July 19, 2023

Logistics of a Pre-Engineered Metal Building

By now you’d have to be living under a rock to not understand the tectonic shifts that have occurred in the construction industry over the past five years or so. In some ways, this adjustment came long before COVID, which only exasperated these changes. Companies were running lean in the years following the great recession. We all learned to do more with less.

Today, we’ve all heard about the logistical supply chain issues, and we are all feeling the pinch of the labor shortage in our industries. In my region of the country, the supply and demand ratio has remained out of balance. The smart companies are learning to say no with their limited staffing while being extremely selective in which projects to take on. Unfortunately, some consumers’ needs are going unmet or are being forced to go with inferior companies to complete their design and construction projects. Still, for the time being, we find ourselves with more work than the labor force can handle.

I’d like to focus on pre-engineered metal buildings or PEMBs. For generations now, the manufacturers of PEMBs have been touting the costs and labor savings of selecting PEMBs. From the construction and contractor standpoint, this is a true story. For a long time, the manufacturers were able to deliver faster and build them quicker than a conventionally designed and framed steel building, saving owners money. It was also one less thing that contractors had to worry about. In some ways it goes back to that whole notion of a premanufactured house. Of course, in the “old days”, contractors and designers had the luxury of weeks and months to coordinate all the various details and loadings associated with a pre-engineered metal building.

From a design standpoint I never quite liked the clunky, wide, odd-shaped steel sections that we would have to work around to create our interior spaces. It is kind of like fitting a square peg in a round hole. Of course, you could streamline these steel members and skinny them up but that is an upcharge and there goes some of your efficiencies. Still over the decades, when push came to shove and budgets were on the line, we acquiesced to the PEMB for numerous school gymnasiums, large office buildings, and even some institutional government projects. Obviously, they are well suited typically for warehouses, shops, hangers, etc. where aesthetics and odd shaped steel sections are not as critical. The other thing that drives me nuts with pre-engineered metal building manufacturers is the tight tolerance to which they design their packages. This, of course, is for efficiency and keeping the price down, but adding an extra 500 pounds to a roof load for a mechanical RTU (roof top unit) becomes a big deal.

Fast forward to COVID, when everyone was scrambling for resources and every little product became a precious commodity. PEMB manufacturers found themselves for the first time unable to deliver faster and cheaper. In addition, we now work in a hyper speed environment where decisions are measured in minutes and hours, not weeks and months. Talking with my partners, it is easy to go home after a long day drained of all energy to the point where you can’t even decide what sounds good for dinner.

The fundamental bottleneck with PEMBs occurs during the design stage. This has a considerable impact on my business and my structural consultants’ businesses. There is an inherent chicken and egg scenario between the Owner or D-B Agent and the PEMB manufacturer. PEMB manufacturers will not begin their designs and calculations until they have been paid. Owners are reluctant to commit until planning, preliminary design, schematics, and budget are completely worked out. There is then a lag where the design team is out in front of the PEMB manufacturer. In many cases we never get final PEMB designs until after the project is out for construction! When everything in the design team’s schedule is choreographed down to the last minute, designers need information at the beginning of the design phase, not the end.  Architects live in the unknown, but engineers need empirical data. In many cases, structural engineers are forced to make two, three, sometimes even more design changes to their foundations and connection details because of changes or “slight modifications” to the PEMB package. Engineers are wired to not send something out incomplete, but many times that is what is required because final information has not been received from the PEMB manufacturer. This adds additional time and costs to the design phase. It can also slow down the permitting process when some jurisdictions are reluctant to approve incomplete structural designs, and it hinders the contractor during construction with potential change orders once the design is fully coordinated.

Despite being told repeatedly that “this time” the PEMB process will go more smoothly, it never does. In fact, over the past twenty years I don’t remember one PEMB project ever going off without a hitch or delay, or coordination problem. These days, I sense sometimes the contractors are growing just as weary of PEMB manufacturers as the design team. It comes down to getting the information needed to design the complete building in a timelier fashion. Until that happens, the logistics are prone to kicking the can down the road into the construction phase before the design can be fully coordinated and finished. That to me is not an ideal situation for the owner, the designers, or the builders.

Tony Perpignano, CWG President