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6 Construction Materials Compared

6 Construction Materials Compared

How do building materials measure up when considering commercial and industrial projects? MSC rates these 6 construction materials.

Pre-Engineered Steel vs. Structural Steel vs. Wood vs. Block vs. Concrete Tilt Up vs. Pre-cast Concrete

 

Comparing building construction materials is a bit like comparing pickup trucks.  

(Ford vs. Chevy jokes aside.) 

  • What do you want to use it for?
  • How big do you want to go?
  • How long do you want it to last?

To get an insider’s opinion on some common building types, we asked Steve Ivanitz, owner of Metal Structure Concepts in Kelowna, BC.

 

James (Interviewer):  

When we’re talking about commercial or industrial buildings, how do metal buildings compare with other materials like wood or concrete? Can you run through the different building types.

 

Steve, owner of Metal Structure Concepts

There are two types of steel buildings. pre-engineered steel, which is the kind MSC sells, and structural steel. Structural steel buildings are designed and built at various fabrication shops across Western Canada. There are also block buildings with bricks and blocks, concrete tilt-up buildings or precast concrete buildings, plus wood-frame buildings.

Depending on your needs, a building can either be constructed on-site or pre-engineered with fabrication happening off-site.

 

Pre-engineered Steel Buildings vs. Structural Steel Buildings 

Let’s talk about steel first. For warehousing or manufacturing applications, there are two types of steel buildings. Our wheelhouse is mostly pre-engineered steel buildings.

Without getting too far down a rabbit hole, the next common type is a structural steel building, also known as conventional steel.

A structural steel building uses a blend of materials actually (steel, masonry, wood, etc.) and is constructed onsite, while pre-engineered steel is fabricated off-site as a kit and then erected on site.

Conventionally constructed metal buildings are more flexible for complex designs and can also adapt to changes easier once construction has started. Pre-engineered steel wins on cost, ease of maintenance, and simplicity though.

 

A Difference in Roofs

Another big difference is that structural steel buildings use an open web joist roof. They look like cross members. The H2O Centre in Kelowna and the hockey rinks - they all have an open web steel joist ceiling. Typically those buildings are structural steel buildings and usually have a flat roof. 

They'll have a tar and gravel or some sort of membrane. The roof is designed flat, which means that they'll have internal gutters and downspouts in them. The water will be collected on the roof, and it'll be brought down inside the building in a pipe out through the foundation, and away it goes. 

The typical life cycle on those roofs is about 15 years on a tar and gravel roof. There are some differences there, and I'm not an expert on them either. 

A web steel joist ceiling is described as a lightweight steel truss that forms parallel chords and a triangulated web system.

 

Support for Cranes

James: 

If there's a crane inside, is pre-engineered steel or structural steel better?

 

Steve: 

So for industrial buildings or heavy commercial, your pre-engineered buildings are usually the winner if you need the strength to support a crane. If there are special applications, it could be structural steel, but it’s going to be more expensive.

 

James:

Would the other building materials ever be a good choice?

 

Steve: 

No. For wood and block buildings, if you try to put a crane in them, you spend an enormous amount of money trying to design it to support it. 

 

James: 

Can the precast or tilt-up concrete walls support a crane?

 

Steve: 

Precast buildings can. It's more of a struggle than the structural steel building. So if we're building a ten thousand square foot building with a crane in it, the first choice is pre-engineered, then you would go to structural steel, then you would go to precast. I don't even think anyone's ever done it with wood without spending a lot.

 

The Simplicity of Pre-engineered Steel Structures

James: 

If no crane is needed in a commercial or industrial building then why use pre-engineered steel?

 

Steve: 

Ya, this is often the case. Even if no crane is needed, the biggest advantage is simplicity. A close second is that with MSC’s pre-engineered steel building projects, we’re sort of a “one-stop-shop” for the owners to have their building locked up to the weather. This is excluding foundation work.  

 

James: 

So MSC can cooperate with them during the foundation work and other stages? 

 

Steve: 

Yes. We will build their frame. We will insulate the building. We do the roof as well. We put the walls on and lock it up to the weather. Most times, we install the doors and windows as well. There aren't too many trades or construction companies that can offer the same thing on structural steel, wood, or tilt-up buildings. 

You usually need a general contractor for those other construction types because there are so many more trades involved. Whereas with pre-engineered steel, the owners can be and become their own general contractors. They rely heavily on us to get their project locked up to the weather. They don't have to call the insulation guy, and they don't have to call the roofing guy. 

Structural steel roofs are split into multiple construction stages. You have a steel erection company such as Western Canadian Steel. They'll do the framing. Then you call the insulation company, and they'll insulate it, and put the membrane down. Then you'll call the roofing company and they will do the torch of the membrane. Then you have to call a plumber in to do the gutters and downs.

So you've had five or six trades in there, whereas with pre-engineered, we've done it all. Our crews are trained to do it all. 

 

Our pre-engineering crews are trained to work in many aspects of your build, from planning and design to doors and windows.   

 

Speed Advantages of Pre-engineered Steel Building Projects

 

James: 

So with structural steel building projects, who’s managing all the extra trades?

 

Steve:

Usually, a general contractor is required with conventional steel buildings. If you're an owner and you don't want to have the cost of hiring a general contractor, then it’s much more straightforward using a pre-engineered steel package.

This leads us to the speed of construction. With pre-engineered steel, we are typically in and out of there faster than other construction types. It is way faster than block and substantially faster than wood. For speed of construction, pre-engineered steel and tilt-up are the closest. Pre-engineered steel is the fastest build

 

James: 

How much faster, on average, if it's a ten thousand square foot building? 

 

Steve: 

A month faster, at least.

 

James:  

Out of how many months? 

 

Steve: 

Out of a five-month process, we're probably out of there in four months. Using other construction types, it’s probably closer to six months. 

It might mean the difference in getting the owner in their building before winter or some deadline from the bank. It often allows us to beat the weather. 

 

Cost Advantages of Pre-engineered Steel Buildings

James: 

In terms of overall project costs, are you guys comparable to the other building types?

 

Steve:

Pre-engineered steel is typically 20% less than others. We're the cheapest and the fastest most times. 

 

James: 

So why would anyone pick a tilt-up concrete, cast concrete, or brick?

 

Steve:

Well, there are some localized reasons in Kelowna and the Okanagan Valley requiring people to go to tilt-up buildings.  The same goes for pre-cast concrete, which is similar to tilt up with the main difference being the material is poured on-site for tilt-up.  Pre-cast concrete panels are made off-site and then delivered. 

So let’s use Vancouver as an example. As dumb as it sounds, some industrial parks were previously gravel pits and concrete batch plants, so they've created their own set of rules. The rules state if you want to build in that industrial park that says you have to use concrete. They do this because they also own the concrete plant. There are some odd-ball reasons like that to use other materials.  That’s a cynical answer, of course. There are legitimate reasons to use any construction type - the purpose of the build or zoning are the common reasons.

Aside from steel buildings, concrete is used to construct tilt-up buildings. A construction technique that forms horizontal concrete slabs that are raised into place after curing.

 

James: 

Zoning issues, like when you have to match other buildings in the area? 

 

Steve:

Zoning can determine what type of building you’re allowed, yeah.  But it’s also due to education.  Pre-engineered steel is not as prevalent in BC and the Okanagan as tilt-up concrete.

That changes when you get out to Alberta. For every concrete tilt-up building you'll see in Red Deer or Edmonton, you'll see five to ten pre-engineered steel buildings. It's a more typical construction, and that started with cost and also insulation value.  

 

Insulation Differences of Pre-engineered Steel vs. Others

Steve:

Most concrete buildings are kind of cold buildings. That's back to education. The owners may not be aware. No owner is standing inside the big box stores the day it opens. It's a conglomeration, or it's a buying group. They aren't necessarily the ones who are occupying the buildings. They will not be worried about heating and cooling like “Joe owner” who works in his shop every day.

If you go into some concrete buildings in Kelowna, the older ones don't have the R-value in them. They're cold buildings. People are standing there with their coats on. They're just cold buildings.  The code has changed now, and the concrete buildings have since had to upgrade their system to put more R-value in the buildings. But those new code requirements have made concrete buildings more expensive. 

So on construction speed and cost factors pre-engineered steel wins.

 

Exterior Finish Options for Pre-engineered Steel Buildings

 

James: 

When it comes to finishing the outside of pre-engineered steel buildings, does it always look like a big steel warehouse? Can you make it look nice? 

 

Steve: 

How I like to explain it is that the steel building's virtues are the structural framing and the roof. The walls are cosmetic, and we can use almost any type of construction material for the walls, from stucco to insulated metal panels. That's one of the hot new things in the market right now - insulated metal panels are essentially getting the same finished look as a concrete tilt-up building. They're chasing that market.

 

James: 

Because they look smooth with similar seams? 

 

Steve: 

Yes, and you can get them stucco embossed finished.

 

James: 

How big can they be? 

 

Steve: 

Typically, four feet wide by up to 40 feet high. Integrated metal panels are an option for the walls. 

 

James: 

Oh, they’re narrow strips?  I’m imagining four feet wide by up to 40 feet high…

 

Steve: 

Yeah. If you look at concrete tilt-up buildings, almost all of them have some sort of strip set up in about the six-foot range. 

A lot of people can't tell the difference between insulated metal panels and concrete walls.  I've even heard it from guys that work for me. We've driven around Calgary airport. There are hundreds of thousands of square feet of warehousing that are metal panels. They are IMP (insulated metal panel) buildings that look like concrete tilt-up buildings. You wouldn't know until you knock on them and it's metal. 

 

James: 

Interesting. So you could dress it up too with wood boards or cedar shakes?

 

Steve: 

Any type of exterior. Whatever you want, we've done it all. We've got wood, we've got cultured stone, we've gone to insulated metal panels and lots of glass.

 

James: 

I don't think the average guy knows that that's possible. I've never heard of those exterior options for steel buildings. 

 

Steve:

Yeah well, that's because of cost. The cheapest finish is metal sheeting.

It is back to that first question again, "What do you want to do in the building?"

"Is the public coming in to buy expensive jewelry, or is it a sawmill in northern BC?"

What we are doing in the building will start dictating how high-end and what the features are going to be. 


A pre-engineered steel building can have different exterior finishes to suit its purpose and use.

 

Best Materials for Commercial Buildings

 

James: 

So if we get away from industrial and start to get into the commercial, are there any option changes? Is there a clear winner with materials of the same five we were talking about? Is it more equal? The traditional materials. Does the wood come into play like commercial buildings? 

 

Steve:

No, same pros & cons. Most people are cost-driven.

 

James: 

The cost is why they're entertaining pre-engineered in the first place? 

 

Steve: 

They may be phoning because they think that pre-engineered steel is cheaper. They could simply be calling because they need a building, and they may not even know about the cost benefits. I tell people all the time; please do your homework because both parties will be more comfortable when we sign a contract. I want them to be sure when we start building that they made the right choice. So I encourage people to talk to some contractors, get some numbers, wood, or block, or concrete tilt-up.

Then when we sit down and start getting the building designed, finalized, and priced they're comfortable. I already know that our cost is going to be a positive factor.  

I have had some clients who have wanted a super high-end entryway, a curved roof look, a bunch of glass, a 45 degree angled wall. These are all real requests. Sometimes we've entertained some of them. 

Other times I'll tell them that they’re losing the reason to build out of pre-engineered steel. Complex features can be accommodated better with other materials.

Essentially that just means more cost for them. They need to get into a way heavier fee structure. They need a design architect, and an engineer will need to spend two months on their building plans before they go to any construction guy. 

That has happened before. I’ve had conversations where I'm like, “you're out of the realm of pre-engineered steel.” You're going to have to start with an architect and an engineer. You will need to spend a bunch of money on design and setup before you ever get to the point of talking to construction guys… concrete, wood, block… they could all be better options for custom, fancy architecture. 



Best Materials for Agricultural Buildings

 

James:

For agriculture or industrial use, they're probably looking for more basic building shapes?

 

Steve: 

Basic and cost-effective, yeah.

 

James: 

When we're talking about agriculture, grow ops, and the cold warehouses for fruit storage, what material is best?

I’m guessing concrete since concrete has a higher thermal mass for temperature regulation?

 

Steve: 

No, I can say all day long pre-engineered is still the best. You can get the best insulation. 

But it’s not just about insulation. Agriculture and industrial buildings often have loading areas for trucks. Like a transport delivery loading company with many loading docks, I wouldn't want to have semis backing into a steel building every day. It's going to get beat up. You're going to smash the walls. You're going to dent it. You're going to damage it. So for those applications, we do something different in the design. We have a six-foot concrete wall along the bottom where the trucks back in.

When considering a storage facility for any project or business it is important to consider using a high R rating for insulation.

 

James: 

Does concrete protect the steel frame around the loading docks?

 

Steve: 

Yes. Otherwise, trucks ruin the building. Some warehousing buildings across western Canada that are 40 years old. They're beat up. They look like crap. At the time, people didn't take the time to realize what they wanted. 

The only reason a pre-engineered building doesn't work is if it's too complex. It won't work if the design ideas get too far out. Then, you're going to try to take a pre-engineered and make it what it doesn't want to be. It will be more money and design.

 

Wood vs. Pre-engineered Steel - it comes down to building size

 

James: 

Building size can determine the best material, right?  When I was looking at a residential workshop, 40 feet by 40 feet, that’s only 1600 square feet. I remember you told me that wood is a bit cheaper when it's a small building.

 

Steve: 

That still stands. Bang on, it's about 2,000 square feet where the cross-over happens between wood and steel. I have that conversation often.

 

James: 

So you will never be an excellent choice for a giant shed because it's under 2,000 square feet. Or a carport. 

 

Steve: 

That's right, or a carport. We're never a great choice. This is because of the cost of steel, the cost of our crews to mobilize to build the building, and shipping a truckload of steel has doubled in the last five years. You start losing the reason to use a pre-engineered steel building.

Also, a big part of that is me understanding where wood works, and where wood doesn’t work. Although I'm not a wood builder, I do know enough about it. If someone says, "I want a shop for my yard, and I only want it 12-14 feet high.” I can tell them right away that's a good option out of wood. 

But suppose they want a building 20 feet high. They don't make two by sixes that are 20 feet long. As soon as you get into a taller type of wood building you will require a lot more wood, a lot more design, and engineering.

 

James: 

The breaking point for wood construction is fourteen to sixteen feet high? 

 

Steve: 

Yes. And 2,000 sq. ft. or less footprint. Smaller shops using pre-engineered steel can't compete price-wise. Wood will beat it.

Plus wood is similar to foundation work in terms of almost every community has a carpenter and a local builder that can build a little woodshop in someone's yard.



Best Uses for Brick and Concrete Block Construction

 

James: 

When would the bricks or blocks be used?

 

Steve: 

The common reason anyone builds a block building these days is for appearance. Split face blocks have a textured, rough look on them. That'll be like a feature on the bottom of some buildings for appearance. 

Also, they do achieve a four-hour fire rating. Buildings on property lines or any building that sits right on the property line need a four-hour fire-rated wall. The only way you achieve a four-hour fire-rated wall is with concrete. 

If it's on the property line, it has to be brick, or it has to be concrete tilt-up or precast. It has to be a concrete wall.

Brick is a great material to use when you want to create texture and patterns in your build.

 

James:  

Would that eliminate pre-eng?

 

Steve: 

No, not necessarily.  We could put a firewall on the property line, and then put the building against it. 

 

Multistory Building Construction Materials

 

James: 

What’s best for lots of floors?

 

Steve: 

Structural steel is usually best for a multi-story skyrise or apartment buildings. But even just a few stories commonly use structural steel. Take a three-story school for example. Different use though.  They're designed with flat interior floors, and typically a flat roof. They have heavy engineering and design fees upfront. 

 

James: 

How many floors can you have in a pre-engineered steel building?

 

Steve: 

Metal Structure Concepts has done three-story pre-engineered buildings. Two stories are very typical. For many of our projects, we supply an interior second-floor mezzanine. It is just joists and deck, but it is made of all steel. 



Mezzanines and Partial Floors

James: 

Do people combine wood construction with a pre-engineered steel framer? 

 

Steve: 

They do because I tell them, it's 30-40 percent cheaper than doing the interior mezzanine out of steel. If you've got a 10,000 square foot building, and the client says, "I want a 2,000 square foot, 3,000 square foot mezzanine in the back corner where I'm going to have my offices or storage", I'll recommend they build that back mezzanine out of wood to save the money.  

We prefer to build mezzanines out of steel though. We do it all the time but more in the industrial world or heavy commercial world. Sometimes the building code will dictate that it has to be an all-steel mezzanine. 

If it's your average type of owner and they just need storage or some sort of second floor in the back, then it’ll be substantially cheaper to frame that in wood after the fact. 

Stand-alone wood structure or lightly supported off our building is fine with wood as well. 

 

James: 

I’ve seen warehouses, which are super high, and then you have a second floor, which is only part of the building. You have a railing, or a wall or something? Do you drywall all that typically, and make it into offices? Or can you just leave it open? 

 

Steve: 

You can leave it open. There are lots of them that are left open. That's a code thing. There are quite a few factors that'll dictate if they need to close that or not. If there's only a couple of employees up there. The short answer is it can be left open. If they're not storing any real flammable product up there, it can be left open. It's also dependent on the size of the mezzanine. At a certain square footage, they have to close it because it’s considered a full second floor. I think if it's more than 30 or 40 percent of the building footprint, then they have to close it in. But it can be quite varied.

 


Metal Structure Concepts specializes in all forms of steel construction, including pre-engineered steel and structural steel, ranging from 1,000 - 200,000 sq. ft. for customers anywhere in BC, AB, SK, and Northern Canada. We are ready to tackle any structural project you are dreaming of, speak with one of our experts to get your project started.