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Metal Buildings: Modern Marvels?

Chris Tilton wrote a column for a recent issue of Commercial Construction & Renovation.

You can read the full column here:

It was sort of like your reaction to your least favorite neighbor’s eyesore of a metal yard shed but on a larger scale.

But things change. Bag phones became smartphones. Black-and-white TV became color and then the high definition. Video rental stores became streaming services. And metal buildings became a trend, driven by innovation that drove up demand. Today, a metal building may be the proper option for your new build.

Don’t just take my word for it, look at the statistics. Over the past five years, the structural metal product manufacturing in the US industry has grown to reach revenue of $50 billion in 2019, according to IBISWorld.

Sustainability has a lot to do with this. “Green” building practices are a driving force in today’s construction industry, and it’s kind of hard to beat a material that can be assembled with recycled metal and then be recycled itself decades down the road.

Metal buildings are “green” in more ways than that. Insulated metal panels, or IMPs, are the building blocks for many metal buildings. IMPs sandwich insulating foam between two “skins” of metal panels. Some of this material boasts impressive R-values, which is how we measure the effectiveness of an insulating product. Given Savannah’s climate, that’s a big plus.

Want more eco-features? Some forms of metal roofing reflect the sun’s heat, rather than passing it along into the building beneath. You don’t have to air condition heat that doesn’t get inside in the first place.

Other positive factors are durability and the fact metal buildings are inherently resistant to fire.

Modern manufacturing processes make precise fabrication of IMPs and other components possible. That means when raw materials arrive on the construction site for an intelligently designed metal building, they really aren’t “raw.” They’re ready for the assembly that makes them part of the cohesive building process.

But what about the appearance?

Even with all the plus factors metal buildings have going for them, I’d like to think no one wants to build a homely building, and early generations of metal buildings were just that. The Quonset hut of the World War II era wasn’t a beauty to most of us (although that trademarked product still has its fans today), and its successor buildings tended to be grim metal boxes – sort of soulless filing cabinets for factories and people.

But that’s changed, too. Architects have learned how to work with the new materials, and metal building components come with a versatile selection of shapes, sizes and finishes. And in color? Well, builders are no longer limited to the dust-colored options of the first generation of metal building components. You know, those vague variations on beige, gray and olive. Instead, the full-color palate is available to play a role in metal buildings making positive design statements.

Metal buildings entered the market as industrial properties, places where utilitarianism was an asset. Today, however, they’re finding their way into properties that house retail or office space, places that depend, to some degree, on the commercial equivalent of curb appeal.

Is metal my favorite? Well, I confess to a certain fondness for the new Livingood’s store in Pooler, Jeff’s Beverage in Richmond Hill and the Preciball USA headquarters, metal buildings that we built in the last two years. It’s the perfect choice for some projects and a good choice for others – but not for all. Any new build project requires careful consideration of all the options, and there’s no cookie-cutter solution.

That said, metal buildings are here to stay, having shed their initial major flaws and picked up numerous refinements.

Chris Tilton is president and co-founder of Dewitt Tilton Group, a Savannah-area commercial construction company.

Jeff's Beverage

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