Metal Buildings – Sustainable and Adaptable — Marge O’Connor
Part I – Relationships and Technology Solidify the Base
Pre-engineered metal buildings were sustainable before that was trendy. Their efficient use of resources has offered a multitude of benefits for builders, owners – and the environment – for more than 50 years.
At the core of their success is adaptability. The buildings can be constructed in a variety of shapes and sizes to fit different low-rise applications including manufacturing, distribution, retail, commercial, education, recreation, self-storage, religious, healthcare and correctional. The wide range of colors for metal roof and wall panels and the ability to combine metal buildings with other building materials creates unlimited design possibilities.
What has kept this market viable over the long term is the ability to make continuous improvements through a combination of technology and grassroots market intelligence.
Although some of the basics about the structural design of metal buildings have not changed a lot, technology has made it more efficient to create buildings to meet performance requirements. In today’s market, computerized design ensures that each building uses only the exact amount of material needed to meet local codes and the owners’ needs. The process for engineering each structure is a team effort of builder, architect and manufacturer that ensures the structural design meets customers’ specifications.
About 90 percent of metal building manufacturers distribute through a network of contractors serving local market needs. If something is not working well, these builders work with manufacturers’ research and development teams to make improvements and to generate more applications.
“Our partnerships with design build contractors have been a key to expanding the use of metal buildings and meeting the needs of customers in any market or situation. These local contractors can also bring an existing building up to today’s standards at minimal cost by using the building’s engineering record. This means older buildings such as those built in the 1950s or 1960s with one or two inches of insulation can be updated by re-roofing, adding insulation and sometimes cool coatings. A brick or masonry structure would require a variety of contractors rather than a single source to do this,” says Philip M. Symes, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, for Star Building Systems, Oklahoma City, OK.
This method has additional benefits, says Wes Brooker, Marketing Development Manager for American Buildings Company, Eufaula, AL. “There is less inherent risk for an architect or specifier working with a metal building manufacturer because responsibility for meeting local building codes, execution of unique designs and overall building performance becomes a team effort.”
Brooker also notes that metal building manufacturers use their experience with a wide range of similar buildings to ensure design performance. He estimates that manufacturers sell more than 2,000 buildings a year, so they can draw upon this wealth of information from erected buildings to make design improvements.
“As metal building manufacturers, we control the entire shell. We look at it as a whole system with wall panels and roofs, so we know how to adjust the framing for all conditions. One of the reasons metal buildings stand up very well in seismic, hurricane or other conditions is because we look at the affect on the total structure when engineering it. Other types of structures are put together in multiple parts – it’s not necessarily a better or worse way – it’s just different,” Brooker says.
This steady flow of development has been accelerated by significant changes in technology, which has expanded opportunities in several areas.
According to Jim Peckham, Manager of Marketing, Varco Pruden Buildings, Memphis, TN, architects have used metal buildings in new applications in the last 20 years. “They’ve stepped away from thinking of metal buildings as just boxes. Schools and churches could be considered one of the biggest turnaround markets for our industry. Schools were typically brick buildings; now we see pre-engineered metal buildings designed to function as long-term solutions.”
Kevin Mickey, Division Sales Manager, Nucor Building Systems, Terrell, TX, identifies more recent changes. “Although we are always tweaking our products, the biggest changes have been in how they can be used in different applications. Architecturally complex projects have typically not been the mainstay in our industry but that’s changing because of advances in engineering and architectural technology. These improvements will continue to change the way our industry works and allow us to be more competitive on complex architectural projects. BIM (Building Information Modeling) lets us take complex ideas and integrate those with aesthetics as we’ve never done before. It will change our industry as much as AutoCAD did before and allow us to design much faster and to increase the quality of the design.”
Changes in manufacturing aren’t always as dramatic, but more of a continuous improvement process. “Manufacturers of metal buildings are always tweaking their systems to move in the direction of where they want to be in 20 years. An example of this can be found in traditional fiberglass systems such as standoff fasteners that hold the panel an inch or more from the framing. This mitigates the compression of the fiberglass batt at this location and improves overall R-Value,” says Bob Zabcik, Director of Research and Development for NCI, on behalf of Metallic Building Company, Houston, TX.
While the market can’t be controlled, manufacturers have adjusted to economic conditions by engineering their products to fit new markets and code requirements.
“The flexibility of metal building systems allows the industry to adapt quickly to conditions. During the recession of 2001-03 many companies learned how to engineer and manufacture school buildings. Last year, the greatest construction crash in our lifetime, our industry almost doubled its involvement in government construction from 15 percent to 28 percent,” says Brooker.
In the last 10 years, the drive toward improving building performance and better use of resources has been a major factor. Because metal building manufacturers deal with the entire structure, they are most prepared to deal with these changes.
“We design for what’s required based on municipal codes, which can affect several areas, including energy, lighting, and load requirements. Depending on building requirements we may have to change our structural design to fit the insulation system either for depth of columns or bracing. Today’s codes can also dictate aesthetics, and some municipalities do not allow metal wall panels. In those cases we’ve had to create details of how to use other materials for exterior facades,” says Mickey.
Advances in technology have been a benefit in dealing with new building codes, which have primarily been government mandated. “Energy efficiency is a significant influence in the changes in our industry and we have to accommodate it to stay competitive. Another example is electronic systems which allow us to custom design and engineer buildings faster and make them more efficient with less material waste,” notes Zabcik.
The emphasis on preserving resources has brought other changes. Manufacturers have turned to digital communications while maintaining personal contact with customers in other ways, such as in-person education sessions. Several companies also have green or LEED experts available to assist builders and architects.
Electronics has also changed how companies market to and educate the different audiences. “We produce and host a lot of Webinars but the biggest change is to have all of our specification brochures and engineering manuals readily available online. Now we can direct designers to the Web site for instant access to details. All drawings for thousands of details are also online so a customer or architect can go to our Web site to find what they’re looking for. It’s changed how we talk about our products with architects and builders,” says Mickey.
Zabcik agrees: “It’s our job to educate the consumer about what we can provide for their buildings. We reach out to end users with white papers and cost studies. We also hold sessions at our builder meetings to educate builders on what’s ahead and how to address the end user’s concerns.”
Peckham offers a good comparison on the value of different technologies and communications. “The impact of the computer and the Internet on the metal building industry is amazing. Computerization has sped up the manufacturers’ estimating process, but due diligence in information gathering is still a key part of the decision process and still takes time to do right,” he says.
Burlingame sees the continuing education courses his company holds with architects as a great face-to-face opportunity to learn what’s most important to them. “We talk about energy efficiency and metal buildings in general. After the presentation, there is an informal session that gives us a chance to provide more specific information and answer questions. Although we plan to offer online education such as Webinars in the future, we believe online misses a bit of the interactivity that you can only achieve when you meet in person.”
As electronic technology was changing communication and manufacturing, other materials and processes were making significant transformations that added to the efficiencies offered by metal buildings. The second part of this series covers the specifics of how these are now being integrated into metal buildings.