Keeping the faith…in the value, virtues of metal

As the nation worries over the economy, the metal building industry has a few things to smile about.

“Metal building has survived numerous economic swings,” says Steven Webster, immediate past president of the Metal Building Contractors and Erectors Association (MBCEA) and the Metal Buildings Institute (MBI).

Webster is also president of Dutton & Garfield Inc., a full-service construction company for the
industrial, commercial and community markets based in Hampstead N.H.

Speaking for himself, he reports, “The future is bright for the professional, well-trained and educated metal builder who can work efficiently and safely. There’s no question such builders will succeed.”

From the manufacturing side, Ken Gieseke of McElroy Metal in Bossier City, La., reports, “Although construction in general has slowed, there’s still growth in metal building.” As vice president of marketing for a company that has seen numerous boom-and-bust cycles since its founding in 1963, Gieseke also takes the long view. “Metal building has had its ups and downs,” he relates, “but a combination of factors makes the industry resilient.”

A key to the industry’s resilience is the simple fact that “metal buildings give a lot of value for the dollar,” believes Matthew Threadgill, Midwest regional manager for Memphis-based Varco Pruden Buildings, a division of BlueScope Buildings North America. Though his company focuses on pre-engineered steel buildings for the commercial market, Threadgill also notes, “Another reason for growth in metal building is because the industry has been progressive in increasing the variety of applications.”

Generally speaking, Threadgill continues, “Though there have been dramatic swings in the housing market, activity in metal building tends to be more stable over time.” For one thing, metal buildings serve a wide variety of owners. “Governments will continue to spend on construction, whether it’s for civilian or for military needs,” he says.

Stability in metal building is aided by suppliers of steel products who help cushion the potential blow of fluctuating steel prices. As Webster explains, “Manufacturers buy steel in high volumes, which tends to smooth out the bumps in the prices. Steel prices can be volatile, and so the contractor is helped in the end.” And because suppliers are one of the first in the supply chain in the know, he adds, “They help prepare builders for swings in the economy.”

Yet another factor in the stability of the metal building industry is its maturity, from proven designs to experienced installers. “This isn’t a new science, so there’s a lot of experience in the industry,” Threadgill states. “And there’s acceptance now for metal building construction among architects and customers that’s taken many years to develop.”

Increased acceptance

Architects and owners are learning, Webster states, “Metal buildings have efficiency by design. They’re specifically engineered to the building’s location. That’s important in an area like ours, where we have heavy snow and wind problems.”

Metal buildings can likewise be engineered for specific applications. “Design depends on the use of the structure,” he continues. “There’s great flexibility and a wide array of possibilities that allow us to use multiple components and achieve the best and most efficient solutions.”

Similarly, Threadgill notes, “Metal buildings used to be just for basic storage, but with improvements in technology and products, we can customize for every customer.” Even pre-engineered products are now customized. “Every metal building is built to the customer’s exact specifications,” he says. Instead of customers having to adjust around the design, he relates, “Now the customer’s needs are met with a designed solution.”

Another appealing aspect of metal building is speed, which means end users need not tie up their capital due to long lead times.

“Speed is important,” emphasizes Threadgill. “A short delivery time means good service to the end customer.” Building materials spend less time exposed to the elements because the structure goes up fast and is quickly enclosed.

The strength and durability of metal is an obvious advantage. At the same time, Threadgill continues, “Metal building contractors can offer added flexibility inside the structure. The construction method allows you to create greater spans, giving your customers more options — which is especially appealing to owners of retail businesses and warehouses.”

Dramatic improvements in technology over the past decade have also increased the appeal of metal buildings. As Webster relates, “Cool roof technology is a great example, along with advancements in metal building insulation systems and applications.”

Manufacturing equipment and software have likewise improved. “This allows us to optimize the design of structural steel within a building and keep up with building codes,” reports Threadgill. “For example, the development of high-efficiency wall panel systems helps provide solutions that are in line with code requirements now and for the future.”

Advances in the energy efficiency of metal buildings can help owners and contractors snag tax credits, as well as save on operating costs.

“When you compare the life-cycle cost of a metal roofing system to an alternative,” notes Threadgill, “you come out years ahead — and it’s virtually maintenance free.”

McElroy Metals’ Ken Gieseke affirms, “The environment has been much more of an emphasis in the last decade. Not only are metal buildings made from recycled material, but they have a long service life. And when it’s over, the metal can be recycled again.”

Combating scepticism

Though metal buildings have gained acceptance, Webster believes there is still much consumer education left to do.

Some people still have the idea that pre-engineered metal buildings are one-size-fits-all,” he says, “even though the industry abandoned that concept in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, once computers came onto the scene.”

Another common misconception is that metal buildings might not have the same quality as conventional wood construction.

 Gieseke explains, “One of the challenges the industry faces is competing with other building materials. We need to do a better job at getting the message out and explain why metal is preferable.” The next step, he adds, is to “educate customers on the substrates and coatings that go into a quality product.”

Educating owners means that contractors must themselves be in the know. With the support of the Metal Building Contractors and Erectors Association, Webster points out, the Metal Buildings Institute “provides state-of-the-art training and testing for steel erectors, including digital training modules to help erectors build faster and safer, and achieve a quality product.” He also recommends educational resources available from the North American Insulation
Manufacturers Association and the National Insulation Association.

For his part, Threadgill of Varco Pruden Buildings says that a great way to get information is from suppliers.

“Take advantage of resources they have available,” he advises. “You and your supplier are a team. Learn from their technical engineers and use them when needed. Suppliers can even help you to close the deal with a customer.”

Being an educated metal builder can also help companies explore new markets. As president of Dutton & Garfield, Webster reports, “Diversification for us has meant working some in the metal building re-roofing market. But because it’s another arena, re-roofing requires training and expertise in order to stay out of trouble. So get educated and trained!”

Learning new skills may be necessary to survive in today’s economy. Successful metal builders diversify, says Threadgill, because they know when one market is down, then other opportunities might be up. “Don’t be the builder who’s stuck doing one thing, because you think that’s the only skill you can do,” he cautions. “You always have to continue to market your company and look at other options around you.”

Of course, some challenges are beyond a builder’s control. “Getting credit has been tougher, but there are still folks lending out there,” Threadgill says. Though manufacturers do their best to lessen the blow of rising steel prices, he continues, “Steel cost stability has been an issue in the past, with some producers shutting down lines. It’s been a concern along with the continuing slowdown of the economy.”

But Gieseke is optimistic. “We’re always in a cycle. We’ll come out of this as an industry, some stronger than before,” he believes. For now he advises metal builders to “be smart about refocusing their efforts. People are still building. So be aggressive. Don’t get complacent.”

With some companies looking to downsize, Threadgill observes, those in a position to expand “will find there’s a lot of talent out there for businesses to increase capacity.” And even builders facing a slowdown can put their time to good use.

“When things aren’t as busy, there’s an opportunity to improve in-house,” Threadgill says. “So when things turn around, you’ll be ready and in good position. And always remember that when times are slow, that’s the time your name should be out there. The worst thing you can do is stop marketing. Get in front of the eyes of the customer and differentiate yourself by selling value.”

Metal builders can help themselves in another way. “Network with your fellow builders,” urges Webster. “There are even mentoring programs for those new in the business through organizations like MBCEA.”

But for newcomers and veterans alike, he believes, “With the current economic climate, now is the time to focus on details and get back to the basics.”

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