flato Architects, San Antonio, explains in the case of the Whitcomb Art Center at Knox College, Galesburg, Ill., the project required bringing in the right amount of north daylight, and providing a solar-ready south-facing roof slope. To do that, the building required a very specific profile with repeating structural bays. While the designers carefully calculated the asymmetrical gable, as well as the slope of the north- and south-facing gables, it was discovered that this was a very non-standard way to use a pre-engineered metal frame. Luckily, Star Buildings went above and beyond when its software couldn’t handle the unusually steep angle of the north-facing slope by going back and hand drafting the specific calculations required for the complex custom pre-engineered metal frame.

Star Buildings was able to achieve the angles for both sides of the slope, as the project required. “The specific pre-engineered metal shape allowed us the perfect balance of great quantities of north daylight at exactly the right angle, allowing us to cut down on our electric lighting inside,” McNeel explains. And, Star was able to create the right southern sun angle on the south-facing slope of the building, allowing a perfectly optimized photovoltaic array to go on the roof when the school has the funds to add it. “The shape of the pre-engineered metal customization trickled all the way down to high-performance in terms of energy usage for the building and daylighting,” he adds.

Throughout the project, McNeel says the architects involved learned the constraints they had to work with using a pre-engineered metal building, and how to find the beauty in those. “We understood that the legs of our structural frame needed to be a certain offset from the outer walls, and we needed to make sure we coordinated exactly how the horizontal girts attached to the frame, and then how the wall plane attached to those girts. We took into consideration all of these constraints and then shaped the building to celebrate those moments, and to be as refined of a vision as we could possibly achieve.”

One of the most unique projects Varco Pruden has worked on was the Kennedy Tailing Wheels Preservation & Access project in Jackson, Calif. Designed to preserve one of four 50-foot tailing wheels from the elements, the 56-foot, 6-inch-tall building features large windows on each sidewall to allow viewing of the historic mining tailing wheel, which was used to lift mining waste from the Kennedy Gold Mining operation from 1914 to 1946. Both the roof and walls were constructed using insulated metal panels from AEP Span, Fontana, Calif. As Peckham explains, the dimensions on the building were exacting because space was limited and the clearances were critical. VP supplied its Rigid Frame for the project, which featured VP Builder, LGM Construction Co., Jackson, Calif.

One of the most unique customization projects Hance Construction has done is creating the “Steel House” utilizing various components. Interested in building a home with a modern and industrial flair in the high-end residential community in North Haven, N.Y., the owners turned to Larson and Paul Architects, New York City. The architects reached out to Allentown, Pa.-based ATAS International, who in turn recommended Hance Construction as the design-builder for the steel house’s structural system. Together, they created a plan for an open, airy space with industrial components that would be both cost- and energy-efficient. Hance used a Butler hybrid building system to create this one-of-a-kind home.

Choosing Customizations

Using a pre-engineered metal building system for your projects provides a long-lasting and low-maintenance solution. The cost-effective building system can deliver clear spans, with no interior columns, and is an effective solution for whatever type of building you may need. However, before jumping into a project with a variety of customization requests, Hance recommends making sure you have a complete knowledge of the metal building system and a deep level of knowledge and experience in design-build.

“As a designer,” Roddy adds, “you can maximize the value of your project’s aesthetics while maintaining costs and schedule by using a metal building system. But beware, if you go too far in your customization of making it not look like a metal building, you may run the risk of losing the value proposition of a metal building system all together.”

Additionally, if you’re going to start customizing a pre-engineered metal building system, it’s important to have the builder, metal fabricator and metal building manufacturer on board from the very beginning of the design process. “This way we can coordinate early on some of the very specific details and be absolutely certain that the project is going to be built the way we have all agreed to build it during the design phase,” McNeel says.

“It’s a team effort to achieve success,” Cornelsen says. “The best process is one that involves an architect/customer that understands the strengths of a bolt-up metal building and a metal building company that is in tune with the architect/customer needs.”