As a segment of the rural building market, airplane hangar construction has been flying under the industry’s collective radar screen. While sexier buildings like horse barns or more frequently-purchased commercial structures hog the spotlight, builders who either specialize in hangar construction or devote a good chunk of time to hangars have discovered it to be a lucrative source of projects.
“People are realizing now that hangars are an untapped market, an expanding market,” says Carrie Schmidt of BC Schmidt Construction in Williams, Calif. “There is a need for them. They’re a good income stream for us.”
Consider the following facts gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau:
– There are currently 612,000 licensed airplane pilots in the United States, 244,000 of whom have private pilot’s licenses. It is interesting to learn that among this group, it is not just the oldest and wealthiest pilots who buy hangars. “It might surprise you if you thought of these people that have the bucks to buy a hangar as someone in the older age group,” says Peter Karubas of metal building manufacturer Agate, Inc. “Lately younger and younger people have been doing this. A large amount of people in their 40s are buying these units — the younger generation is somehow coming up with the bucks.”
– There are 218,000 general aviation aircraft in the U.S. Some of them appreciate in value at such a rate that they can be considered investments, and those investments need protection. “A lot of people have suddenly realized that their aircraft has increased in value two or three times in the last 10 years,” says Rob Roberts of metal building manufacturer R&M Steel. “They’re all of a sudden realizing ‘I have this valuable piece of machinery here, maybe I better take care of this.’”
Even the most inexpensive hangar beats the alternative: tying a plane down to a tarmac, leaving it at the mercy of the elements. “People are really tired of having their expensive plane sitting out tied down to concrete, being exposed to the elements, when they can afford to put their plane in a hangar,” says Karubas. “But availability isn’t always there. Some of these airparks have two-year waiting lists just to get onto it.”
– There are 19,000 airports across the country; 14,000 of them are private. With government aid an inconsistent revenue stream at best, airports have found selling hangars to be a veritable cash cow. “Airports for some reason seem to drag their feet in regard to building hangars,” says Roberts, who is also an instructor pilot. “They don’t take up too much space, and they’re relatively inexpensive, but many airports drag their feet. You’ve got to have tenacity to stick with it.”
That goes for marketing hangar projects, not just fighting through bureaucratic red tape. Whether the customer is a city or county, an individual plane or homeowner, or even the military, potential hangar buyers loom just about everywhere.
“They’re out there,” says Matt Robbins of South Carolina builder Hightower Construction.
The majority of hangar customers can be broken down into two broad categories: municipal-run airports like those found in any city or county, and residential airparks, where homeowners have access to a runway and any other plane-related goods and services. The two entities are fairly similar, but hangar development moves at a different pace in each.
For instance, municipal airports can be slow to realize the untapped potential on their land, and slow to meet local demand, but once they decide to build, they build in bunches.
“Hangars are weird,” says Scott Walters of Walters Buildings, who estimates his office sells five or six hangars per year. “An airport will open up a new wing with 12 or 14 spots to stick a whole bunch of new buildings. In little airports, they’ll figure out a way to make a taxiway, make a deal with the landowner adjacent to the airport, open up a little subdivision of hangars.”
These subdivisions fill up quickly. Phil Hall of Aircraft Structures in Paulden, Ariz., who is also a pilot, considers himself fortunate to have hangar space, given the 10-year waiting lists at airports across the country. “I had to sneak my way back in, otherwise I’d be out on the street,” he says. “I could sell a whole bunch of hangars to people that want them, but when you’re dealing with a city or county, if they won’t lease you a piece of land, you’re out of luck.”
But will the demand be there in 20 years? That seems to be a sticking point in some cases. “It boils down to insecurity: if we build them now, are we going to be able to keep them full?” says Karubas. “If you’ve got a list that’s two years long, that should be an indication you can keep them filled.”
Filling new residential airstrip communities can be more difficult — in addition to hangars, expensive lots and homes are part of the sale — but also more lucrative than municipal facilities. Whereas the challenge in municipal airports is simply freeing up the land for hangars, the challenge in residential airparks is matching hangars aesthetically with million-dollar homes. “In an airstrip community, some of the people like the hangars to look a little nicer, with overhangs, vented soffit, fascia, wainscoting, maybe some cupolas,” says Bob Henry, a Wick builder.
Hall, who lived in an airstrip community for more than 20 years, points to Agua Dulce Airpark Ranch in California as a community where small touches have gone a long way toward improving the overall aesthetics. Among the touches: 4:12 roof pitches, rather than the standard metal building 1:12; 2-foot overhangs all the way around; and cupolas, to help the hangars avoid looking too boxy.
Karubas says his company has encountered code issues where a hangar’s proximity to residential development has necessitated the use of higher-end exterior materials like EIFS, synthetic stucco, or split-faced block. Schmidt has dressed up hangars with windows in the top half of bi-fold doors, epoxy floors, and side curtain doors for cars. Walters will focus on door trim, wainscoting options, acrylic floors, and varying depths of overhang. “A lot of guys spend $500,000 on a plane and put the cheapest building up to store it in, which is fine,” he says. “I look for the little specialty hangar, make it a little nicer.”
Aesthetic enhancements aside, building hangars is not a complicated endeavor — except for the doors, the importance of which can not be overstated. “The size of the door determines the size of the building,” says Roberts. “Most people are used to working the other way around, doors are an ancillary thing. On hangars, the only thing of importance is the door. There’s a lot to know about getting it right, and it takes a lot more time, designing and engineering.”
Yet as crucial as doors are to a hangar package, they are often purchased by a hangar customer separately from the rest of the building package. Illinois builder Jim Peters recently landed a large hangar project in which the customer preferred to purchase the bi-fold doors directly from Wilson, not through the building manufacturer (see story, page 23). Peters says this is the way things have always been done on hangar projects.
The two basic door styles used in hangar construction are bi-fold and sliding. Determining which style to use is contingent on a variety of factors.
– Size. Hall says bi-fold is the more economical choice up to 80 feet wide, although they can be manufactured up to 120 feet wide.
– Soil type. If the building site features soil prone to extensive expansion and contraction between seasons, a sliding door might encounter track problems.
– Electrical availability. Many bi-folds are electric, most sliding doors do not require electricity.
Bi-fold doors have seen a number of technological advances in recent years, from straps replacing cables as lifting devices in some products, to remote control systems that allow pilots to open and close hangar doors without leaving their plane. “The bi-fold door is pretty darned efficient from a cost perspective, efficient in terms of installation and other costs involved,” says Roberts.
With sliding doors, extra attention needs to be paid to proper bracing and placement of both the top and bottom tracks. “You can’t have very much deflection in your frames,” says Roberts. Sliding doors can either stretch beyond a building’s sidewalls or stay inside, although the latter can add costly and unnecessary square footage.
Henry typically uses a third style of door on hangars, a one-piece hydraulically operated door from Hydroswing. The door has a ram on each side that pushes the door up and out like a big awning, and is easier to insulate on its interior. Henry says the door offers a clean look.
Hangars may seem like glorified machine storage sheds, but that doesn’t mean they are not insulated and ventilated with care. Many airplane enthusiasts live in climates featuring wildly varying temperatures, and do not want to be shut out of their hangars during periods of extreme heat or cold.
“I think that most individuals do (insulate their hangars), especially in airparks, it’s either going to get too damn hot or too damn cold,” says Hall. “But when we sell a whole bunch of hangars to a city, they usually don’t insulate them. It’s a way to keep costs down.”
For metal hangars, even if the roof is insulated, it is important to remember to take into account the potential for interior condensation, which has the potential to damage aircraft. Karubas says this is more likely to happen in areas with heavy annual snowfalls. To account for the metal building “sweats,” Schmidt recommends a condensation barrier in the roof structure, as well as insulation.
Avoiding hangar rash
Hangars typically come in two configurations: T- or box hangars. T-hangars are, as the name implies, shaped like a fat version of the letter T, with the bottom of the T providing the resting spot for an airplane’s tail or nose. They are a popular choice where space is at a premium; in a current project, Peters fit 13 T-hangars into a 51×300 building, and five box hangars into a building of the same size.
However, Walters says T-hangars’ popularity have waned. Though economical, plane owners can find themselves in crowded quarters. “They used to be popular, but I don’t think I’ve bid on a nested T-hangar in eight years,” he says. “Most guys want their own shop, to keep their own plane clean, keep their own tools in there.”
Trying to fit multiple planes into a single large hangar is also taboo. Too much jostling can damage these delicate machines, a malady known as hangar rash. Individual box hangars are the top tier option for plane owners, allowing more room for maneuvering aircraft, as well as space to clean and perform maintenance on the plane.
The creme de la creme of box hangars are known as executive hangars, which contain a portion of the floor plan dedicated to offices or living areas. “People who buy these units and park their fabulous planes in them, it becomes a toy house for them,” says Karubas.
And that’s what hangar building boils down to. Even if hangars are simply boxy buildings with larger-than-average doors, they store some of the biggest toys around. “There are so many fun things, so many exciting things you can do with a hangar,” says Schmidt.