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Metal: Beyond the Myths
Prepared for The Metal Initiative
Just a few years ago, metal roof and wall systems were often relegated to industrial or agricultural districts where looks usually don’t really matter. However, times and technology have changed that mindset, say industry sources. More and more, building owners are discovering that metal is a fashion statement — in many ways.
Metal has emerged as cost-efficient roof and wall material that can save building owners money and look good doing it. And it has environmental benefits as well.
The major factors in selecting any roofing or wall materials should include the initial costs for material and labor, impact on the job site schedule, finish, possible moisture intrusion, expected life of the material and energy costs.
“Contrary to popular belief among owners, metal has an advantage,” says Rick Mowrey, director of marketing and business development for Centria and chairman of The Metal Initiative. “Most owners think metal is a high cost material because they think it needs to be replaced every 20 years or has poor energy costs and needs lots of maintenance. These are old myths and misconceptions.”
Metal does have a higher initial cost compared to other materials, such as a single-ply system. However, once other life-cycle costs are factored in, the overall costs are significantly cheaper, he says.
Once owners understand that metal is less expensive in the long run, maintenance usually is the next hurdle.
“When you start comparing metal to flat roofs, you should be comparing on a life-cycle cost basis,” says Blake Batkoff, national accounts sales manager for Petersen Aluminum. “That really means maintenance. If you put a metal roof on a building, you don’t have to touch it.”
The first thing building owners will notice about metal is that it continues to look good over time “because it doesn’t wear out,” says Sid Peterson, vice president of sales and marketing for Alcoa Architectural Products.
That means coatings are important, particularly for steel or aluminum systems. Many of the coating systems in use today have warranties up to 30 years. If they are recoated after 30 years, the building owner can expect “long-term function for many years,” says Todd Miller, president of Classic Metal Roofing Systems.
Some buildings erected in the early 1960s using predecessors to today’s products are still functioning well, he says.
With metal, maintenance is one less thing facilities executives have to worry about, these manufacturers say.
“Very little is spent on maintenance. One of metal’s greatest benefits is that its maintenance costs are very low, and in most cases, there aren’t any,” says Toy Henson, The Metal Initiative’s director of marketing.
“Metal roofs clean themselves in a good rain storm,” says Batkoff.
“Wall panels need to be cleaned,” says Peterson. “Glass cleaners can streak so you have to clean the panels after you clean the glass, but that’s it. If you don’t spend a lot of money maintaining it, life-cycle costs naturally go down.”
Eye for Design
Despite the long-term benefits of metal, some building owners still protest metal because of the aesthetics. Metal is a versatile design element, manufacturers say. It can be anything the facilities executive wants it to be. But many building owners still buy into the myth that metal is unattractive.
“Most architects don’t believe myths that owners perceive,” Mowrey says. “Owners think metal is ugly and rusts and they don’t believe it comes in many design options. A large percentage of owners still believe in the myths. Most owners say they don’t want metal in the building.”
However, if given a thorough review, building owners will find metal to be far more flexible. Steel or aluminum roofs come in painted finishes for a look that can range from traditional to whimsical. Other options include zinc, terne metal, copper and titanium.
“You can go exotic, with bright reflective roofs or use natural metals that age into a patina. Many find the patina look appealing,” Peterson says. The patina is the natural effect of weathering.
“There are many examples of wonderful copper roofs in Boston that have patinated to fantastic appearances,” he says. “Some of these installations are 200 years old. Then think of children’s museums in primary colors and high glosses. It has a lot to do with the statement you want your building to make.”
“Look at the building design and the aesthetics first,” Miller says. “Get an idea of what you want the building to look like. There are lots of different profiles and lots of different products to achieve what you want to accomplish aesthetically for the building.”
Some metal products can even resemble slate or clay tiles.
Miller recommends that designers and building owners involve system manufacturers early in the design process to make sure the product is suitable.
“Ask for suggestions,” Miller says. “My feeling is that one of the biggest issues in metal roofs is aesthetics and complementing the design of the building. That’s a good place to start.”
High-end coatings with ultraviolet light resistance are so durable that there is little perceptible change over the years, Peterson says.
Metal also can be used in conjunction with other materials to achieve whatever effect the designer can conceive. Glass, concrete and brick offer some of the most striking combinations.
Before saying no on the grounds of aesthetics, Mowrey recommends that building owners review the many profile options now available.
“Walls come in more than 30 profiles, including horizontal and vertical with concealed or exposed fasteners and smooth and textured finishes,” he says.
Roofs come in more than 15 profile options with various seam heights and widths. Roofs can be smooth or have an embossed texture too.
“Owners need to review metal when the architect proposes the concept,” Mowrey said. “Don’t say no. Listen and look at the high performance metal has to offer.”
Once the building owner decides to use metal, the owner, in conjunction with designers, should research options to determine which system is best for the project.
“Metal roofing can be confusing. There are hundreds of different products available. Some are more appropriate for some installations than others,” Miller says.
With interlocking panels, virtually all have passed uplift requirements of Dade County, Fla. Still, building owners should consider roof geometry and roof pitch. “There are no products that have been through as many tests and performance applications as metal has been through,” Henson says.
Metal roofs are classified as low- or steep-slope, Henson says. Low-slope roofs have pitches that are less than 3 inches in 12 in rise. Steep-slope roofs are 3 inches in 12 in rise and higher.
“The reason you need to distinguish the roof is because some products work better than others for different applications,” Henson says.
For example, on low-slope roofs, water takes longer to run off, so a higher rib might be needed so that water doesn’t spill over ribs in a particular roof section and overwhelm the gutters. On a steep-slope roof, the profile doesn’t require a higher rib — unless desired for aesthetics — because water flows faster.
Also, Batkoff says metal can’t be used on totally flat roofs.
“Some metal roof manufacturers have systems that can be used on 1/2:12 slope or greater,” he says. “The biggest thing we stress is to make sure you select a roof system that is tested for the roof pitch and substrate you have.”
If a roof is less than the slope requirement for the system selected, Batkoff says there are ways to add framing to create the required slope.
“A lot of building owners are building up the roof pitch to 2 or 3 inches in 12 inches,” he says. “That way they can use standing seam metal.”
“One of the keys in a successful installation is specifying upfront a roof that is appropriate for that building,” Miller says.
Metal creates a low-weight roofing system, compared to asphalt shingles. A metal roof weighs one-third to one-eighth less, according to manufacturers. Aluminum roofing systems are lightest weight.
“It’s a no-brainer for renovation,” Mowrey says. “Most building frames in this country have been designed to accept a lightweight metal skin over the current skin. You may have to take off the old façade with other materials.”
Another key to a successful long-term roof or wall installation is to select a factory-trained installer, manufacturers say.
“No system can be better than its installation,” says Peterson. “It is critically important. We’ve worked diligently to reduce the number of pieces and parts that go into a wall plating system and in thinking through design scenarios. We realize somebody has to install it.”
The building owner should be involved in the selection process and insist on a factory-trained installer. The owner should question how the installers are educated and kept up-to-date. They also should ask whether the entire crew has been trained or whether only one or two people in the company have been through the training, Mowrey says.
“In the metal construction industry, certification is a high priority with every manufacturer,” Henson says. It only takes one bad installation to negate years of hard work and good relationships with building owners.
Detailed shop drawings should be part of the process and the manufacturer should be allowed to review them in advance, Mowrey says.
In fact, get them involved as soon as the decision to use metal is made, Henson says. “Tell them your expectations, and manufacturers will lay out their programs. They all have different programs, but they all view customer satisfaction as the No. 1 issue.”
In many cases, the manufacturer has specifications on how the product should be installed. These specifications should be written into the contract, Miller says.
Following the specs is important because the validity of the warranty usually rides on the installation.
Manufacturers often will send representatives to inspect the installation or otherwise work with the building owner to make sure the installation meets their requirements. For example, some building owners will send pictures back to the manufacturer to ensure the job is done correctly.
Building owners also should realize that they get two warranties, one from the manufacturer covering the product and one from the contractor covering workmanship.
“Building owners should understand those warranties and know in advance what they’re getting from both parties,” Miller said.
Many building owners assume metal is not green, but that’s another myth the industry is fighting, Mowrey says. Metal is more energy efficient than its brick and glass counterparts, and it’s virtually 100 percent recyclable at the end of its life.
Metal is more energy efficient because it provides a better R-value for the building envelope. Some system options include foam panels sandwiched in the layers between the metal panels during the manufacturing process. This provides a full blanket of insulation. In traditional wall systems, fiberglass insulation is stuffed between the studs and walled over, leaving opportunity for the heat or cool air to escape.
Meanwhile, some coatings or paint finishes include reflective pigments so dark colors can provide good solar reflectivity.
While energy efficiency is an essential element in green design, it’s not the only component. The fact that metal can be recycled is important too.
“Metal addresses those issues very positively. An extremely high percentage of the materials in walls are made from recycled materials. And they will be recycled again at the end of their life cycle.”
Most of the material used to manufacture metal roofs has a recycled content, between 25 to 85 percent. These numbers are significantly higher than building materials such as concrete, which also contain recycled material, Mowrey says.
When it comes time to replace a metal roof, every bit of it can be hauled off to a recycling plant rather than a landfill. “Painted or not, it’s all 100 percent recyclable at the end of its life,” says Mowrey. ”That’s not true with other materials. It’s not efficient to recycle brick, stucco or glass.”
About The Metal Initiative
The Metal Initiative is a coalition of manufacturers, individuals and associations that have come together to provide information on the features and benefits of metal in commercial construction. Carrying its message of metal primarily to the professional building owner community, The Metal Initiative seeks to gather and disseminate useful information for decision-makers.