Buildings & Interiors

Metal Buildings, the New Structural Paradigm

The classic American post-and-beam barn with its double doors and red paint was made out of sturdy timbers and durable, handcrafted roof beams. Many date from the turn of the last century (1899-1901), their hipped or gambrelled roofs still standing tall and strong.

These old red barns have become so popular with Gen X’ers on the move up the corporate ladder, and entrepreneurs operating dude ranches, that there is at least one entire website devoted to buying and selling them.

While some focus on the nostalgia, working ranchers are turning more and more often to steel outbuildings, sheds and barns. There are a number of reasons, but all fall under the umbrella of long life and low maintenance, because busy ranchers don’t have the time or the money to keep shelling out for paint jobs and repairs.

Let’s take the advantages of steel step by step. First is cost, which becomes more and more important as this year’s drought forces ranchers to either trim their herds or find alternate, cheaper ways to keep them fed. One desperate rancher is actually using candy that has passed its best-by date!

Wood, and timber-frame construction, was once the most affordable way to shelter everything on the farm, from the cows to the tractor. But extensive logging in the last century and a failure on the part of logging companies to replenish the acres of wood they harvested makes today’s lumber a pricey investment. So pricey, in fact, that steel-framed construction is now fully competitive with wood, dollar for dollar.

That price comparison actually goes over the top of the equation when one figures in the fact that steel, unlike wood, resists deterioration over a significantly longer time frame. Thus, while the wooden barn may need repainting every 10 years, and reinforcements around the foundation in 20, steel continues to look and perform as though new for fully 50 years in a dry, pleasant climate. And it won’t harbor termites, perhaps the single most destructive pest the building industry has ever faced.

For those ranchers struggling to maximize the bottom line, a recent study shows the peripheral costs of steel as running at less than 25 percent those of wood, largely because steel is fire- and flood-resistant and is not easily damaged or dislodged by hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, providing the building is anchored to a substantial foundation.

This surprising durability is the result of steel’s elasticity, a seeming contradiction until one realizes that the Eiffel Tower, with its 7,000 tons of steel, actually sways off-center by at least 6 inches in high winds, yet still stands after 125 years.

Steel also does not warp like a wood frame, especially in damp climates, where expansion and subsequent shrinking can leave insulation gaps and make wood buildings more difficult and expensive to heat.

Steel is completely recyclable. Some will argue that wood is, too. The point is moot when one realizes that the nation as a whole is running out of the massive timbers once used to build barns about equally as fast as it is running out of the massive, mature hardwoods needed to make those timbers. Moreover, wood is not a readily reproducible building medium; it can take an oak tree 100 years to reach full maturity. Steel, on the other hand, can be dug out of the ground as iron ore, treated and shaped in a blast furnace, used to build and then recycled (melted down) when the building is demolished.

One final point: steel buildings can be finished out to look precisely like wood buildings, in anything from homes to equipment sheds to barns. This means that serious ranchers and guest ranch owners can both satisfy their esthetic sensibilities. After all, who said that cowboys don’t appreciate the finer things?

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