Weighing The Advantages Of Steel Buildings & Fabric Buildings

Steel Buildings Vs. Fabric Buildings: Guidance For The First-Time Builder

Once you decide that your extra space needs should be met with a lightweight building, you have a lot of research to do to find the perfect solution. The most important factors will be your specific needs and the budget you have available. Beyond that, though, collecting general information will help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of different building types and find the one that best suits your needs.

Fabric buildings are well worth consideration for a lot of roles that might otherwise be filled by steel buildings. They can serve very well as workshops, storage areas, or even commercial spaces. The best place to start is by learning the most common construction types used for fabric buildings:

  • Hoop Buildings: These are built by attaching light-gauge steel arches to sidewalls built of concrete, steel, or wood. The combination of the arches and sidewalls transmits wind and roof loads to the ground. The great advantage of this structure is that it keeps the center of the building clear of intrusive poles. The semicircular arch of the roof does reduce the total amount of usable space enclosed by the building, though. Hoop buildings are particularly common in agricultural applications, including hay storage and housing swine or other livestock.
  • Quonset Huts: This form was originally developed in the Second World War, with the US government and military using metal Quonset huts to create cheap, quick-to-build storage and shelter. Similar to a hoop building, the Quonset design relies on a curved roof. This design is excellent for shedding rain and snow, but the way the roof comes down to the ground reduces the total amount of space available on the sides. Although the cutting edge of light building technology has moved far past the Quonset hut design, it remains fairly popular for cheap, fast space enclosure. If the reduction in usable square footage caused by the roof shape isn’t an issue for you, a Quonset hut may be a good pick.
  • Rigid Frame Fabric Buildings: A rigid frame fabric building is closer to the cutting edge spoken of above. It employs vertical walls to take the weight of the roof, and a rigid frame building can provide a clear span (between-wall space free of interior supports) of hundreds of feet. While the frame is rigid, your design options aren’t; you can use this system to enclose any sort of footprint, including non-rectangular ones. Once the building’s frame is completed, element protection is provided by a mono-cover or multi-panel fabric membrane.

All of the building designs described above combine the affordability of fabric covering with the strength of a rigid frame. While that frame can be made of wood, a steel frame is designed from the outset to serve for decades with minimal maintenance requirements. To judge the overall durability of the building, though, you need to consider the fabric.

Durability In Fabric & Steel Buildings

In every sort of fabric building, the large fabric membrane that forms the building’s shell is stretched very tightly across the frame. Fabric shells are custom-manufactured to fit the frame of a specific building, and they can be tremendously tough. This isn’t the sort of fabric you’d use to sew clothes, and a fabric building is a lot tougher than a discount store tent! But a building shell made of fabric is, inevitably, going to be less resilient than one made out of metal. Tears in a mono-cover fabric membrane can spread, exposing more and more of the interior to the elements. In a worst-case scenario, one rip (perhaps caused by high winds) could be enough to ruin the entire shell. This is one reason that many manufacturers offer fabric covers composed of multiple panels. A multi-piece cover is easier to repair in the event of damage.

A pre-engineered steel building with all-around steel sheathing is designed to deliver decades of repair-free service. Steel isn’t vulnerable to warping, tearing, ripping, or rotting. It’s even fairly fire-resistant; steel sheathing has a melting point of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Steel counts as a non-combustible building material, but fabric falls in the limited-combustible category.

Steel’s tremendous durability is a major selling point for pre-engineered metal buildings. It holds up against even the most severe climates with minimal maintenance requirements. Contrast this with the fact that fabric building manufacturers acknowledge the fact that you will need replacement fabric sooner or later. It’s telling that you’ll find a direct link to fabric replacement details on the front page of most manufacturer’s websites, isn’t it? Do you really want to pay over and over for your light building’s roof?


The upfront cost of installing a pre-engineered steel building is higher than that of an equivalent fabric building. The durability difference described above makes the higher initial outlay seem rather reasonable for a steel building. It can last decades or even generations with minimal additional expense, and that brings its cost down a great deal over its lifespan. A pre-engineered metal building may be more expensive than a fabric building, but it’s still half the cost and half the construction time of an equivalent structure built with conventional materials. Insurance rates paint an instructive picture. You can ensure a pre-engineered metal building for much less than a fabric building because insurers recognize the durability of the material.

Light building construction is one of those areas where the old maxim holds: You get what you pay for. Saving money in the short term becomes much less attractive if it obliges you to pay significant upkeep costs in the long term. Pre-engineered metal buildings are precisely engineered, built by hand, and triple-checked before their delivery to their assembly sites.

In some cases, you can erect a fabric building without the need for any sort of foundation. This does deliver significant savings to the overall cost of a light building. Don’t fool yourself, though: Without a foundation, what you are buying is a non-permanent structure. In most regions, buildings that don’t sit on a foundation aren’t considered permanent by local permitting authorities. That matters in the long term because a permanent structure – even a lightweight metal building – can make a positive contribution to the value of your property.

Enclosed Space

On the fabric building side, manufacturers who employ clear-span designs promote the fact that they can deliver uninterrupted interior space. Membrane fabric covers are also touted as an efficient way to keep the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Better temperature regulation means lower operating costs as the building will require less heating, cooling, and lighting. Fabric buildings aren’t the only ones that can make such claims, though.

Clear-span steel buildings are also capable of delivering large interior spaces clear of obstructive columns or trusses. A properly-engineered steel building will carry all of its loads down the roof, through the walls, and into the foundation without any need for bulky trusses or inconvenient columns. A well-constructed steel building delivers absolute maximum usable square footage. Steel buildings are used to store all sorts of equipment, from tractors and tools to airplanes! Metal framing has a strong advantage over wood because the former does not require bulky trusses. There are also significant advantages in terms of faster construction (see below).

A pre-engineered steel building can be made highly energy-efficient by adding the right sort of insulation. You can cut your energy costs down by an impressive amount by incorporating a whole range of energy-saving modern technology into a steel building. Examples include venting, light timers, high-efficiency HVAC systems, geothermal energy, solar energy, and more. Even comparatively low-tech steps – like painting your building’s roof white to reflect more solar energy and keep the interior cool – can make a steel building more efficient. You can even add skylights to a pre-engineered metal building to increase the amount of natural light inside.

Ease Of Construction

With a sufficient supply of expertise and labor, a pre-engineered steel building of practically any size can be fully assembled in under a week. A simple forty foot by sixty-foot steel building can be put up in just a weekend if five to seven workers are handling the job! A metal-framed building is notably easier to assemble than a wooden-framed one. In the latter sort of building, the framing has to be assembled out of raw lumber, requiring more time and expertise. For fabric buildings, most manufacturers recommend that you entrust the election process to an experienced crew. You can save a lot of money with a pre-engineered metal building if you have the time and know-how to assemble it yourself!

While fabric buildings are suitable for a wide range of uses, they are not always the best choice. For your own light building, you need to pick the materials and construction methods that suit your needs and budget. Steel buildings retain enduring and easy-to-understand popularity for all sorts of light building applications.

Do you have your own preferences between steel buildings and fabric buildings? Call us today or request a quote for immediate assistance! Find out more by visiting our blog.

We are continually proud to offer our clients superior material, craftsmanship, and structurally sound clear span buildings.


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