Friday | 29 June, 2012 | 11:31 am

Assembly required

By Nick Wright

With U.S.-sourced steel, company simplifies assembly of prefab buildings

June 2012 - A step up from the simple snap of Legos but short of any complicated instructions, Erector sets have let children (or enterprising adults) build miniature hot rods and handheld cranes for about a century. On a much larger scale, one company takes the toy’s philosophy and applies it to prefabricated steel buildings.

Universal Steel of America, Suwanee, Ga., designs, manufactures and delivers structures made for any use. They range from small storage and general contractor shops to spacious airplane hangars, equestrian arenas and industrial and agricultural operations.

“All your assembly drawings and components are individually marked, so everything is cross-referenced between assembly drawings,” says Stephen Tanco, CEO at Universal Steel. “The components being individually marked makes it very easy for someone that doesn’t have a background in construction.”

The skeletons supporting each of Universal Steel’s buildings are based on steel I-beam construction made from both cold-rolled and hot-rolled steel. The company sources all its steel domestically—both about 65,000 yield strength hot-rolled material and about 80,000 psi tensile strength cold-rolled material. Tanco says a lot of the steel that comes from outside of the United States is not rated, with little way of knowing the quality and strength of it.

“We’re very conscientious of the fact that we’re not bringing in steel from outside the United States,” he says. Customers can choose from several steel panel profiles with different finishes and thicknesses. They range from 22 gauge to 26 gauge. A more energy-efficient insulated composite sandwich panel also is available. The steel is manufactured in regional plants around the country.

Customers either submit specific plans, such as when a building must meet existing criteria or fit into an existing space. One project called for extensive engineering to fit an administrative building between two hangars at a Florida airport, Tanco says. Smaller customers may have latitude in project design or general contractors will give general guidelines, such as square footage.

“When you’re working with end users and small contractors, you may do more conceptual design,” he says. “It’s very common someone will come to us and say, ‘We need a 10,000-square-foot building,’ and we’ll go in and design it the most economical way.”

Basic I-beam construction increases the structural resilience of Universal Steel’s designs. For example, building requirements in the hurricane-prone Caribbean and Gulf Coast specify buildings that can withstand 160 mile per hour winds. Similarly, they must handle seismic activity on the West Coast. Tanco says the roofs can handle heavy snow loads in wintry regions that other structures, such as pole barns, cannot.

In one instance, a family whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita in 2005 lived in its steel building for several months, which had survived the storms. They ended up buying a second building later on.

“It’s really exciting when you hear about your building going through tornadoes or hurricanes and it’s still standing,” Tanco adds. “And the worst thing that happened is that a door was knocked off or a few panels needed to be replaced.”

Shipping the pieces
Once the components are completed, they’re shipped to the worksite. However, you won’t see a massive trailer with flags and lights on the freeway accompanied by pickup trucks bearing “oversize load” signs. The pieces simply lie on a flatbed truck. “Basically, all you need is a forklift to unload the building and a forklift to erect all your frames,” he says. “So if your concrete is done right, it works like a large Erector set.”

Depending on prevailing architecture where local zoning and design ordinances come into play, the steel facades can be paired with brick, stucco or glass. For masonry, Universal Steel will install spandrel beams to support the wall system being attached.

In recent years, customers have ordered steel buildings for homes. The steel I-beam construction lets them build out their home without worrying about load-bearing walls.

“It’s almost like what you’d see in a warehouse district,” Tanco says. Although business is becoming healthy and its market seemingly robust, Universal Steel faces a hurdle common to any company in the construction industry: financing. In the last two to three years, securing funds for projects has been somewhat difficult.

“Whenever banks stop making loans and the economy is struggling, people aren’t building as much,” Tanco says. But the diverse uses and blank slate for customization keeps the phones ringing. “We’ve always covered the full spectrum, from small to large, simple to complex.” MM 

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