Metal: It’s smart, it’s green

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While the construction industry has reached a general consensus on the desirability of “green” building, there is a wide disparity in how far eco-friendly attitudes and practices have penetrated the various sectors.

Big-dollar commercial construction is a leader in the field, as is healthcare construction. On the other hand, residential and light commercial projects are often less likely to incorporate sustainable building practices because owners are focused on upfront capital costs and immediate occupancy.

When it comes to metal building, “There’s just not a familiarity with new technologies because the idea of green metal building hasn’t been around that long,” reports Bob Zabcik, technical director of the green building initiative for NCI Group. The Houston-based company produces metal coil coating, metal components, and custom metal building systems under various national and regional brand names.

Contractors are likewise less familiar with sustainable building practices. President James Williams of Lowcountry Erection Company in Raleigh, N.C., which provides steel erection services nationwide, affirms, “Often the builder is less educated about green building than the even the end-user, because the builder’s top interest is making the dollar turn.”

Yet David Phelps, a professional engineer and marketing services manager for Chief Buildings in Grand Island, Neb., believes ignorance is not bliss. “By not seeing the long-term cost benefits of green building, contractors are missing the boat,” says Phelps, whose company manufactures commercial and industrial metal building systems. “Not being educated about ways to reduce the life-cycle costs of a building means the contractor can’t communicate the benefits to the end-user.”

Without such communication of long-term benefits, “It’s harder for owners to think about spending any extra money on the front end,” adds Jim Peckham, marketing manager at Varco Pruden Buildings, a division of BlueScope Buildings North America. Based in Memphis, the company makes pre-engineered steel buildings for the commercial market. “Though the green movement is getting more attention in construction, it’s still in its infancy,” he says.

Randy Wanta, a Star Buildings dealer and owner of Wanta and Son Inc. in Hatley, Wis., believes that metal builders face a challenge in going green, but also have an opportunity to differentiate themselves from competitors.

“In tight economic times, people just want to get the building up and finished,” Wanta explains. “But I think customers are also more open to hearing value propositions. So green can make sense if you’re educated and know how to sell it.”

The green advantage

Because NCI Group performs “a fair amount of government projects like prisons, research labs and municipal government buildings like schools,” relates Zabcik, his company has been compelled to satisfy requirements for sustainable building, energy savings, using recyclable materials, and minimizing construction waste.

Such mandates, Zabcik believes, may be coming to the private sector as building codes incorporate green principles. Some municipalities require adherence, for example, to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards published by the United States Green Building Council.

“Code officials care about the strength and integrity of the building, not about your paycheck,” he notes, so that public policy will trump concerns about profitability. With regard to metal buildings, he predicts a growing number of jurisdictions — particularly in California and in major cities such as NCI’s home base in Houston — will soon mandate cool roofs.

“The reality is that many communities will require that any new construction meet a certain level of environmentally sustainable requirements which will be enforced in the building code,” agrees Peckham. In the meantime, he adds, “There are incentives like tax breaks and faster building permit approval. If builders think green building is a passing trend, they may be surprised in a few years when it becomes required and not just recommended.”

Both Zabcik and Peckham point out that eco-friendly building techniques need not add to construction costs. “There are lots of simple things builders can do,” says Zabcik, “even if it’s just installing a roof painted a certain color to help discourage microclimate changes.”

Getting your money’s worth

For his part, Williams, the hands-on guy in the field, asserts that green buildings are quality buildings. “It’s not only the right thing to do,” he explains, “but using better-quality materials and construction will mean a better-quality product. And that’s a value you can sell. The customer will not only see the long-term cost savings in operating costs. They’ll also know they got a Cadillac-quality building versus a Pinto.”

A green metal building offers its own unique complement of long-term advantages. Very little steel is virgin material today, so that metal buildings are made from high recycled content.

“And all steel is recyclable and will someday be completely reused,” observes Phelps. Yet that day of reckoning is a long way off because steel is a highly durable building material.
“Metal roofs can take a hail, wind storms and UV rays, and don’t need to be replaced as often as other roof materials,” states Zabcik.

And Williams notes, “Steel buildings are so resistant to the elements that, when a hurricane or tornado comes through, they’re the only ones left standing.”

In addition to the inherent advantages of metal buildings, continues Peckham, “Products are being continually improved by manufacturers. At Varco Pruden we have some proprietary insulation concepts, where we’re working with insulation manufacturers to make sure the building and the insulation are coordinated.”

Metal roofing is another area where improvements are ongoing. “Before the material is formed into roof panels,” Zabcik relates, “it’s being pre-painted with additives that will reflect solar energy and re-radiate it back to infrared spectrum. That means less heat under the roof and less demand on the HVAC system. And these coatings will stand up for at least 20 years.”

Such “cool” roofs cost more, allows Williams, and “sometimes owners get hung up on the initial cost.” Thus, once again, builders must educate themselves and be prepared to sell the added value of today’s green technology.

Facing facts

When the decision is to go with metal, though, “Green building options are just not the first thing that pops into an architect’s mind,” asserts Zabcik. “Traditionally, metal roofs aren’t painted. And if they are, for aesthetic reasons it will be a darker color.”

Yet builders as well as architects can be wedded to tradition. “Someone who has been a metal building contractor for years can be married to a certain type of construction — and that’s all they’re willing to do,” reports Williams. “Sometimes an older generation isn’t interested. Or maybe a certain region of the country doesn’t have a sense of urgency about sustainability.”

Through 30-plus years in the construction industry, Wanta has experienced firsthand the challenges of trying new construction materials and techniques.

“It’s easy to get into a rut,” he concedes, “but times change and you must think outside the box to survive. It really goes back to servicing the customer. What can you provide that will spark customers’ interest and meet their needs? It’s important to look ahead.”

Striking a balance between what a customer wants and what a customer needs can be difficult.

“The client’s goal is to complete a project cost effectively and economically,” notes Peckham. “So the economic benefits of green building must be verifiable. For instance, you need to show how additional insulation will reduce the need to heat and cool, thereby reducing the size and cost of the HVAC system.”

“The fact is that metal building customers are looking at the upfront cost and not the cost over time,” agrees Zabcik. “So in proposing green products you’ve got a double challenge — convincing the client to look at the long run, and trying to quantify payback when you can’t predict what energy costs and inflation will be.”

The pitch may vary according to the client. “Selling ‘green’ to a hospital or school is different than selling it to a business owner,” Phelps observes.

Then, too, says Williams, “If your client is a developer and will be leasing out the building, they might not care as much about being green. It’s not their dollars that are running and maintaining the building. Since they’re leasing it out, they might want it built as cheaply as possible.”

Even then, however, Wanta believes that metal builders can make the case for green. His company, Wanta and Son, is engaged in a development of its own. “A green concept can differentiate a rental property from the competition, so that the developer stands a better chance of attracting tenants,” he suggests. Since tenants who save on their utility bills are likely to be happier tenants, he continues, “We’re going to spell out to potential customers what we can do for them in this building.”

Bang for the buck

Which green products give metal building customers the most value? Much depends on the customer’s budget and the intended use of the building.

But Zabcik reports, “Insulated panels can be a great option for just about any application. They provide structural support along with added insulation. And they show a good payback, especially when paired with a cool roof.”

According to Williams, “Insulation is the number-one thing to make a metal building greener.” But he reminds builders that not all insulation is the same. “Fiberboard, insulated panels, and fiberglass batting all give R-values. But going the cheapest route doesn’t yield the best result,” he cautions.

Another green product he recommends is skylights. “You can combine natural lighting and energy-efficient light bulbs,” observes Williams, “so that you don’t bog down the whole building with needless extra energy costs.”

And Peckham points out, “Windows and doors are almost an important part of an overall sustainable metal building package.”

Even before the building goes up, site selection can be an important green strategy. Taking advantage of the sun’s position and of prevailing winds can help cut energy bills. And rather than clearing new land, believes Phelps, “Contractors should be aware of site issues and consider reusing land that’s been built on before.”

Moreover, adds Peckham, “The site elevation might lend itself to a particular design, such as setting up a single-slope building to go toward a natural water retention area.”

In the end, Wanta advises, builders must “first find out the customer’s priorities and how the building will be used. Will people be opening doors all day or working inside? Some clients want to go 100-percent green. But in most cases you must look at their basic needs and then suggest, or throw out, different options with various paybacks.”

Back to school

Once again, the key is education. “I’ve found that a great resource is the Department of Energy,” reports Zabcik, “and the building technology program of its Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy division. And you should get involved with a local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. They have online resources and they’ll help you establish a network of people in your area who are interested in the same subject. Also talk to different contractors and get their perspective and experience.”

Hiring a green building consultant is another option, Zabcik adds, as is purchasing software that analyzes building designs to quantify various energy-saving measures.

Williams recommends construction trade magazines, Internet research and industry seminars as helpful educational resources.

“It’s about a chain of information coming from the manufacturer to the contractor and then to the end user,” he says.

For his part, Phelps advises metal builders to “find architects who are knowledgeable, look for workshops and develop a supportive peer network.”

At the end of the day, counsels Peckham, “Contractors must develop internal competence about LEED standards — if only because their suppliers are doing the same thing. It’s important to align yourself with metal building manufacturers that are developing eco-friendly solutions and provide education about the green advantages their products offer.”

Wanta receives that kind of support as a Star Buildings dealer and finds it valuable. “For companies with limited resources,” he notes, “your suppliers can be great assets. Our supplier has a person on staff I can call to consult about building package options I can offer.”

With an active business to oversee, Wanta admits, “The biggest hurdle in educating ourselves about green building is finding the time. But once you take the first step, things get going.

“Economically, it’s a challenging time right now,” Wanta continues. “But experience has taught me that when you have to trim back, don’t cut out the education you need to stay successful.”

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