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Use Caution When Modifying Existing Metal Buildings

Architects and engineers reach out to us all the time for some advice on how best to lay out a metal building for cost-effectiveness. In most cases, today’s metal buildings can be customized down to an inch, but some general rules of thumb help make some layouts more economical than others.

Note: It will help to understand metal building terminology before digging into this blog. Here is a link to one of my past blogs that address metal building definitions: Metal Buildings 101.

#1 – Length & Width

In most cases, it is most economical for the building width to be the lesser dimension. For example, if you have a 50′ x 100′ building, it is more economical if it is 50′-0 wide x 100′-0 long. This is because the width dimension is the span of the roof rafters. A rafter that spans 50′-0 will be less expensive than a rafter that spans 100′-0

For this same reason, given the same square footage, a rectangular building will be more economical than a square one. If a customer comes to us with a request for certain square footage but no specific length and width requirements, we will always design a rectangular-shaped building.

#2 – Height

The most important question to answer when specifying the height is, what height are you looking for? Eave height is measured to the top of the eave purlin, or clear height is measured to the lowest obstruction.

That being said, if you specify a clear height, it is important to determine whether or not it is acceptable to increase the eave height to achieve the clear height requirement. Allowing the eave height to change to accommodate the clear height is the most economical solution. However, suppose there is a situation where the eave height cannot increase (for example, when tying into an existing building). In that case, the roof framing can be reasonably restricted to accommodate the clear height. But, this is more costly than just raising the eave height.

#3 – Roof Slope

Metal buildings are most cost-effective when they utilize low slopes. Keeping the roof slope to 2:12 or lower is best. Most metal roofs are designed to be effective and water-tight where a slope is as low as 1/2:12, so there is no functional reason to increase the roof slope. If a higher roof slope is desired to meet an aesthetic need, keep the roof slope below 4:12.

The material costs increase as the roof slope increases, but probably more importantly, the labor costs rise significantly. It is extremely difficult to install a metal roof on a slope greater than 4:12. We have heard erectors say they double the cost to install a roof when the slope is greater than 4:12. If we have complete freedom to design a roof slope, we will typically select a 1:12 slope.

#4 – Bay Spacing

The end-bays of the building should be designed to be the shorter bays of the building wherever possible. Shorter end-bays work better for the roof purlin design and layout.

In our climate in Western New York, 25′-0 bays tend to be the most economical. Anything greater than 30′-0 requires a truss purlin or bar-joist, which can increase the cost of a building. Having bays less than 25′ is not bad; it could be slightly less economical. For example, a 100′-0 long building with 25′-0 bays will work out to four bays, utilizing a total of five frames. If the bays were 20′-0, that would be five bays with a total of six frames. So you’ll have an additional frame, albeit a lighter one, because it carries less tributary load, but an additional one nonetheless, making it the more expensive option.

#5 – Clear Span versus Multi-Span

As the name implies, clear span frames are wide open and utilize no interior columns. Multi-span buildings utilize interior columns. It is more economical when interior columns are utilized in wide buildings with large frame spans.

My simple rule of thumb is when the width of the building is greater than 80′-0, it makes sense to consider an interior column. The obvious reason utilizing an interior column is more economical is because the unsupported span of the frame is shorter, which allows the frame to be designed lighter. Additionally, an interior column makes erecting the main frames easier.

Another reason to utilize an interior column is to mitigate the need to use tie-bar or grade beam assemblies. Tie bars or grade beams run parallel with the frame and are installed under the floor. They connect the base of the column’s concrete pier on either side of the building to offset the frame’s kick-out force. These systems can really increase the foundation costs of the building.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, these are just some simple rules of thumb to make a metal building the most cost-effective. A metal building can be highly customized and, in most cases, can achieve what a conventionally framed building can achieve for less expense with a shorter project duration.


I’d like to state that I am not a structural engineer. What I outline above is based on my experience working with metal buildings and what I have learned talking to the structural engineers from a variety of different metal building manufactures.