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The evolution of prefabricated metal buildings

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The evolution of prefabricated metal buildings

Aircraft hangars. Covered livestock facilities. Industrial warehouses. These are the facilities that typically come to mind when considering prefabricated metal buildings. But with the ability to make a metal building look less like its industrial counterpart and more like a traditional building, more general contractors in the healthcare, education, auto sales, retail and government sectors are choosing metal building systems.

Metal building systems come from practical beginnings. But with the ability to transform a modest building into a welcoming middle school gymnasium, a comforting urgent care facility or a sleek auto dealership, the opportunities for general contractors to oversee a project meeting practical and aesthetic needs with a metal building are greater than ever.

Origins of prefabricated metal buildings

Prefabricated metal buildings have military origins, seen in the long and cylindrical Nissen and Quonset huts during WWII. The military favored the huts because of the ease of shipping the materials and the quick and simple assembly — by the end of WWII, a 6-man team could assemble a Quonset hut in less than 6 hours. In the U.S. Navy, 153,200 Quonset huts were produced or procured during WWII.

After WWII and with the proliferation of steel as an accessible building material, prefabricated metal buildings made their way into other industries. The design shifted away from the curved cylinder of the Nissen and Quonset hut and started to look like the rectangular prefabricated metal buildings seen today.

In the agricultural sphere, barns and livestock facilities shifted from wood to prefabricated metal systems. The same went for airport hangars, which also began as wooden structures but over time were built as metal building systems for their cost efficiency, quick assembly and low maintenance.


Metal buildings break out of the agricultural and industrial sphere

Prefabricated metal buildings remain a popular choice for the agricultural and industrial sphere — but their proliferation has since grown beyond those sectors. Metal building systems now make up 48% of low rise buildings built in the U.S., according to the Metal Building Manufacturers Association. The composition of MBMA’s member market share also shows that 32% of building types are in manufacturing, while 37% percent include retail, office, and auto dealership facilities — indicating a clear growth in the commercial sphere.

Auto dealerships pull ahead

In recent years, general contractors and architects have had a wide array of design features at their disposal to transform the look of a prefabricated metal building. Auto dealerships were among the first in the commercial sector to see the practical and aesthetic advantages. The open floor plans without interior columns allow for the ease of moving cars in and out of the facility, and the ability to add expanses of glass and brick paneling completes the professional look of the building.

Cost and comfort for healthcare facilities

In the healthcare field, affordable buildings are essential for out-patient and urgent care facilities. Metal buildings meet those needs, both in immediate and long-term maintenance costs. Additionally, paint coatings in a multitude of colors create a polished look for patients, while metal canopies offer coverage for patients as they enter and leave the facility.

Affordable classrooms for education

Builders for school districts are finding metal buildings practical for their needs and their bottom line. At the St. Augustine Preparatory School in Richland, New Jersey, a metal building system was chosen for an addition including a pool, dining hall and gymnasium. The resulting facility was low-maintenance, matched the rest of the school thanks to a brick paneling exterior, and housed new solar panels that now supply 60% of the building’s electricity.

It’s all in the details: Plentiful opportunities for design versatility

In addition to auto dealerships, healthcare facilities and educational buildings, metal buildings are also viable for retail, worship, restaurant and government buildings. For general contractors considering a metal building for a facility in any of these sectors, here’s an overview of the features you can add to your prefabricated metal building to customize its look.

  • Paint colors and wainscot
    Choose from a variety of colors to personalize your building’s look, and add wainscoting (a color change in the wall sheets) on taller buildings to break up a large monotone area and add visual interest.
  • Sloped roofs
    This design feature aids your building in shifting the aesthetic from industrial to commercial.
  • Decorative columns
    For a more sophisticated look, consider adding decorative columns to your metal building.
  • Clerestory windows and skylights
    These features pull double duty in bringing in natural light as well as adding visual interest.
  • Stone, tilt-up concrete, wood, brick or glass panels
    Many auto dealerships use glass paneling to create a bright, open floor space, while educational facilities will often add brick paneling so the metal building addition blends in with the rest of the campus.
  • Overhangs
    This common structural feature is used to create a more residential or customized look. Overhangs can also be used to implement passive solar features.
  • Facades and mansards
    Consider these design features for hanging signage on your building.
  • Specialty doors and windows
    From personnel doors to large openings to storefront glass windows, customize your building’s doors and windows to best suit your needs.

The future of prefabricated metal buildings

With these customizable and exciting features, prefabricated metal buildings have come a long way from their days as facilities prized only for their utility. Architects are even using the medium as a chance to push for design-forward aesthetics. The Knox College Whitcomb Art Center, winner of the Metal Building Award for Metal Architecture’s 2017 Design Awards, embraced the metal aesthetic. The center features a unique roof shape with an offset gable for sky lighting, large corner windows and the tapered columns so often associated with a metal building system.

Even with the advances in design, general contractors should still be aware of local building codes that may prevent metal building construction in certain municipalities. This may change as the proliferation of high-design metal buildings shifts the perspective. But for many commercial builders, a metal building system makes a strong choice, both for the bottom line and design needs.