Pre-Engineered Metal Buildings Compared to Wood and Concrete Buildings

Building owners, architects, developers, engineers, and others routinely seek the best value for their investment made in design and construction. Listen to our latest podcast episode to hear how metal buildings compare to wood-framed and concrete buildings.

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Lexi: Welcome everyone to another episode of Metal Minutes by Cornerstone Building Brands. My name is Lexi and I will be your host. With me today, I have Benjamin Parks. He is the Regional Sales Manager for our Engineered Building Systems segment. How are you Ben?

Ben: Not too bad. How about yourself?

Lexi: Doing well! All right. So today we’ll be talking about pre-engineered metal buildings and how they compare to both wood and concrete or masonry building systems. So in your opinion, for metal building systems, have they been gaining more popularity throughout the years, or is it something that kind of has always been a competitor to wood or concrete buildings?

Ben: I feel like it really kind of ebbs and flows a little bit, partially driven by pricing as steel prices fluctuate and concrete prices fluctuate, and lately wood pricing has been going up significantly. So you’ll see a little bit of a shift towards one product versus the other based on pricing. But also I do think pre-engineered metal buildings are pretty universal fit across a lot of different areas of construction. So usually when we see pre-engineered buildings, wood’s not a significant competitor unless we’re looking at a smaller structure, just because of the overall design flexibility and capabilities that steel buildings have.

Lexi: Okay. And when you say pre-engineered metal buildings, what does the pre-engineered really mean?

Ben: Each building is designed specifically for the project that we’re looking at. And what that means is our engineers, they’re going to go through, they’re going to look at the load requirements, the spacing requirements on the job, and they’re going to come up with a frame design. They’re going to work with the program generated frame, and they’re going to have a custom frame design where they’re going to engineer, and they’re going to stamp a thickness of the web, a thickness of the flange. They size out the secondary members in the purlins, girts, or joist accordingly for that building. Whereas, a conventional, typical conventional steel building, they’re going to use structural steel members that come in one size and they’re going to design accordingly around that. So it gives us a little flexibility to make an economical solution that’s custom for the requirements that the project has.

Lexi: Got it. Okay. So I think that we should just kind of dive in, let’s go ahead and start with the wood building systems. So let’s compare the advantages of metal buildings to wood.

Ben: So I guess a couple of key points. The first thing that jumps out to me is recyclable. I mean, pre-engineered metal buildings, we’re pulling from recycled steel, which I think has a lot of value just from a natural resource standpoint, but it’s also a good item that I think a lot of consumers key in on is look, it’s a resource we can take old used cars and appliances that go to the steel mill. They get melted down, they’re turned into new steel, which we then use and incorporate into both our structures and the shooting of our buildings. So I think that’s a big advantage of steel over wood. And overall, I mean, steel is stronger than wood. I think that gives you a better feeling building and a better product on the backend. And then along with that, I mentioned there’s some design flexibility that pre-engineered buildings have.

Ben: We can span 250 feet with a steel frame, whereas wood, once you get beyond typically, 60 feet has been the cutoff, where if you go anything wider than 60 feet with wood, you’re going to be more cost-effective to use a steel building. So we’ve got a lot of flexibility for short span, long span with the frames and the way that everything’s put together on the steel side. And beyond that, there’s actually more economical insurance rates available for steel building compared to an identical wood building.

Ben: So there are some long-term savings there from an insurance side and maintenance. The maintenance of steel is pretty easy to maintain from a cleaning and replacement standpoint. And steel is more weather tolerant, with wood, you run the risk of rain and snow that can penetrate the wood products that will cause them to swell or damage, and really affect negatively the overall integrity of wood. So from the pre-engineered side, I think you’re getting a much better product with a lot more flexibility, better for the environment, longer lifespan, really don’t see where you can go wrong with a steel building.

Lexi: Okay, great. I’d like to hone in on a few key points that you mentioned. So one of them was the design flexibility. I thought that was really interesting that you said that with steel buildings, you actually have more design flexibility. And how is that? Can you kind of talk more about how you have larger spans with steel buildings?

Ben: So on the pre-engineered steel buildings, we will custom design the building based on the loads and the requirements of the job. So we can adjust and design the web thickness and the flange thickness and the web depths to come up with a steel frame that can span much longer without eating into the space of the building and requiring columns to be dropped. Whereas a wood frame, you do get limited with the wood members that are available with how far you can span and what that looks like.

Ben: With a typical wood trust, you’re going to have a kind of a flat bottom cord. You’re not going to have a lot of room in the ceiling, and anytime you get over 60 feet in the area, which the building is going in the loads there, you’re going to have double joist and it’s just really, don’t have a lot of flexibility once you get into the wider buildings, whereas steel, I mean, we can go anywhere from the standard 20, 30, 40 wide, small buildings to 250, 260 foot clear span sports complexes, or warehouses that have additional flexibility with where we need to drop our columns.

Lexi: Okay. So what you’re saying is because steel is a stronger material, we don’t have to place as many structural walls or columns. Whereas if you were to use a wood structural member, you’d have to put them closer together, which would interfere with the design layouts.

Ben: Yeah. I would say it’s a combination of the steel being the stronger material, but also us having the flexibility through being a pre-engineered building to adjust and engineer the frames accordingly to accommodate whatever is needed. So we can increase the sizes of the steel that we use in our framing to meet the requirements of the building.

Lexi: Okay. That’s great. And then you also touched on fire resistance. So how does the metal building structure compare to wood in terms of the fire resistance?

Ben: I guess pretty basic high level, steel is non-flammable, noncombustible material. It is in a completely different category than wood and performs significantly different under fire.

Lexi: Okay. The other thing that you touched on was the weather tolerance. So how does the weather affect either the construction of, or the durability of wood versus metal?

Ben: Yes. Water in general does not mix well with wood. As soon as wood becomes exposed and saturated to water, it does tend to compromise the structural performance and the appearance of it, whereas, steel is not prone to the same type of damage. So the overall integrity of the structure remains intact and it will continue to perform in the years beyond, just as it was meant to perform on the front end. So during construction, weather, as everybody knows, changes quite rapidly, does not really play a role if the steel gets a little wet, it’ll dry out and continue to perform as it should for many years to come.

Lexi: Okay, great. So let’s go ahead and segue into the comparison of metal buildings to a concrete or a masonry structural building. What are some of your key points of advantages of metal over concrete or masonry?

Ben: High level, and I guess you say concrete or masonry. When I think of masonry, that’s usually just more so used as a finish on the outside of the building. I think, it’s precast, whether it’s precast panels, concrete panels coming in or cast in place concrete, there’s a variety of different materials that get used on large buildings that we run up against on the steel side. But I think there are some pretty significant cost savings on the pre-engineered steel building, definitely offers more flexibility. And then there’s some other benefits similar to what we talked about on the woods side with steel being a recyclable and coming from recycled products in the buildings that we produce and use compared to the concrete, which is not.

Lexi: Okay. So now let’s talk about the installation processes. How do the installation processes differ between the two different types of building systems?

Ben: So I guess I’ll look at a typical pre-engineered metal building compared to a, call it a precast building that maybe has a conventionally framed rafters, maybe bar joist and a built up roof. That’s usually kind of what we see for these large warehouse or distribution type buildings that we’re up against. And without a doubt, the pre-engineered metal building offers a much quicker solution from start to finish.

Ben: Once we have the parameters of the building set, I mean, we are rocking and rolling and able to generate the column reactions and anchor bolt plans within a few weeks and follow with our design just a few weeks after that and really get it moving into production, whereas concrete, it becomes a lot more involved on the front end with the involvement of structural engineers to lay out the framing, to work through the thickness and the requirements of the precast walls that are going to be part of the structure and really tying everything together.

Ben: We find that usually the pre-engineered metal building process is at least 25 to probably 33% quicker from start to finish when compared side by side with a concrete building. And that all goes into cost. I mean, yes, typically we’re going to be a less expensive option compared to a precast building. Part of that is the speed of the process. Part of that is the speed of erection. Our buildings go together really quick when we have the experienced crews on site, which is less manpower on site, for the erector less equipment on site, it really just drives down the overall cost of construction on pre-engineered versus a precast building.

Lexi: Okay. Does weight come into play at all with the structural design and what are the advantages of using metal in terms of weight when it comes to a building system?

Ben: So a concrete building is also going to have some structural steel that’s going to support the precast panels in the roof system. So they’re going to have a combination of structural steel, which is not going to be a, call it an economic steel design compared to a pre-engineered building when we can use different web and flange depths and thicknesses of our steel. So you end up with a little heavier steel going into the concrete structure. Then you have the overall weight of the concrete, which will then transfer into the ground. And that typically means more rebar, thicker concrete, increased footings, compared to a pre-engineered building where we can transfer those loads a little more efficiently into the ground.

Lexi: Okay, so you do see some cost savings?

Ben: Absolutely. Absolutely. With the pre-engineered metal building, you will typically have lighter loads at the ground.

Lexi: Okay. I know that previously, when we were comparing metal to wood, we said that steel was a lot stronger than wood, but I would see concrete being a very strong material, as well. So can you talk a little bit about the resilience factor when it comes to comparing metal building systems to concrete building systems?

Ben: Yes. I mean, concrete is definitely heavier and it’s designed, a lot of times it’s over-designed because of the weight that it has now. Now with that being said, there’s other advantages that the steel has from a standpoint of maintenance, for example, if somebody runs into a wall with a forklift, it’s pretty easily, if it’s installed properly to replace a couple panels and move on with it. While, if somebody puts that into a concrete wall, the overall maintenance and everything that goes with that, the cost skyrockets.

Ben: The pre-engineered metal building also offers a little bit more efficiency from an energy standpoint, whether it’s the traditional fiberglass systems of insulation for the roof and wall, or more recently, we’re seeing a lot more of the insulated metal panel systems that can actually have the texture, the mesa, the stucco look on the outside and provide a better energy system and an increased higher R-value for the building than you can get out of concrete.

Lexi: So what you’re saying is that there are some metal panels out there that are designed to look just like stone or stucco?

Ben: Yes, there’s definitely textured panels and the industry continues to evolve. And with our relationship with Metl-Span as a sister company, we are definitely kind of leaning on them to incorporate their panels when competing against concrete, that helps, and I think levels the playing field aesthetically when people are concerned with the overall look of a metal building compared to that of a concrete building.

Lexi: So since you brought up the concept of insulated metal panels, I know that we’ve touched on this a little bit in some previous podcast episodes, but if we were to use insulated metal panels, obviously that has a huge energy efficiency advantage over any other type of wood or concrete building, how would insulation be handled in a wood or concrete building system as opposed to an insulated metal panel building system?

Ben: There’s a lot of different systems out there. With wood, it’s typically a fiberglass system that would be put in on the wall and roof sometimes. Though people will go in and they’ll blow insulation in, depending on the interior finishing of it. Concrete has the flexibility of getting some, I believe some foam built into their panels, their precast panels, which helps them obtain the R-value.

Ben: But I’ve yet to see a system that has the flexibility to go from two, three, up to six inches or more if needed of insulation, that we can offer through our insulated panels. And along with that, you’re also getting a liner panel or a nice clean look on the inside, as well as your exterior finish, which can be again, more the textured look or smooth panel finish as well. So there’s a lot more, a lot of flexibility on the pre-engineered building when you start looking at the package and comparing them to what you can get from the concrete.

Lexi: Okay, great. The last question I had, and whenever we’re comparing metal to concrete is the weather tolerance, how can metal versus concrete stand up against the outside elements?

Ben: There’s probably two parts of it. I think of on the front end, when the building is being put together, or the materials are actually being formed, weather can adversely affect concrete, poor weather can compromise the strength and quality of it, along with the mortar and the grout and the other products that are used on it. Whereas, steel really doesn’t have a… Weather doesn’t have an adverse effect on the steel construction throughout the construction process or on the backend. So you really just see steel being pretty resilient to the bad weather. And I’d say one other kind of side point, talking about the construction processes, when you’ve got precast panels, concrete panels showing up at a job site, at that point, you really don’t have any flexibility.

Ben: I was at a job site recently that had some precast panels on it, and they were off three inches. Well all of a sudden, your lower panel line doesn’t line up with your top panel line. They’re trying to work through what’s it mean to shift framed openings over. And all of a sudden they started looking at shifting that and getting into the bracing that was already in place, and it really created a big mess. So that’s another advantage I’d say you have on the pre-engineered steel is you’ve got flexibility, not only on the front end, but also on the backend and in the field, if you run into situations where you need to make changes, it’s much easier to have an engineer look at it, size out some members and shift your framing accordingly. So I think that’s another big advantage of pre-engineered versus concrete.

Lexi: Okay. Well, this has been great so far. Is there anything else that you want our listeners to know about the advantages of metal building systems over those of wood or concrete?

Ben: No. I’d say engage with your sales team, have those conversations. We’ve talked pretty vaguely about wood and concrete, and the reality is there’s a lot of intricacies of all of the systems. We will provide pre-engineered framing and roof systems with buildings that have precast walls. I mean, we can play together with the other forms of construction and we can really highlight and bring the advantages that we have, whether it’s the speed of process, the flexibility, being a little more cost-effective than some of the other solutions.

Ben: So again, we talked pretty vaguely, but overall our sales team and inside team, support team, they’re very knowledgeable on what we have to offer and what we bring to the table. And each project, each situation is different. That’s what makes our industry very interesting and different than others, is each job presents a new opportunity to put a church out in the marketplace, or look at a distribution center that’s going to help expand and add jobs to a community. So really we’re just, we get excited about all the opportunities out there that our product can offer and blend to, lean on the resources that we have through our team to help us partner with you as the customer to make it a successful project.

Lexi: Great. Well, Ben, thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure.

Ben: Yepp, appreciate the time.