The pull of pre-engineered metal buildings

Back in 1993, about 60 percent of Randy Wanta’s business was pre-engineered metal buildings. Today, the Wisconsin builder puts the number closer to 95 percent.
Nine years ago, a big project involving both pre-engineered steel and post-frame buildings kept Glenn Nicholls’ Associated Systems Inc. in business. Today, his Fredericksburg, Va. firm is going strong doing 100 percent steel buildings, with no wood projects currently on the board.
Nine years ago, Jay Johnson’s Building Concepts of Indiana, a noted post-frame firm, was beginning to phase steel into its repertoire. Today, while his company, a Borkholder Buildings dealership, is still known primarily for its wood work, Johnson says 10 percent of its business is in steel.
Wanta, Nicholls, and Johnson were three of more than a dozen builders Rural Builder spoke with back in May 1993, when we first focused on metal building systems. At the time, many builders who’d started out in post-frame construction were adding metal buildings to their options. Some were diversifying in order to survive tough times, including steep lumber prices, and continued to offer post frame. But nearly a decade later, steel is becoming a greater, if not the dominant, part of their business.
The trend shouldn’t surprise anyone. Metal buildings had a rough year in 2001, but not so bad in the context of the industry’s decades-long tear through the nation’s low-rise markets. The Metal Building Manufacturers Association, which has been tracking the rise of metal building systems (they don’t call them “pre-engineered” any more) since the 1950s, says the industry holds a 70 percent share of the low-rise, non-residential construction market. (The MBMA recently broadened the scope of the target market, so their systems account for only 30 percent, but of a far larger pie.)
Metal buildings have a substantial presence in a wide range of particular markets, including retail, industrial, agricultural, warehouse, manufacturing facilities, schools, churches, prisons, and sports facilities. The share numbers translate into annual sales of about $3 billion.
Taking a bite out of wood
Post-frame contractors complain that in some cases, wooden posts and trusses can do the job as well as steel. But that’s beside the point: pre-engineered metal has a big market share, and that share is kept secure by a lot of owners, architects, and specifiers who understand and champion the system. Builders turning to pre-engineered steel just don’t want to lose the business.
Consider Borkholder, the post-frame company that expanded its offerings to include metal in 1990. “We basically added the steel because our dealers were coming up against situations where that was the better application,” says Dayton. “With us providing them that option, they have that in their hip pocket when wood doesn’t work and steel does. Some dealers prefer steel over wood.”
For post-frame builders adding metal to their options, the switch isn’t all that tough. The design concepts of pre-engineered metal buildings are similar to those of post-frame. For those erecting buildings, wood crews can often do the job. “Post-frame crews usually do a reasonable job on pre-engineered metal,” says Jerry Greany of Butler. “Steel crews, on the other hand, find wood structures hard to put together.”
But of course it isn’t just post-frame builders who are attracted to pre-engineered metal. The buildings are everywhere, from garages to shopping malls, and builders in all markets are finding that a metal building system is often specified even when other methods are possible.
“More people are using them now,” says Garrett Smith of Tech Building Systems, who began distributing A&S Building Systems in 1993. “Virtually anything that can be built by your more traditional means of construction can be done with steel. Construction times are significantly reduced, which brings the cost of an entire job down.”
Bob Nidzgorski of CW Construction Services has found that pre-engineered metal can be a gateway to more lucrative projects. The Longwood, Fla., builder hooked up with Butler Manufacturing when nearby Walt Disney World needed a warehouse in which to store fireworks.
“It’s not the only thing that we do, we have other work,” Nidzgorski says. “Any contractor knows the way the market is, if things start to go down in one area, you need other areas to be working in.You can’t be limited to one place.”
Compared with conventional methods, the entire engineered building process is streamlined. From designing the building to erecting it, pre-engineered eliminates some time-sapping steps, especially compared to conventional structural steel.
“With a conventional building, you have to talk to an architect, a structural engineer, a structural engineer has to design it, send it to a local fabricator to do it,” says Kamran Barbod of Titans Steel Structures. “But pre-engineered metal buildings are kind of standardized small buildings. For something like farmers use, if you need a barn, you can go ahead and order a 60×100-ft. building, and it’s already designed, it’s shipped within four or six weeks. It provides a cheaper way of constructing a building.”

So what makes them so popular?
Pre-engineered metal buildings encompass a vast range of sizes, styles, and end uses. A lot depends on whether you’re building a garage, a church, a sports arena, or big-box retail warehouse. But metal buildings have some common features that lend them common advantages — real or perceived.
• Engineering. Steel’s precisely known strength allows metal buildings to be designed with closer margins to design loads, making for consistent, reliable engineering with minimal waste. Since nearly every element of a metal building is structural, however, you can’t tinker much with the design elements after the engineering is done.
• Fire resistance. It might be the insurance company, a zoning ordinance, or just an owner’s preference, but this is a frequently cited concern in favor of steel.
• Bugs don’t eat steel. They don’t eat CCA-treated posts either, at least not for many decades, but steel will generally last longer. More importantly, owners and insurance companies believe it’ll last longer. This is especially true in areas where Formosan termites are a problem.
• Cost predictability. While steel prices may finally rise in the wake of the new tariffs, they’ve been at rock bottom for many years, and have traditionally been more stable than timber prices over the long haul. “Wood is so vulnerable to monthly and weekly markets, whereas steel is not,” says Nicholls. “Major steel companies lock in prices for a long period of time.”
More importantly, since pre-engineered buildings are delivered to a site as a package, labor costs are a smaller and more predictable fraction of total costs than for most other forms of construction.
• Speedy erection. Metal buildings, like post frame, are quick and relatively easy to put up. “It’s like a big erector set,” says Terry Mayberry, of Will H. Hall & Son in Flint, Mich. Web Steel Buildings says metal buildings take one-third less time to erect than other types of construction.
• Portability. It’s not done very often, but metal buildings can be dismantled and re-erected. They might not be engineered for a different site, but that usually won’t stop a determined owner.
• Clearspans. Metal building frames can span up to 400 ft. without columns, making it well suited to skating rinks, sports arenas, and other wide-open places. The wood trusses used in post-frame construction generally max out at about 80 ft. On the other hand, costs start to rise for clear spans greater than 60 ft., cutting into pre-engineered’s price point.
• Aesthetics. Judging by their brochures, metal building manufacturers have come to specialize in structures that look nothing like metal buildings. Whether it’s precast concrete, masonry, glass curtainwall, or metal panels that look like stucco, wall materials for metal buildings are almost unlimited. Of course, costs rise the more these materials are used. Basic metal buildings are inexpensive because metal siding is easily installed and contributes to the overall engineering strength. Masonry around the lower levels of a metal building looks nice, but the structural redundancy adds a lot to the bottom line. u
he term “pre-engineered metal building” dates from the 1950s, and at the time accurately described how manufacturers designed and supplied rigid-frame metal structures. The buildings were designed using a few basic variables, notably size, shape, and wind and snow loads. The result was more-or-less standardized products that could be ordered from a catalog.
Back then engineers worked with slide rules and note pads, and custom designing a building would take weeks. The cost savings of these standardized designs were huge. They could be added on to each other as modules, but otherwise there was little design flexibility.
Several factors have combined to change the process. First, metal buildings began being used for a broader array of end uses, and were forced to meet more stringent requirements. Secondly, building codes have become far more complex, accounting for more site-specific factors. Finally, sophisticated computer programs have allowed manufacturers to custom design buildings for specific site and size requirements without incurring the prohibitive engineering costs or creating lengthy delays.
In a pre-engineered metal building, every component becomes part of the design equation, leading to highly efficient use of material. (This aspect sometimes bothers designers: change a single component after the design is complete and the entire system may have to be changed.) Design and fabrication of the frames are still routinized, so much of the cost savings that made the standardized system attractive carries over into the custom engineered systems.
The Metal Building Manufacturers Association, which represents makers of about 90 percent of all metal system buildings, has long favored the term “metal building system” over “pre-engineered.” Six years ago the association formally abandoned the latter term, but even members are still using it in their advertisements. Builders, including those who understand the radical change in design method, will likely keep using the term “pre-engineered” for many years to come.
The primary component of a metal building system is the steel frame. Nearly all frames have solid or closed webs, rather than the truss-style open web. Most common is the clear-span tapered rigid frame, which can handle clearspans of more than 160 ft. Multi-span frames have interior columns that can expand their reach almost indefinitely. Various kinds of frame geometry allow for steep and low slopes, single slopes, straight or tapered walls, and other designs. Manufacturers offer many proprietary variations on the basic forms.
Other components include girts and purlins, the roof and wall sheathing, endwall beams and columns, flange and other bracing. Typically, all parts are designed, fabricated, and supplied by a single source and delivered to the jobsite for erection.
The MBMA defines a metal building system as “a completely integrated set of mutually dependent components and assemblies that form a building.” The components amount to a fully engineered system that will meet specified design loads. Erection crews can generally bolt and fasten the entire building together with little or no welding in the field, depending on the manufacturer’s system.
Manufacturers do not design foundations, although they can provide typical details. A contractor often requires an engineer for site-specific footing and slab details.
Not all metal buildings are custom designed as systems. Frame shops may sell rigid steel frames with or without components and with varying levels of engineering. These “component buildings” buildings can function well, especially as agricultural and storage facilities. They will often be either over-engineered, and thus wasteful, or occasionally under-engineered, and thus hazardous.
Many component makers are buying specialized engineering software and moving toward a systems approach. Some suppliers oriented toward consumers will provide engineered buildings, but will take no responsibility for code adherence. There are also brokers who will sell building packages of uncertain origin — often billed as “surplus” buildings engineered for a site similar to the customers’.
Metal buildings enjoyed a terrific run during the 1980s and 1990s, and garnered huge share of the low-rise, non-residential building market. The method became popular for retail stores, shopping malls, churches, schools, and office buildings, cutting into markets previously held by masonry, conventional structural steel, conventional wood framing, and pre-cast or tilt-up concrete. Led by the MBMA, the industry has tried to cater to architects and other specifiers, emphasizing the aesthetic flexibility of metal buildings.
On the other hand, the industry’s share of industrial buildings, one of its core markets, has declined steadily over that same period. The industry experienced sharp declines with the drop-off in commercial construction in 2001, and several large companies have had to restructure or downsize their operations. Butler’s 2001 sales were off 17 percent from 2000, and calls the outlook for the near term “soft.” But given its track record and fundamental economies, don’t expect the industry to stay down for long.

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