Going commercial: best practices and tips for post-frame builders making the transition

As the popularity of post frame spreads beyond its humble roots as the simple pole barn, the possibilities and complexities increase. Whether you’re trying to advance your business into building expansive commercial barns, retail buildings or churches, the path is lit with best practices and tips to help you travel it safely.

Mark Billstrom, general manager of Lester Buildings, LLC, the direct sales and construction business unit of Lester Building Systems, LLC, has spent the better part of his career on the commercial side of the building business and is helping to advance the company’s commercial reach. Because Lester works with a network of builder/dealers, that means helping those builders understand the ins and outs of going commercial.

Wick Buildings Photo

Lester Buildings Photo

Helping to change public perception
Although the flexibility of post frame is becoming more widely accepted, it has a long way to go to be recognizable by the average non-ag consumer, and even architects. It’s in the best interest of builders to help change that.

“Commercial can mean different things to different people,” Billstrom said. “We like to accentuate custom designs (building shapes) and exterior finishes so that buyers / designers can avoid picturing only a steel sided rectangular box pole barn. If people are thinking of going with a structure that is pre-engineered steel, pre-cast concrete, masonry or traditional stick-frame wood, we point out the advantages of post frame. Each method has its best use, but post frame is often a viable alternative. We can point out the clear-span capabilities, material and labor cost savings, the time savings of minimal foundation preparation, and the fact that we become the structural engineer for the building structure … one less thing for them to worry about. We make it clear that we engineer and build code buildings intended for all occupancy types, to dispel the misconception that we only provide services to the ag/ livestock market.”

Since architects play an important role in the commercial market, educating them to the possibilities of post frame is also necessary as post frame is not taught at most universities where architects are educated. Once an architect is exposed to post frame, however, it can lead to more work down the road for both of you. This has worked well at Lester Buildings.

“Our sales people generally develop individual/local relationships with architectural firms and provide them with the information that helps us to be included in their projects,” Billstrom said. “We have done many commercial projects through these relationships and continue to be specified or invited on others by performing well. When post-frame is the preferred design solution from the start, we are usually specified because of name recognition and past strong performance.”

To help architects gain a better understanding of post frame, Lester Buildings provides access to ARCAT. “We have complete, editable Lester post-frame specifications available to design professionals via ARCAT,” Billstrom noted. “No passwords or fees required. This makes it easy for architects to make Lester part of their document preparation.”

More information is provided below under Additional Resources.

Understanding the complexities
Billstrom pointed out that commercial work generally requires a higher degree of communication and coordination. On commercial projects, he said: “The number of people and trades involved tends to increase. …Moving on and off a job more than once, or being able to complete it continuously usually depends on the work of others. Consider this when pricing and planning your resources.”

Contract format needs to be considered
Because commercial work often does require the skills of multiple trade contractors, contracts can take on different formats. “Are you working directly for the client/end user or for a general contractor?” Billstrom said. “Communication and coordination is just as critical, but the contract relationship will generally impact the paperwork and
documentation requirements. Architectural submittals, contract stipulations, payment procedures and terms, schedule deadlines, delay penalty clauses, etc. are all things to be aware of.

“Again, these items are not difficult, but they require a different approach and mind-set than what you might be used to,” he continued. “If working for a GC, the post-frame builder is generally tied to all of the same contract terms and obligations that the GC has to the owner. Don’t hesitate to ask for a clear summary of those terms prior to pricing. Know what you are committing to. Consider how the financial risk compares to other market sectors of your business.”

When pricing documents that have been prepared by others, Billstrom cautions that you be sure to understand the design and your scope of work.

“If your typical building detail differs from what is drawn, it’s best to ask for a clarification rather than assume your method will be acceptable,” he said. “Again, communication at the right time is all it takes to avoid issues.”

Lester Buildings itself sometimes works as the general contractor for post-frame projects.
“Lester works in this contract format, but selectively,” Billstrom said. To post-frame builders not in a dealer network he offered: “When considering if you should be the GC for a project, understand the skills and resources necessary. Being in charge of the whole project is a nice advantage, as long as you have factored in that you are now pricing and coordinating not only your own work but also the work of many others. The owner has hired you to be in charge of all construction, so the management time requirements may be substantially more than you’re used to.”

An option that Lester Buildings has used is to quote commercial projects to customers directly and propose the customer enlist a general contractor for everything not included in the Lester builder/dealer’s scope of work. “We assure [the customer] that we have the management and engineering to erect the building and handle the concrete. The general contractor can take responsibility for everything else. We have networked with local contractors, both general and trade subcontractors, that we trust and with whom we have a history. We are able to recommend these firms to our customers.”

Regular project meetings with all applicable parties involved are a key to project success.

Knowing the codes
Even before quoting a project you need to know the local applicable building codes. In most areas of the country, ag buildings are not covered under codes, or are covered minimally. The opposite is true for commercial projects.

“Do your homework so you have the correct information when you meet with the customer,” advised Billstrom. “Codes change from year to year and decade to decade. Keeping up with all the changes can be difficult,” he cautioned, but it’s an important selling tool. Customers like the comfort of knowing they are dealing with an expert in the trade.

Safety issues
What happens on the farm often stays on the farm, but once in a more public setting, the level of scrutiny increases.

“Commercial construction often introduces a higher level of safety procedure scrutiny than other markets,” Billstrom said. At Lester, he noted, “We are OSHA compliant (fall protection, excavation safety, first aid trained, tool/equipment maintenance, etc.) on all of our projects. This is not necessarily true of all post-frame builders. Depending on the specifics of the commercial project that you are considering, your documented safety programs, past performance, and history of worker reportable and/or lost time accidents may need to be shared with the client. Lester makes safety a priority on all projects, but commercial work often demands even more documentation.”

Billstrom doesn’t underestimate the challenges of going commercial, but said you need not fear the challenge as long as you’ve made adequate preparations.

“If you’re new to commercial construction, or considering going into it, there’s no need to fear any of the above considerations,” Billstrom said. “Educate yourself on the expectations, prepare yourself to execute them effectively, and you can succeed.”

Commercial ag
Although Burrow’s Post-Frame Supply has a history mostly in agricultural post frame, you cannot classify today’s mega barns as simple pole barns. Because of size and engineering complexity, they too can require more of a commercial approach than ever before.

Burrow’s Post-Frame Supply has seen that transformation in its 25-year history as a post-frame builder. Now turning almost exclusively to supply, it still leans heavily on its own history in the business to help post-frame builders navigate the changing world.
Matt Montgomery, director of business development, believes a big part of the challenge is getting the word out to consumers that post frame is an option for commercial projects.

“We need to get that information to the end user before they decide that’s the way they want to go,” he said, alluding to the fact that the average consumer may not even have post frame in their mix of considerations. This can happen even in the ag market where red iron may be given the obvious choice over post frame for wide span projects.

“We do some large buildings that are sold against pre-engineered metal buildings,” he said, “so we do some 70 to 80 foot wide buildings that are 200 to 400 foot long, where it boils down to money.”

Post-frame builders can use the cost argument to win the job. “A pre-engineered building that size, even with 25-foot bays and 5-foot on-center purlins, could save somebody $30,000 or $40,000 if going with lumber and they still get the same quality of building and the same strength,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery also likes to argue that builders who use a one-stop supplier like Burrow’s can gain some pricing advantage in the marketplace and take some of the worry out of the equation. Ditto for the first-hand building experience in post frame that the Burrow’s brand brings to the table.

“There’s not too many suppliers who do everything for a post-frame builder like we do,” he said. “We actually manufacture. We have all the lumber on site. We make our own trusses. We make our own nail-lams. We bend our own trim. We offer the items the guys need.”

Although many items are the same for commercial and noncommercial post frame, there are some important differences worth noting, Montgomery said. “Usually when you go up to the larger buildings you’re going to see more 8-foot on-center pole spacing and 4-foot on-center trusses as opposed to 5 or 8. And usually they have taller sidewalls, so you’re going to see heavier top plates being used like 2x12s or LVL engineered lumber. You also see guys going to lams rather than solid-sawn posts.

“Of course we have various other items, like doors, we can go to a more commercial steel door with a dedicated threshold as opposed to an ag door, which is still a steel door but more of a keep-the-animals-in kind of door.”

One of the best-selling tools for commercial post frame for Burrow’s Post-Frame Supply can be found on their property in Fort Gibson, Okla: their buildings. Montgomery takes inventory:

“Our office has valleys and hips and double gables and wraparound porches. The inside has vaulted ceilings with tongue and groove wood ceilings. Outside are all of our different sheds; they’re huge, 18-wheelers can pull into them. Our truss plant is post frame. The truss plant is an 86×336. Then we have an 80×160 with three side-gable shed roofs that houses all of our accessories like windows, doors, cupolas, screws, nails; then a basic maintenance shop; two lumber sheds, 20 feet deep, one of them is 400 feet long and the other about 300 feet long; then we have our manufacturing facility, which is two buildings combined, one is 80×200 and the other one is 60×200.”

Taking your first steps towards commercial
The leap from basic post frame to commercial post frame can be daunting for many builders, noted Larry Edema, assistant national sales manager/district sales manager for Wick Buildings. Still, there are increasing arguments for taking that route. First and foremost, the market for commercial is starting to rebound. Meanwhile higher prices for commodities and the Jan. 1, 2014 rollback on bonus depreciation for farm assets under IRS Section 179 have fewer farmers looking to build new ag buildings.

Edema reported that Wick has seen a 9 percent increase in commercial construction so far this year, while ag construction is trending down by about 12 percent to 15 percent.

“At one time 35 percent to 40 percent of our work was commercial but when the economy hit hard, the commercial segment went down and the agricultural market went up,” he said. “Now that the economy is getting a little better, we’re seeing commercial come back.”

Edema said post-frame contractors have the skills to do commercial work, but they are sometimes reluctant to take the first step out of fear for the unknown and the unfamiliar. In advertising “they won’t even list commercial,” he said. Taking the first step, however, does not have to be so daunting.

Wick Buildings Photo

Wick Buildings Photo

Get to know the general contractors in your area
At Wick Buildings, the company advises its dealer / contractors to start by contacting a general contractor in their area.

“General contractors are looking for people to build wood-frame buildings or post-frame buildings. In some cases they may have a steel crew but maybe not a wood crew, so when someone comes in and offers that service, it’s a big help to them,” Edema said. He explained further: “A lot of times what [a general contractor] will do, they’ll ask you to bid on putting up the post-frame building and then they’ll contract with other contractors to build everything else. You’re basically furnishing the structure and the general contractor is going to finish it off. It’s a little easier to get into commercial that way. It gives [post-frame builders] a foot in the door with commercial work.”

To keep your foot in the door, Edema suggests taking every opportunity to learn more about how commercial buildings are put together. When you do get your first commercial project, visit the site as often as you can to see how the job progresses. You may decide you want to work a little deeper into the process in the future, handling more pieces of the puzzle, but even if you don’t, the added perspective will make you a better sub-contractor.

“With a farm shop you put up the building and you usually have some lighting and some concrete, maybe a bathroom. But with commercial you’ve got excavating, you’ve got site work, plumbing, heating, finish work, carpeting, drop ceilings, painting, just a lot of other things,” Edema said. He encourages builders to “follow that building all the way through. See how they do the concrete and how they do the plumbing, heating, electric, drywall, painting and everything else.”

Get to know your local architects
Because commercial projects often involve architects Edema says getting to know the architects in your area is important.

“We work with one out of Springfield, Ohio, and when he specs a building, he has a separate bid just for the post frame so you don’t have to worry about doing all the other mechanicals unless you want to. It’s all separate bids,” Edema said.

If the architect knows you build post frame and knows you are interested in doing commercial work, it can lead to an invitation to bid on a project somewhere down the line. Before you leave their office, ask to be put on their bidders list for future projects.
Unfortunately, a lot of architects still don’t know about post frame. On the plus side, this presents an opportunity for post-frame builders to help enlighten them.

Wick Buildings has a program to do just that: Lunch and Learn sessions. They are hour-long presentations where architects are treated to both lunch and learning credits.
“Wick is the only post-frame company that has a lunch and learn program for post frame that is registered with AIA [American Institute of Architects],” Edema said.

At the time of this interview, Edema was preparing to visit a group of eight architects, and a second group of 20 architects in the Akron-Canton, Ohio area.

This program can be replicated by smaller builders. The NFBA has a free Power Point presentation targeted to architects and available to members.

But, if you think you are ready to make this step, you’d better know what you’re talking about.

“You have to know your product,” Edema said. “You have to know what questions they’re going to ask.”

That said, “Go in and tell them about post frame. Tell them what you do and invite them to stop by and inspect one of your projects,” he suggested.

Many architects are eager for the information. Edema has seen this especially at workshops the NFBA has conducted through another organization called the Wood Products Council and its initiative called WoodWorks.

“I hear it all the time when I go to WoodWorks events,” Edema said. “Architects are just as hungry as we are. A lot of building types, whether it’s steel buildings or block and bar joists, they’re just getting more and more expensive so [architects] lose jobs and they’re looking for more economical ways of putting buildings up. When we have breakout sessions [on post-frame] at WoodWorks Wood Solutions fairs, they’re packed [with architects].

Get to know your local code officials
Most states don’t have many, if any, codes or permit requirements for ag buildings, but quite the opposite is true for commercial jobs. Stamped plans and permits are standard. Some are national in scope and others are local.

Edema encourages: “Get to know your code officials. Ask them: what do they need, what are they looking for, what are my wind loads, what are my snow loads?”

And do this sooner as opposed to later so you can price the job accordingly.

Also realize that your presence may be required at local zoning or variance meetings.

Because of all the special parts of the commercial project, if you aren’t detail-oriented and well organized, it might not be a good fit for you. If you are, however, Edema said the rewards can be worth it. “It does take more work to do a commercial building, but in most cases the buildings are bigger, they’re more expensive, there’s less competition and it can be more profitable.”

Additional resources for commercial post-frame builders
The NFBA recently relaunched its Post-Frame Marketing Initiative website, www.PostFrameAdvantage.com, for members. It offers design tools, case studies, galleries, free AIA-approved educational modules via an Online University, and more.
“The Post-Frame Construction Guide” is also available for download.
For more information on PFMI also check the article immediately following this, starting on page 14.

From Lester Buildings:
architects and design professionals can access ARCAT via www.arcat.com/sd/clients/lesterbs.html?coid=33790. No passwords or fees are required.

Both Lester Buildings and Wick Buildings provide photo libraries of projects to assist customers in their use and design considerations.

For Lester Buildings visit: https://lesterbuildings.com/Our-Buildings/Project-Library/.
For Wick Buildings, visit www.wickbuildings.com/buildings/.

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