Buildings of a different color

Before the early 1960s a farmer’s main choices in metal structures were either a plain galvanized Quonset or a post-frame building. Harold Schroth, who entered the industry in 1963, remembers those days. “It was a really big deal,” he recalls, “when coated metal was introduced for the first time and you could actually have metal buildings in color.”
Until recently Schroth served as market manager, building products/North America, for Akzo Nobel, the world’s largest coatings manufacturer. Following his 2005 retirement from that position, Schroth now consults for the company and offers a perspective shaped by four decades of industry experience.
“When coil coating got started in the early 1960s,” Schroth says, “the main paint system was vinyl. Vinyl is flexible so the industry could actually paint the metal first and then bend it into shape afterwards.” Though vinyl got the metal coating business off the ground, he explains, the industry soon discovered the material would quickly chalk and fade. As a result, in the late 1960s the industry developed siliconized polyester paint systems, a product that remains a standard today.E-Paint.jpg
From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, the typical color scheme for metal buildings in the rural market was a white roof with colored sidewalls, Schroth recalls. “But in the mid-1980s,” he continues, “rural building drifted into residential and light commercial applications. As that happened, the color scheme flip-flopped to a dark roof with lighter-colored sidewalls. A dark brown roof, for example, with tan sidewalls was a popular choice. Dark gray roofs with light gray sidewalls soon followed.”
Why did the color scheme of rural metal buildings suddenly reverse itself? White roofs and darker sidewalls were typecast as an “agricultural” color scheme, Schroth explains, and owners of residential and light commercial buildings desired a different aesthetic. “Hardly any homes have white roofs,” he points out. Yet in ways that were unanticipated at the time, the flip-flop also brought fundamental changes to the paint systems industry.
“Logically, the best color for a roof is white,” Schroth points out, “because white reflects rather than absorbs heat.” But when the rural market demanded darker roofs, he adds, “These colors absorb more of the sun’s action and the industry wasn’t fully aware that the dark colors needed higher-quality systems.”
Darker colors on sidewalls present less of a problem because vertical surfaces are less exposed to UV rays, heat, and moisture. “Those are the three factors that cause weathering,” Schroth says, “and when you make the surface horizontal instead of vertical, you get more of all three. In fact, even today there are dark colors that don’t live up to expectations, primarily those that require organic pigmentation.”
As the 1980s wore on, the industry weighed its response to the challenge of dark roofs. “It’s not that the industry didn’t have the technology to solve the problem,” Schroth remembers. “But the market, which had been making white-roofed buildings for a generation, wasn’t accustomed to the performance demands of using a higher-quality coating on dark-colored roofs.”E-Paint2.jpg
“The clientele for rural buildings was evolving, from rural America to suburbia,” explains Schroth. Though high-quality paint systems have been around since flouropolymers — marketed as Kynar 500 and Hylar 5000 — and silicone polyesters were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he suggests, “From the mid-1980s to about the mid-1990s, the perceived price points of the market drove the industry toward lower cost rather than higher quality.”
By the mid-1990s the industry began to see the importance of quality and started to make improvements. “Many people think paint performance isn’t as important for agricultural and rural buildings as it is for buildings in the city,” Schroth relates. “I think that mentality contributed to the decline of quality in the 1980s and ’90s. But the opposite is true. Rural buildings demand equally good paint performance.”
Schroth likens his account to the experience of the auto industry. “You had the same trend in American cars,” he explains. “They went the low-cost route for awhile, but realized that wasn’t the answer and returned to an emphasis on more quality.” In the same way, now that consumers want lasting aesthetics and the coatings industry has more field experience with darker colors, paint performance has risen significantly over the past decade.
Over his 43 years in the industry, Schroth also has seen color choices increase. “Compared to the early 1970s when the color selection for coated coil was limited,” he observes, “today the color choices have increased considerably.” In turn, greater availability has led to changing color trends in the marketplace.
“If a major builder introduces a new color and it catches on,” Schroth says, “that color spreads quickly. Newer colors are deep green and burgundy roofs. If you’re a builder and don’t have the ‘hot’ colors, then you’re not going to sell that building.”
As long as roofs are darker than sidewalls, paints that can stand up to weathering will be an ongoing concern. The highest-quality coatings are flouropolymers, which employ inorganic pigments that add both to its performance and cost. For that reason, says Schroth, flouropolymers are more commonly used on commercial projects and high-visibility roofs.
Nevertheless, Schroth points out, “For an average building, the difference between using a low-cost paint system and a higher-performance system represents ‘small change’ in the total building cost.” Especially as steel prices rise, he notes, the cost of paint is becoming an even smaller fraction of the total building cost.
At the same time, improvements continue to be made in siliconized polyester paint systems, including a CERAM-A-STAR 1050 system upgrade introduced last year by Akzo Nobel. In addition to improving resistance to weathering, another goal of these advances is to develop “cool” metal roofs that save energy by absorbing less heat. “The objective is to have the best of both worlds,” Schroth says, “energy savings and long-lasting dark colors.”
Despite continuing advances in paint systems, Schroth believes the industry faces important challenges. “The lessons of the past, of our experience with lower-cost products, are something we need to learn from,” he says. “But even today we see lower-cost, lower-performance systems in the market. That’s my biggest concern, that over time the lessons of the past might be forgotten.”
No matter how much the times may change, Schroth has observed one constant throughout his four decades in the business. “I think, as an industry, we’re learning that quality pays,” he states. “But the challenge of achieving high performance at an affordable cost has been with us for 40 years and, I believe, will be a continuing challenge in the future.”

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