Introduction to Residential Steel Buildings
Pre-engineered steel buildings are a popular choice for many types of bare-bones commercial applications: warehouses and factories, for example. These types of simple buildings are easily scaled down for small residential applications like garages or sheds. They're also highly favored among consumers looking to add affordable storage space.
Modern building materials, insulation, and finishing options make steel buildings a better choice for many types of buildings such as churches, retail stores, offices, and even homes. Cheaper and faster to build, the primary advantages they hold over traditional construction stem from the fact that much of the assembly is done at the factory where the components of the building are fabricated. Steel buildings can be finished with any exterior, like brick, stucco, or siding, and look just like a traditional wood-framed house.
For almost any residential construction, steel framing is worth investigating. As with any construction project, there are some complicated decisions to make and potential pitfalls to avoid. This BuyerZone Residential Steel Buildings Buyer's Guide will explain the process and help you obtain the best steel building for your business or private use.
Before selecting the design and composition of your steel building, there are a number of specific benefits to be aware of that may limit your choices and eliminate unnecessary options. Get started here!
Benefits and the Building Process
The benefits of a steel building come from the construction material itself (steel) and how the structure is built. The combination of metal construction and pre-fabricated components provide many advantages:
- Cost. The labor to put up your building is drastically reduced, and therefore enables you to save 30% or more over more traditional construction methods.
- Speed. A finished steel building can be operating in 60 to 90 days, as opposed to 6 months or more.
- Dependability. Without requiring repainting or other maintenance, steel buildings are guaranteed to last 30 to 50 years, depending on the manufacturer.
- Reduced insurance. Insuring a steel building is significantly less expensive than wood or brick construction.
- Durability. Steel buildings are non-combustible, non-contractual from climate changes (resisting swells, shrinkage, and leaks), and pest-resistant (termites don't eat them).
From a cost perspective, steel buildings are pretty tough to beat. But before you settle on a design, your first step is to be aware of the building process itself, paying particular attention to the respective codes in your area.
Here is an outline of how a typical steel building project progresses:
- Design. Before any work can proceed, you need to specify the size and shape of the building, the type of roof and interior walls you want, the number and placement of doors and windows, and any façade or other cosmetic enhancement.
- Engineering. Once the basic design is complete and you've paid a deposit, an engineer needs to create the specifications and blueprints for the building. The blueprints will detail what materials should be used and what loads the building will need to be able to withstand to meet local building codes.
- Fabrication and delivery. After the blueprints are signed off on, actual production begins. The beams, posts, girders, side and roof panels, and even the fasteners to hold the building together are all produced at a factory, then shipped to your construction site. The parts are pre-cut to the exact dimensions you need, pre-drilled, and ready to be bolted together. This step can take 3 to 6 weeks.
- Sitework. While the components are being manufactured, the building site can be prepared. Steel buildings require foundations, which are usually poured concrete.
- Construction. Once the components arrive and the foundation is ready, the actual construction can take place.
- Finish work. Insulation, interior walls, exterior finishes, doors and windows, steps, and plumbing are all added to turn a metal box into a building you can appreciate.
- Walk-through. Like any construction project, your steel building needs to be approved by a building inspector once it is completed.
Now that you have a handle on the construction process, the next step is to select your design. But there are two specific factors that will determine exactly which steel building will work right for you.
Designing Your Steel Building
There are two major sets of factors that will influence the design and construction of your building. One is practical, the actual use of the building, and the second is legal.
On the practical side, if you're building a shed or garage, your needs may be as straightforward as an overhead door and a window. If you're using steel construction for your home, you'll need to include plumbing, wiring, and ventilation in your plans. (Note: all these subsystems need to be installed by the construction team you hire; they are not included in the price of the building itself.)
As for legal considerations, every state has different building codes that will apply to your project. These will include things like snow load and wind load and how much your building can withstand from each. It's imperative to remember that building codes are continually changing, so check with your city or county planning department.
Other legal requirements include local zoning laws, drainage requirements, and energy codes. Stricter energy codes require more insulation to save energy and "go green" to reduce your building’s carbon footprint. Insulating properly will make your building energy-efficient, often enabling it to pay for itself in the first year through reduced heating and cooling costs.
While steel building suppliers can help you research these codes, most won't ship you a building that doesn't meet codes in your area. It’s important to be aware that the ultimate responsibility for meeting local building codes is yours. If you're not familiar with major construction projects, it’s advisable to consult with a local contractor.
After you’ve determined the best design for your location, you now have two basic types of steel buildings to choose from.
Types of Steel Buildings
There are two main types of steel buildings to choose from. Arch-style steel buildings (a.k.a. Quonset huts) became popular during World War II. They are built from a series of interlocking metal ribs that form the roof and sides of the building.
Residential arch buildings are popular for garages and sheds because their construction methods are basic and they are less expensive per square foot. The downside is they are not very adaptable or customizable. Their construction only allows for doors and windows in the end-walls, not the sides, and the overhead clearance drops considerably as you get further away from the center of the building.
If you're building a home, you'll want to choose a red iron steel building (a.k.a. rigid frame style). These are constructed with steel skeleton framing and flat steel panels for the roof and walls. They can include doors and windows in any wall, and are expandable. Churches, airplane hangars, mini storage rooms, retail spaces, and office warehouses often opt for red iron steel buildings.
While they are still much easier to build than traditional buildings, more expertise and equipment is required to construct a pre-engineered red iron steel building than the arch style variety.
To insulate or not to insulate? That largely depends on your intended use. If you think you’re going to need protection against cold or heat, consider these guidelines as your next step.
Insulation for Steel Buildings
Unless your metal building is going to be an unoccupied storage building, you will need insulation. Steel is a very efficient conductor of heat, so the need for insulation is greater in a steel building than a wooden frame building. Plus, increasingly stringent energy codes also require additional insulation now.
The minimum insulation for a roof is R-19 (equivalent to 6 inches), and a wall is R-13 (4 inches). Maximums run up to R-38 in the roof (12 inches) and R-19 (6 inches) in the wall. Even though the increased insulation is more expensive initially, the savings in your energy bill will often make up for the cost within a year or so. You may also want to install a vapor barrier for the roof and walls to prevent condensation.
Other important extras include doors for people and vehicles, windows and skylights, gutters and downspouts to manage runoff. Be sure to inquire about the insulation value of the doors and windows; and start by looking at double-pane glass and insulated doors.
The final set of add-ons for your building is cosmetic. At minimum, you'll be able to choose the exterior color of your building. For a home, you may want to choose wood, brick, or stucco to finish the aesthetics. These options are more costly but make your house look like a home.
How to Buy
There are three major ways to purchase steel structures:
- General contractors (GCs) are the people who will actually construct your building. Typically a GC will get a general idea of the type of building you need, talk to a broker or several manufacturers, then present the options to you. In some cases, a GC may have a preferred manufacturer from whom they order.
- Brokers work with multiple factories. Like GCs, they will consult with you to determine your needs then provide a proposal based on the best manufacturer for you. However, their involvement ends once the pieces are shipped. You'll need to set up the building yourself or hire a GC.
- The manufacturers create the component pieces and actually do sell directly to customers in many cases. They will build and ship the steel structure based on specifications you choose and can also work with you to design customized steel structures. Once again, you must oversee the building construction.
Because of their experience, GCs are a better way to go if you're not familiar with planning and managing construction projects, especially if you have a GC who you work with on a regular basis and who understands your business.
Brokers have more expertise with steel structures and may have connections with multiple manufacturers -- benefits that can help save you money. They can also help you find the best deal, and put you in touch with qualified contractors in your area if you do not have one.
If you have more experience with building projects and know exactly what you want, you may be able to save money by going directly to a manufacturer. Cutting out the middleman also eliminates potential finger-pointing at later stages if anything goes wrong. Buying direct can be a good option if your project is small-scale, such as an arch-style steel structure you’re planning on erecting yourself.
Once you’ve determined which of the three channels to buy from, your next step is to select from a group of providers within that channel. Here’s a simple checklist to help you find the best dealer for steel buildings in your area.
Evaluating & Comparing Providers
Selecting your steel building supplier is important. Unfortunately, some less-than-reputable players have tainted the market with aggressive sales techniques. They’re also notorious for inserting deceptive language into contracts and quoting prices on buildings that don't meet the building codes in a particular area.
Beware of high-pressure sales
High-pressure sales pitches are problematic in this industry. You may hear old sales clichés from brokers and manufacturers such as, "This is the last one on the lot" or "A customer just cancelled an order for a house just like the one you're interested in. I can sell you their components cheap… if you sign today!" These pitches are designed to get you “act now” and should be avoided.
Most of the time, these "opportunities" are simply untrue. A major prefab steel building manufacturer recently got into legal trouble for using misleading sales practices like these. Do not fall for them! Legitimate deals will still be there tomorrow, the next day, and whenever you’re ready to buy.
The takeaway is: do your due diligence. Check the Better Business Bureau, ask for references, and/or get a personal referral to save yourself the headache of high-pressure sales.
Building to code
Reputable manufacturers and brokers do not want to sell you substandard buildings so they often maintain databases of current building codes nationwide. However, they don’t depend solely on that information – and neither should you.
The best way to proceed is to have the manufacturer or broker list the codes your building has been specified to meet in your contract. Then verify those figures with your local officials before you purchase the steel building. A supplier who wants you to sign a contract before you verify the specs independently isn't someone you should do business with.
How to investigate
Here are some questions to ask potential suppliers:
- How long have you been in business?
- Do you provide engineer-certified blueprints?
- What kind of guarantees do you offer on your buildings?
- How long will it take you to create and deliver my building? (This one is useful if someone pushes a "closeout special" on you. If it is already on their lot, they should be able to deliver it in a couple of days.)
- How do you ensure that my building meets the building codes in my area?
- Do you have a specialty? (Many companies focus on industrial buildings, so look for someone familiar with residential construction.)
Check with the Better Business Bureau in the supplier's area to find out if any complaints have been filed against them.
It’s also recommended that you ask the dealer for customer references. Even better, if the dealer can provide local references, you can view the buildings yourself. When checking references, ask the following questions:
- How long have you been a customer of theirs? How many prefab steel buildings have you purchased?
- Would you buy from this dealer again?
- Are their deliveries complete and on time?
- Are you happy with your building?
- What could the dealer improve about their operation?
One more thing to consider before you sign on the dotted line: cost. We’ve compiled a variety of pricing info from BuyerZone customers to make sure you don’t overpay. Remember, everything is usually negotiable. So keep this in your back pocket when talking to a dealer.
Residential Steel Buildings Pricing
There are many variables that affect the price of steel buildings. One general guideline is the bigger the shell of the building, the less money per square feet it will cost. Larger buildings are typically more affordable than smaller buildings.
That said, a typical price for basic rigid-frame steel buildings is between $12 and $20 per square foot. This includes materials, delivery, the foundation, and construction. A more finished or customized building with brick facades, unusual shapes, or complicated construction can reach $40 per square foot or more.
Materials alone can cost $5 to $15 per square foot. This varies according to size: small buildings cost more per square foot. A 20' x 20' garage might cost $6,000, or $15/sq ft.
Foundation costs are fairly standard, usually $4 to $7 per square foot for poured concrete. Remember that GCs may include this cost in their proposals, but brokers and manufacturers of metal buildings will not.
Labor costs will vary widely depending on the size of the project but can range from $2 to $6 per square foot. These costs will be charged by the hour, so increased complexity will drive them up considerably.
Insulation will add thousands of dollars to the cost of a larger building, but as mentioned previously, is a worthwhile investment. It will improve the resale value and soundproofing of your building, save energy costs, and meet new energy codes. Expect to pay for it, but know it’s a good return on investment.
You'll be asked to sign a contract that lists the design loads and specifications for the building. As with any major business purchase, you should inspect the contract very carefully before signing it. Here are a few things to look for:
- Substitution clauses. Manufacturers may try to give themselves the right to use different materials if those specified are not available. The idea is sound, but is often used to substitute cheaper materials for those you wanted. Make sure any changes are "equal or greater value" and must be approved by you.
- Specifics. The more specifics in the contract, the better. The contract should not just list a "10 x 10 overhead door" - prices range from $250 to $1200 on such doors. The contract should list brand names and model numbers, insulation values, locks, coatings or paints, and more. This is another way unscrupulous dealers may try to stick you with lower-quality materials, so make sure every component is detailed in the contract.
- Responsibilities. Since brokers, GCs, and manufacturers play different roles in the process, make certain the contract spells out exactly who is responsible for each phase of the project: design, engineer's specification, fabrication, delivery, construction, and inspection.
We've also gathered some buying tips from our customers and professional dealers alike that can help you find the best residential steel building possible.
Steel Building Buying Tips
- Do your research. If you can, get a referral from someone you trust, or at the very least check with the Better Business Bureau and ask for customer references from each dealer or manufacturer you’re considering. Collect at least three quotes. Doing your homework will help you choose a reputable company.
- Scrutinize. When two dealers present bids for similar buildings that are thousands of dollars apart, you should investigate the details thoroughly. Chances are one is not including everything you need.
- Verify the building codes. We cannot stress this enough: make sure you get in touch with your local building officials once you have specifications from your supplier and before you sign the contract. Changes to meet code will always drive up your costs. So to avoid late surcharges, you need to verify that the contract includes all the right specifications.
- Get it in writing. Some manufacturers may ask for a verbal go-ahead to "get the factory working" or to "lock in this price." This is never a good idea. Getting the details in writing will ensure that you know exactly what you're buying.
- Buy from an accredited manufacturer if possible. The I.A.S. (International Accreditation Service) certifies manufacturers. Purchasing from an accredited manufacturer can give you extra peace of mind, knowing that your building will be designed to the highest standards in the industry.