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Pre-Manufactured Buildings on the Rise: What Owners Need to Know

05.26.17 / Jan Taylor, AIA, LEED AP and Peter Reiss, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

Attracted by potential cost and schedule savings, many clients are considering the use of pre- engineered metal buildings (PEMBs) as an alternative to conventional large-span building construction. These structures are produced with a highly efficient “kit of parts” to reduce the amount of material needed for large spans over open spaces. Therefore, they can be very appealing for clients in the development of designs for large volume athletic facilities.

What’s New
The option of assembling a pre-manufactured building is not a new one. Introduced in the early 20th Century and popularized by companies like Butler Building Systems, pre-engineered metal buildings have historically been used for “low-end” design projects like warehouses and “big-box” retail centers. What’s changed in recent years is the added flexibility to apply BIM and other design technology to incorporate more refined materials and details to achieve a more custom and aesthetically appealing architectural solution.

At ARC, we have developed a variety of approaches to use these PEMBs in projects that combine cost effective solutions with a “high-end” aesthetic appearance and performance – including two large scale projects currently under construction.

Bentley University is building a new multipurpose arena as part of its ongoing commitment to enhance the campus experience for its students, faculty, staff, alumni, and supporters. The PEMB was adapted with added conventional steel framing to develop a building massing that met the needs of the University. 

For the Bentley University multipurpose arena in Waltham MA, we worked with a PEMB manufacturer to assemble the kit of parts in an unconventional way. This approach included tailoring the PEMB with some added conventional steel framing to develop a building massing that met the programmatic goals of the client. To advance the design even further, we employed a customized precast concrete panel cladding system for the structure. The exterior pattern, an abstraction of skate blade marks on an ice surface, was fabricated in a light gray color flecked with a black basalt aggregate and mica. It gives the entire exterior of the building a high-end aesthetic while still meeting the demands of budget.

At the Johnson Center for Health and Wellness at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, NY, the design of a large athletic complex carefully knits together three venues housed in pre-engineered buildings with other conventionally-structured components. This creates a graceful composition that subtly shifts in orientation to adapt to the surrounding rocky landscape. The integration of custom high parapets and stepped roof edges also creates a dramatic roofline that conceals the more stereotypical image of a “butler building” profile.

The Johnson Center for Health & Wellness for the Hackley School will create a hub for wellness, athletics, and overall student activity on campus. The three main program areas were constructed using PEMBs and will house a natatorium, a gymnasium with two basketball courts, and an 8-court squash center. Additional conventional structures to the west will complete the complex and house a competition gymnasium, fitness center, and wellness education facilities. The Center will open in the winter of 2017. Construction video link

Sustainable Strategies

These large structures also offer opportunities to integrate sustainable design strategies, a threshold expectation for most academic clients. One advantage for buildings of this size is that with proper site orientation, they can be designed with ideal geometry for installing solar arrays.

For each of these projects, the design teams worked with the client to integrate sustainability goals into the cost-effective solution. Since both projects include vast amounts of roof area, they provided many opportunities for energy generation through solar PV panels that can be efficiently integrated with the PEMB standing seam roof panel systems.

At Bentley University, the new arena is slated to support a 500 Kw solar array, offsetting over 50% of the building’s projected energy use. The arena is targeting LEED Platinum Certification, which if achieved will be the first ice arena in the U.S. to attain it. At the Hackley School in Tarrytown, NY, the Johnson Center for Health and Wellness will support a 316 Kw solar array, generating 375,000 Kw hours of electricity per year. This will provide an energy savings of more than 35% and help qualify the project for LEED Gold Certification.

Factors for Consideration
When considering the use of PEMBs, clients need to anticipate the unique requirements and limitations of these building components. Since the typical approach with PEMBs uses standard, low-cost components, the client and design team must work together to decide where and when to bring in more custom elements for improved building performance and appearance. At ARC, we have found that it is best to bring PEMB manufacturer into the design process early to explore the possibilities for more custom-tailored solutions.

It is also best to anticipate issues that may need to be resolved during construction when blending these structures with other conventionally designed elements. Since PEMBs are not a flexible system, it is wise to carry a cost contingency to use when faced with the need to adapt an efficiency and performance-driven product into a more aspirational and aesthetically appealing solution.

Flexibility for future uses is also an important consideration for institutional and educational clients that seek to use their building for many years to come. Since standard PEMBs are typically designed with little or no anticipated changes in the future, the design team can help identify items for future protection and requirements like increased snow load capacity, and the structural ability to carry heavier equipment loads in the future (for HVAC or athletic equipment). However, if these potential increases are estimated up front, the capacity can be added to the PEMB with relatively minor additions in the cost. But if these possible adaptations are not considered at the beginning of the design, options for changes to the building structure will be severely limited in the future. 

With approximately 2,000 fixed seats, multipurpose arena at Bentley University can accommodate up to 3,400 for large-scale events including seminars, concerts, and guest speakers. The building will also serve as an ice hockey arena for Bentley’s NCAA Division 1 hockey team.
Above: Construction photo of the PEMB steel structure for the future Arena, scheduled for a January 2018 opening.

Hackley School, Wellness Center, construction photo and rendering of pool.

Hackley School, Wellness Center, construction photo and rendering of gym.

Lessons Learned

Our experience with the design and construction of PEMBs is providing insight into the strategy and methods for successful outcomes. The give and take of building with a pre-engineered approach is yielding new insights on how to tap the positive benefits while leveraging more control for the owner, architect, and project engineers.

We suggest three important actions for creating a path to a successful outcome:

  • Partner with the selected manufacturer early in the process, and bring them on board as early as possible to integrate design elements.
  • Provide a clear agreement defining program expectations and team communications.
  • Carry contingencies for structural and envelope modifications through later phases of the design process, and build these contingencies into a clear project scope, budget, and timeline for each phase of the work.

Pre-engineered metal buildings can fulfill a strategic purpose for institutions striving to deliver buildings of both high quality and high value. By asking the right questions and defining needs, design aspirations, and a sensible decision matrix, we can achieve a successful outcome and a building to be proud of.

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