Steel of a deal

Prefabricated steel buildings and components offer durability

A shorter construction schedule, longer-lasting structures, and higher quality are driving increased interest in prefabricated steel components and buildings in Alberta.

"We are pricing stuff all the time," notes Alex McGillivray, sales and marketing coordinator for VanderWal Homes and Commercial Group, which is based in Petrolia, Ont. VanderWal Group has recently priced projects in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, Okotoks, and Fort McMurray, and expects business to continue to increase as more owners and contractors realize the advantages of this type of construction.

Alberta is an ideal place to build such structures because steel isn't affected by extreme temperature changes or moisture.

"It remains straight and true and so your finishes are always going to be of an even quality," McGillivray says.

A number of companies around Canada provide prefabricated steel building components and/or prefabricated metal buildings. VanderWal Group stresses the importance of cold-formed steel.

Cold-formed steel is rolled from coils without the use of heat, making it strong and durable. According to the company, cold-formed steel has a higher strength-to-weight ratio than any other frequently used framing material and offers great design flexibility. And the components integrate readily with other construction materials such as structural steel, concrete, and wood.

Many of the company's projects are buildings that need to be non-combustible because fire evacuation is complicated. These include long-term care homes, nursing homes, and hotels.

Others are buildings that have an open design and thus require a long truss span. The truss system offers the ability to have an 80 ft span, maximizing usable interior space. McGillivray says that is virtually impossible to do with wood. "[Using wood] involves all kinds of bolts and splices and can be too heavy for the wall assemblies. It doesn't make much sense and then the cost becomes prohibitive," he explains.

But he is quick to point out that cold-formed steel isn't in competition with wood, saying that if you can use wood, you should. The structural system isn't for every project and there is a difference in price when compared to wood. But it also has a significantly longer lifespan, potentially extending into the hundreds of years.

A new RCMP detachment in Sylvan Lake, Alta., is being built using VanderWal Group's products.

"They were looking for something of superior quality and low maintenance, which is what our system is," McGillivray says. "Cold-formed steel trusses were set atop cold-formed steel panel walls. Aside from being 100 per cent non-combustible, the finishes will remain even. You're not going to get things common with wood construction, like nails popping or drywall cracking."

If there's one misconception about prefabricated buildings, it's that you're limited in terms of design, according to another company.

"Every one of our Murox buildings is a custom building," says George Poumbouras, the commercial development manager with Canam Canada, a division of Canam Group. "We design, fabricate, and install across Canada." The whole building can be done in steel, including the joints, deck, and structural steel.

"The difference is the envelope," says Canam's western sales representative, Steeven Poulin. "Instead of being exposed to inclement weather while installing steel studs and other wall components on site, the load-bearing walls are prefabricated in one of our plants. Finishes can also be applied on both sides right in the plant."

Each custom building is prefabricated to the correct dimensions and arrives on site, windows and doors installed, ready to be erected using cranes. The walls are installed at the same time as the steel. Then the roof can be constructed. Roofers don't even have to put up a parapet as one is integrated with the walls.

The result is a much faster installation, reducing the amount of work that has to be done on site.

"You can have trades working inside and outside at the same time," Poulin says. "Because of time savings and efficiencies, it's really more economical."

The process generates additional savings. For example, the steel and wall panels of a 54,000 sq. ft grocery store in Calgary were up in less than two weeks, allowing the store to open and start seeing profits several weeks earlier. Normally, says Poulin, just the structural components would have been installed during those two weeks.

Canam teams up with local subcontractors who take care of some steel fabrication and the erection. Other local projects include the Provost Arena, a 72,000 sq. ft building with a 24,000 sq. ft mezzanine. The Murox system was fully installed in five weeks.

Murox wall systems can also do double duty by pre-heating outside air flowing through the walls into the building. Dark panels on the south side of the building capture the sun's heat and use it to warm the air.

The simply designed technology can heat up the exterior air by as much as 25 degrees, cutting fresh air heating costs by about 25 per cent. It's perfect for buildings requiring a high number of hourly air changes, especially when the outside temperature is frigid.

While the ventilated thermal panels are more expensive, government subsidies can cover the additional cost. They also contribute to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.

Along with increased efficiency and shortened schedules, quality is a primary reason for using prefabricated steel components and buildings. Steel isn't subject to regional variations and prefabrication eliminates the chance of on-site errors.

Says McGillivray: "It's a uniform quality that you can rely on."

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