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The Rise of Metal Building Systems

By Mark Robins, Senior EditorThey're not just tin boxes anymore

Metal buildings excel in construction ease and speed, structure life span, lower maintenance costs and energy savings. The designs of pre-engineered metal buildings, now called metal building systems, have come a long way. Metal building solutions have actually been around as early as World War II, and have continuously grown in popularity since then. Metal building solutions were first used in the war as storage shacks and temporary shelters. After World War II, people continued to find use for metal structures and metal building solutions expanded to cover many applications other than storage. Today's applications incorporate custom features, efficient insulation, contemporary aesthetics and flexible solutions for a wide array of uses and applications.

"A pre-engineered metal building solution is an intelligent way to apply standardized components, selected for their fitness to customer requirements (load, climate, aesthetics, etc.), and their ability to 'fit up' on the job site," says Pat Bruzzese, vice president of metal buildings division, Armour Steel Supply, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. "It represents a verified analysis that the candidate design using those components will satisfy applicable building codes and an economical way to deliver a flexible, but highly functional, building envelope. Its short build cycle minimizes financial exposure and seasonal disruptions like winter."

The metal building industry sells more than 40,000 buildings annually with 50 percent of the dollar value over 20,000 square feet. Metal building solutions are preferred for warehouse/distribution, office spaces, warehouses, industrial, agricultural, indoor sports and "big box" retail. Their cost and flexibility advantages make them increasingly popular for strip malls, auto dealerships, and community buildings like churches, fitness centers, fire stations and theaters. These structures' attractive designs and architectural options leave admirers surprised to learn that they are, in fact, metal buildings.

Today, metal building solutions are utilized by organizations looking for practical answers to their increasing needs; the most common need: space. Non-loadbearing walls permit wide clear span interiors, unobstructed by interior columns.

"Metal buildings' 'sweet spot' is large open space and low-rise construction (one or two stories), preferably one story," says Wes Brooker, marketing and development manager, American Buildings Co., Eufaula, Ala. "Metal buildings need a certain amount of open space. Metal buildings aren't good for high-rise construction because of the way the systems are engineered; they've always been an excellent low-rise building solution. There are restrictions for metal buildings once you get above a certain height level."

As an investment, pre-engineered metal buildings are hard to beat. Today's designs and the ability to customize them give owners the look they want with the functionality they need. Metal buildings are adaptable to varying climates and energy-efficiency requirements. They are durable; steel resists corrosion and decay better than any other material. Steel frames do not warp or settle like wood frames. Construction costs are minimized compared to building with traditional materials such as timber, brick and concrete. "You can build right through all but the most severe winter weather, whereas concrete pours can be delayed for weeks by bad winter weather," Bruzzese says.

A cohesive system

With metal building systems you are literally buying a system, Brooker says. The primary framing, the secondary framing, and the wall and roof panels are engineered to work together. "Basically one third by weight of the building is the primary framing which are the 'major frames' of the building," he says. "One hundred percent of it is made from recycled steel which makes the building very sustainable. It's a great selling feature and it's good for the ecology.

metal building solutions"The second third by weight is what we call secondary framing. These frames go in between the main framing and hold onto wall panels and roof panels. They provide lateral support for the building staff so it doesn't come down in adverse conditions. The steel used for this is black steel. The third type of steel by weight is the wall and roof panels. These are either galvanized or galvalumed for corrosion resistance. They can be painted with silicone modified polyester and Kynar fluoropolymer resins. These panels provide weatherability to the building."

Ease of installation

Metal buildings provide shorter build-out times than other construction systems. Metal buildings have fewer components allowing quicker fabrication and shorter erection time. Their components are fabricated off-site and can be erected in any season with fewer building trades involved, helping to reduce construction costs. Metal buildings' structural elements are cut with state-of-the-art equipment so every piece precisely fits with adjoining members. This reduces downtime and product waste.

"If you compare it to conventional construction, all metal building systems bolt together," Brooker says. "There is no welding. For a large building, it may take eight to 10 weeks to design and engineer a metal building before we send it for installation. It only takes two to three weeks to actually physically produce a big building of 250,000 square feet. This is usually much faster to install than conventional construction. All of Costco's buildings are metal building system construction. Costco knows once the steel is on-site, in 60 days they can do something inside the building.

"When we ship our metal building systems, everything is there to install that building including the nuts and bolts, all the walls and all the framing. The entire building is there so you are not waiting for pieces or parts to come in. With retail stores, time is important and many retailers will specify metal buildings."

In addition to early occupancy, early start of business and early return on investment, the labor to put up a metal building is reduced. This offers a savings of 30 percent or more over more traditional construction methods. "The reason is no components are built or 'poured' on-site … it really is just an assembly process," Bruzzese says. "So you don't need a lot of the trades that would be involved in a traditional building erection, and coordination of deliveries of different materials and scheduling work crews is infinitely easier. We would be remiss to make it sound so easy to erect a pre-engineered metal building that pretty much anyone with a crane can do it. It is important to have only a qualified erector put up a pre-engineered metal building. Safety is the first consideration, quality of the install is next and efficiency is third, and you need a certified erector to deliver all three."

A significant advantage the metal building industry has over conventional construction is that it controls the entire envelope, making adjustments to new tougher energy and lighting standards easier. "This avoids the 'Keystone Cops' syndrome in conventional construction where everyone in the supply chain points at someone else for the envelope not performing," Brooker says.

Another benefit of metal building systems is metal roofs. A metal roof can last 40 years or more, whereas a conventional flat roof will only last 10 to 15 years, then it must be replaced. Conventional roofs require substantial yearly maintenance expense, but metal roofs require no more maintenance than occasional debris removal. Once installed, a metal building system's expansion may only involve removing an exterior wall after extensions of framing and roof structures are complete.

Greener, more sustainable

Metal building systems are ideal for sustainability and the environment as steel is the most recycled material on the planet. Recycled steel reduces mining waste by 97 percent, air pollution by 86 percent and water pollution by 76 percent. Producing steel through recycling also uses significantly less energy than conventional steelmaking.

Metal Building SystemsThe typical metal building is manufactured from at least 70 percent recycled steel. At the end of its useful life, 100 percent of a metal building can be recycled into a variety of steel products including new cars, appliances, buildings and bridges. Most manufacturers offer white paint finish options that exceed the LEED Solar Reflective Index requirement of 78 to significantly reduce cooling requirements and costs. These three factors allow a metal building to earn maximum points on LEED projects and a subsequent level of certification.

With regard to sustainability, each metal building is custom designed and engineered from the ground up, normally resulting in minimal scrap compared to conventional construction. This results in metal buildings being typically 30 percent lighter due to the highly efficient use of steel. Lighter buildings also translate to less expensive foundations.

Many metal building companies are switching to 100 percent "cool" paint systems for their roof and wall panels. Cool coatings have different color pigments that can reflect 50 percent of the heat that hits a panel back into the atmosphere. This environmentally friendly cool technology was originally developed for stealth aircraft in the U.S. Military. These coatings help generate lower environmental temperatures reducing smog and the heat island effect.

"I think the most important technologies and improvements are in the coatings," says Bruzzese. "Not only are there now a seemingly endless array of colors, textures, etc., to choose from, but they really do hold up to weathering incredibly well. The life of a pre-engineered metal building roof is really impressive, and the high SRI finishes available today are a big advantage for keeping energy costs down."

Lighter colors do make a significant difference in the heat gain buildup within a building itself. Cool coatings help reduce the urban heat zone and reduce cooling costs in hot summer months. "A school using cool coating pigments versus an identical school that isn't, can save $10,000 a year in cooling costs," Brooker says. "This is a major breakthrough. The technology has been around for eight or nine years, but we are just now starting to discover and use it."

More and more architects, contractors and designers are discovering metal building solutions and are growing increasingly aware of its advantages. Industry insiders predict the metal buildings market to grow, thrive and ultimately reach unprecedented levels of activity.