Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Build It Up: Steel Building Systems Offer Better Building Performance At Lower Costs

Originally published in Award Magazine

Whistler/Blackcomb. It’s one of the most popular ski resorts in Canada, and in less than a year these two peaks will host numerous events during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

The resort presented a major challenge to organizers – shuttling people quickly from one peak to the other. Their solution: the Peak 2 Peak gondola, featuring 28 cabins that travel from the top of one mountain to the top of the other, a distance of more than four kilometres.

To build the terminals where riders board Peak 2 Peak, the project owner tapped Colony Management Inc. Colony builds steel building systems, popular in remote areas with industries such as mining, so Colony’s expertise easily covered mountain peaks. The resulting terminals now protect the cable car machinery from the area’s snow and wind loads.

“If you put two buildings on the peaks of separate mountains in a high seismic zone with high wind loads and high snow loads, that’s a very challenging project to take on,” says Meredith Perez, Marketing Supervisor for Behlen Industries LP. “But we did it. It’s an extreme example of where our buildings can work. It’s very difficult to build a building on the top of a mountain.”

“Whistler is a huge step for us and for steel buildings because it was so different than any of our other architectural featured buildings,” says David A. Thompson, President of Colony Management Inc.

As architects and designers face demands for better building performance at lower costs, steel building systems are turning into churches, airplane hangars, office buildings, auto dealerships, even La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries.

Yet steel building systems, or pre-engineered buildings as they are still commonly called, continue to trigger traditional preconceptions of boxes, barns and sheds, to the chagrin of the people who make them.

They commonly play the part of the local hockey arena or factory, as well as facilities for remote petroleum or mining sites. What each use has in common is the need for “clear-span” construction, where support posts for the roof would interfere with the way the building owner wants to use the interior. While an obvious choice for ice pads, industrial designers appreciate the ability to set up production lines unconstrained by structural elements of the building itself.

But taking steel buildings further into mainstream use calls for sowing different perspectives among builders. Consider the cost of a building, for instance. Steel building proponents want decision makers to shift their focus away from capital costs and towards the cost of operating a building over its lifetime.

Even the capital cost disadvantage versus traditional steel and concrete structures can be mitigated when clear span construction ranks high on a project priority list.

For instance, Carole Lacasse, Director of Sales and Marketing for Honco Steel Buildings, makes the following claim about Honco buildings: “The foundations are simpler. They do not need to be reinforced due to concentrated loads caused by columns, since Honco buildings don’t have columns. The load of the building is distributed uniformly by the walls along the foundations.”

Speaking of Behlen’s products, Perez concurred. “Corr-Span frames are much lighter and you can save up to 15 per cent on the foundation alone.”

Also, one company and one trade erects the structure, and since it goes up faster than it would using other building methods, a shorter construction phase can mean lower labour costs.

The single source of responsibility also results in flexibility when dealing with design changes. “When Whistler wanted to make a change to the building, we could make the change and tell them what it would cost them,” says Thompson. “They could make knowledgeable decisions on what they wanted to do.”

Asking for design changes while following another building method, according to Thompson, yields a “guesstimate on what the cost would be. Colony could give them a hard figure. Whistler could quickly decide whether to move ahead with a change or not.”

That steel building systems consume less power to heat and illuminate comes as no surprise to industry veterans. “They’ve always been green,” says Perez. “It’s just a matter of the industry promoting that more strongly than in the past.”

By design, steel buildings are closer to LEED certification than the alternatives, and the industry is taking note. “We supplied Steelcare the metal building systems for an environmentally-controlled steel coil warehouse at the Port of Hamilton that became the first industrial building certified LEED Gold by the Canadian Green Building Council,” says Ron Miller, Vice-President of Marketing for Butler Manufacturing.

“The building is temperature and humidity controlled because it stores steel coil that would otherwise corrode on the outside wrap,” Miller says of the building, built by Abcott Construction, Ltd., of Brantford, Ontario.

The key raw material, steel, is entirely recyclable. “Recycled content is a minimum of 25 per cent of the content in all steel today,” says Perez. “It can go up to 100 per cent depending on the method used to make it.”

“There’s a lot of scrap steel out there. According to one statistic I saw, in North America, 70 million tons is either recycled or exported for recycling annually.”

The industry has shifted production to emerging mini-mills to supply the raw materials needed for steel building products. “Butler is implementing a 10-plant network whose strategic locations will reduce transportation costs and qualify for LEED points,” says Miller.

“Emissions and water pollution have been cut down drastically over the last few decades,” Perez adds.

Wall and attic cavities make high R-values easy to attain, since they accommodate large quantities of blown insulation. “It is not compressed by structural elements such as girts,” says Lacasse, adding that Honco buildings omit efficiency-sapping thermal bridges.

“In addition, the Honco roof truss is designed to integrate a structural ceiling,” says Lacasse. “The space created between the ceiling panels and the roof panels being well ventilated allows for the insulation to stay dry and permanently efficient.”

“Steel buildings are very airtight,” adds Perez, “which helps the R-value.”

Cost and environmental arguments, as potent as they are, can be outweighed by long-held building industry preconceptions.

“In the 70’s,” Perez explains, “companies offered pre-set designs for buildings. You went to a catalog and said ‘I want this building, X feet wide by Y feet long.”

“You didn’t have a lot of design flexibility. That’s not true of the industry anymore, but some engineers and architects still hold that perception.”

Indeed, architects adorn today’s steel buildings with masonry, canopies, curtain walls and other design finishes, sometimes to the point that only a trained eye would recognize them for what they are.

Burk Blanck, General Manager for Agway Metals, says that attractiveness can stem from the steel itself. “Siding comes in many colors today,” says Blanck. “You can arrange siding horizontally, vertically or diagonally to get a specific look.”

Yet “Steel building systems suffer from an identity crisis,” Thompson chuckled.

“I’ve done an architecturally pleasing building and right beside it was another building,” Thompson continued. “I sent a client out to drive by and have a look. He called me back and said ‘Well I really didn’t care for the building that you mentioned, but the blue one next door – I loved it!'”

“And I said ‘Well, the blue one next door was the one I was talking about.”

“We’ve done churches, we’ve done rec centres, we’ve done two-story office buildings,” says John Marchetti, Marketing Coordinator for Robertson Building Systems. “We can do arches, peaks – the design possibilities are endless.”

When asked how he envisioned the industry five years from now, Marchetti turns the question on its head. “If you go five years back, you rarely saw steel churches,” he says.

“The architect often hides steel buildings behind all sorts of other materials that they place around the structure to hide the fact that it’s a steel building,” Thompson adds. “On the Whistler project, the owners embraced the concept of a steel structure. The structure itself is part of the design.”

“We have these sawhorse columns that we built into the building. The architect clad that wall with a translucent Rodeca panel to show off the steel, which was designed in geometric shapes.”

Steel building systems also suffer an ailment common to the construction industry as a whole: a lack of training opportunities for its practitioners. Workers currently learn how to erect a steel building on the job over two or three months or the equivalent number of projects.

“Good classroom training plus a substantial amount of time in the field and extensive safety training is required,” Miller says, adding: “The Metal Building Contractors and Erectors Association, has a nice 12 volume instructional DVD set.”

Similar training and profile-raising initiatives are coming from the Canadian Sheet Steel Building Institute (CSSBI). In the words of Steve Fox, CSSBI’s General Manager: “We’re a marketing vehicle. We perform outreach to architects, builders and others. We show them the attributes of steel buildings.”

For instance, the CSSBI offers data sheets on its website to combat a still-persistent lack of awareness of steel building engineering data, particularly in response to seismic activity or when exposed to fire. “Slowly but surely, we are now seeing changes in construction systems, and our building structures are now certified in more markets,” says Lacasse.

Thompson noted that many municipalities, states and provinces legislate the amount of insulations buildings must have. “You’ll find more metal buildings in those areas,” he says.

Hybrid buildings – part steel building system, part conventional – can be a solution as well. “It happens all the time,” says Perez. “Take a rink. One of our systems is for the actual rink, while the entrance to the building and concession stand will be another type of construction.”

The most vexing matter may be the way in which industry representatives must still refer to their structures. “We try to use ‘steel building systems,’ although we still refer to ourselves as pre-eng since that’s what engineers and architects still know us as,” Perez admits. “We go to a trade show and say ‘We make steel building systems.’ And after a pause, we say: “you know, pre-engineered buildings.'”

“The word hasn’t reached everyone yet,” Perez laughs.

For a PDF copy of this article, click Steel_Building_Systems.