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Pole Barns Versus Metal Buildings

Pole barns and metal buildings can often appear very similar on the exterior. While both systems typically utilize metal roofing & siding, the two systems are very different. For those who aren’t familiar with pole barns, a pole barn or “post frame” building is described by the National Frame Buildings Association:
“Post-frame construction is an engineered wood-frame building system that meets UBC and IBC standards. Post-frame buildings feature large, solid sawn posts or laminated columns instead of wood studs, steel framing, or concrete masonry. They transfer loads to the ground or surface-mounted to a concrete pier or masonry foundation.”

We often get calls from potential customers asking us for a proposal to compare to a pole barn. These calls make me cringe. I know these calls and the work we would put into an estimate are a complete waste of time. In most cases, the pricing for the two systems will be so vastly different that it is doubtful a metal building will be the ultimate choice. A metal building can easily cost double the price of a pole barn to construct. So, I often offer rough budgetary numbers over the phone, and the potential customer realizes a metal building is not a good fit. It saves everyone a lot of wasted time.

Now, a metal building provides capabilities that a pole barn cannot, such as 150′ + clear spans, the ability to incorporate cranes, etc., but that is not what I am talking about here. I am talking about a simple 5,000-square-foot building that a pole barn-style structure can easily accommodate. Below is a list of the key differences between the two types of buildings that create the large pricing discrepancy.

#1 – Framing System

Pole barns use wood, and metal building systems utilize steel to provide the primary, secondary & bracing systems of the building. Wood is less expensive than steel, and wherever possible, pole barns use dimensional lumber, which requires no shop fabrication, which further translates to a lower cost.

#2 – Foundation System

Metal building systems require a full foundation. Sometimes you can get away with a footing & pier system. Still, a full foundation wall is often needed, which requires excavation, forming & pouring a footing/foundation wall system, and backfilling. Pole barns can utilize post holes with concrete bases, meaning no excavation (post holes are drilled), minimal backfill, and minimal use of concrete. For a metal building, the cost of the foundation system can easily cost as much as the building system itself.
The foundation system is a forgotten piece of the equation when many people try to compare a metal building to a pole barn. Even some building dealers will claim that a metal building is only 50% more expensive than a pole barn, but that figure only compares the structure. These claims are misleading, and when you take into consideration the foundation system, a metal building can easily be 2X or more the price of a pole barn.

#3 – Freight

Metal buildings are manufactured throughout the country, but more often than not, the closest plant is 500+ miles away, which means you pay freight fees to get the building material to your site. Pole barns utilize material sourced locally from lumber yards and local truss manufacturers. The sheeting used in pole barns can also often be sourced locally. If you only get one truckload of steel, this cost can be insignificant. But you could pay $15,000 on freight alone for a metal building on a building with ten truckloads.

#4 – Labor to Install

Labor costs to install a pole barn are also less expensive. Metal buildings are erected by commercial and industrial contractors and sometimes union labor forces, while residential and agricultural contractors erect pole barns. The direct labor costs, as well as the insurance requirements, are typically higher for commercial contractors in comparison to residential contractors. Additionally, the type of equipment utilized varies. Metal buildings often require the use of heavy forklifts or cranes to erect the framing system. While pole barns will use heavy forklifts of cranes to set the trusses, the posts and all the purlins, girts, and bracing are installed by hand or right out of a man-lift.

Comparing metal buildings to pole barns is like comparing apples and oranges. This article probably makes it sound like I think pole barns are superior to metal buildings. That is definitely not my viewpoint, but we have to be realistic about the products we sell. Some projects lend themselves to pole barns rather than try to up-sell a metal building.