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On the Right Path

The benefits of metal building systems are clear, but the process for specifying can be murky

Steel House Oct18 3
Photo: John Green

For architects and designers, specifying a metal structure can be a fraught exercise. Certainly, a deep understanding of structural steel construction is important, but at some point the designer needs to turn over the conceptual design to a structural engineer to make the building work.

One of the promises of metal building systems, also called pre-engineered metal buildings, is that they simplify that process. When building owners ask for a metal building, they are often looking for an off-the-shelf solution that streamlines both the design and construction phases, while providing the unique benefits of a metal building system, such as long free spans and large open spaces.

But one of the great changes in the industry is the increasing sophistication of metal building systems, and the ability of manufacturers to meet more and more conceptually aggressive designs. Those changes place architects and designers on a path that can be confusing. Knowing the resources available, who the players are, and where to turn for help can smooth the design process and give building owners exactly what they want.

Photo courtesy of Varco Pruden Buildings

Design-Build vs. Hard Bid

Craig Edwards, director of marketing, Varco Pruden Buildings, Memphis, Tenn., explains that the major delineation architects face when specifying a metal building system is whether the project is designbuild or hard bid.

In design-build, architects are engaged with a general contractor (GC) who usually is affiliated with a specific manufacturer and has access to all the tools the manufacturer provides. “We have a computer system where GC’s have access to a lot of the data for shapes and sizes, reactions for foundations, etc.,” says Edwards. “They can provide a lot of that information to the architect and/or engineer. So a lot of the design criteria is created really for the architect, so it will help that architect tremendously creating drawings and specs.”

Sometimes, the GC has a relationship with a metal building dealer who is providing the metal building and who has the relationship with the manufacturer. The GC has the relationship with the architect. “It’s a three-legged stool,” says Edwards. “[The GC's] will work with the architect to help develop a set of specs and plans. If it’s a true design-build, it’s much more collaborative. The GC and Varco Pruden will work to come up with the most economical solutions.”

Hard bid situations are more confrontational and there is less clarity on what is being specified. “Unfortunately, the end customer gets penalized for the hard bid,” says Edwards.

Mark Cogley is vice president of BlueScope Conventional Steel Services for Butler Manufacturing, Kansas City, Mo., and he points out another distinction between design-build and hard bid, especially if the architect has engaged his or her own structural engineer, who is usually the engineer of record. “What we’ve seen is customers can really take advantage of our experience. The architect is not relying on the local engineer. If he gets us on the team early, he can do more with fewer resources and streamline the process.”

A great example of the kinds of difficulties comes from Tim Seyler, president, S&S Structures, Blandon, Pa. His company supplies and erects metal buildings as well as structural steel, and as a result they bid on a lot of plans. “It’s rare to see a set of drawings from someone who has a wellrounded metal building experience. Things that are on the drawings include items that aren’t cost effective, feasible or doable.”

As a result, S&S Structures is competing against multiple metal building contractors who may or may not be bidding on the same thing. “It opens up lots of questions,” says Seyler. “Not just structural but aesthetic.” Seyler has had to bid on drawings that call for 7 inches of batt insulation, which doesn’t even exist. The conundrum he faces is whether to bid on the drawings as they are or as they should be, knowing that his competitors are trying to do the same thing.

Jim Peckham, marketing manager, Varco Pruden Buildings, says, “In hard bidding, all metal building manufacturers may not be making the same product. The spec is written around one product, somebody else might put something there that doesn’t quite match the spec, and that can cause problems when the building gets sold.” All projects need an engineer of record, so architects routinely turn to a local structural engineer. Seyler suggests that turning to the engineer before identifying the metal building manufacturer may not be the most cost-effective, efficient method. “Often they’re unaware of the ability of metal building systems,” he says. If the project proceeds to permit drawings before securing the metal building manufacturer, it will require a structural engineer’s approval. “But the manufacturer isn’t going to take the drawings and build it,” he says. Instead, they will have to reengineer it. “There is a waste of $25,000 for a lot of drawings and calculations that aren’t used.”

Photo: Ash Murrell, Phoenix Designs


So, where can designers turn if they need help understanding the metal building system process, especially if they’re working in the hard-bid environment and don’t have, as Edwards described, a three-legged stool to support them?

Edwards and Seyler both mention the Metal Building Manufacturers Association (MBMA) as an excellent source of information about specifying metal buildings. In July, MBMA launched a continuing education course, “Specifying the Latest in Metal Buildings,” which provides introductory information for architects on the specification process. (It’s available at the Architectural Record online CE Center.) The second source, which is much more detailed, is the MBMA’s “Metal Building Systems Manual.” Manufacturer-affiliated builders serve as deeply knowledgeable liaisons to the metal building manufacturer. Peckham points out that most manufacturers have local representation. “For the architect taking his first metal building, he probably should meet with the representatives from the top MBMA companies to get the understanding he needs to give a balanced quote.”

Cogley says, “In my mind, probably the easiest way to get started is to go to a manufacturer like Butler, which has a strong network of builders. From their website, they make it very easy to find a lot of information on projects, product examples and services offered by the manufacturers.” A portion of the Butler site is dedicated to specs and drawings, and architects may find there solutions for problems that meet the customer’s needs.

Echoing Peckham’s sentiment, Cogley points out architects can search for local builders from the website, “but he might want to engage with the local area manager, talk about the project specifically and get a recommendation for a builder. Sometimes he may find a builder from another area.”

Even in hard-bid situations, getting input from a metal building contractor during the specification phase can speed the process. Recently, Seyler was brought into an architect's office to help with a couple of specs. “We want them to understand it’s very valuable if they reach out for information. When we get that call, we jump on it. I’ll sit down with them for an hour or two and make some suggestions.” Even in instances when those projects went out for bid and Seyler didn’t land either one of them, he sees value in the help. “They asked questions and opened the door for us,” he says.

Cogley says that engaging the manufacturers earlier in the process provides another benefit. Butler offers conventional steel services in addition to metal building systems through a separate division. “One of the advantages,” he says, “is the ability to integrate metal building systems with conventionally framed steel. Heavier steel where you need it, lighter where you don’t.” In short, working with the metal building manufacturers earlier in the process gives architects access to engineering, pricing, design and detailing services throughout the design process. Adding in fabrication and delivery, the entire package is delivered in one process, one point of contact.