Identifying metal building structures used to be a snap. One scanned the horizon for a large, plain, functional one- or two-story building with only a few windows and a no-nonsense, wash-and-wear facade. Clear-span interiors gave the feel of an enclosed coliseum. Intimacy, privacy and style were not always considerations.

Need more specific examples? The hardware store on the business spur of the main highway, the one with the beige, vertical-slat exterior and brown metal roof. Or the expansive new church community center across town, or the local tire store and its half-dozen service bays with overhead doors. Or even the factory outlet shopping center that always looks buttoned-down and tidy, but never extravagant.

But what about the upscale furniture retail center with the huge plate-glass display windows and brick facade? Or the natural-foods store with stucco-like outside walls lined with wooden benches, or the rustic, dark, wood-and-brick outdoor supplies store?

In recent years, metal building systems have gracefully and convincingly clear-spanned the gap between the practical and the sophisticated. They have morphed from utilitarian warehouses and big-box retail centers to conservative neighborhood banks and trendy, small grocery stores. They have gone from gymnasiums with exposed beams to state-of-the-art, new car dealerships and shopping plazas with a look of permanence and style.

But while they have assumed the appearance of traditionally constructed buildings, metal building systems have certain characteristics that set them apart from the competition.

"Metal building systems are very identifiable in this way: we design and manufacture the whole building," says Charles Prager, spokesman for the Metal Building Manufacturers Association (MBMA) in Cleveland.

"Traditional buildings cannot be as readily identified as having a 'system' as metal buildings can," Prager says. The conventional approach is more of a hodgepodge, employing wooden beams and other pre-produced materials rather than the custom-designed, steel beams found in metal buildings.

"A metal building system can truly be a custom building in a box, from structural beams to exterior paneling to standing-seam metal roofing," he adds.

Bye-bye boxes Indeed, using a metal building system, an architect or design-builder has the opportunity to customize each product. And, thanks to advancements in computer systems, that process may take only a matter of hours.

"In the 1950s and early 1960s, it could take a week to design what today takes an hour," says Prager. "Now we can play with building footprints and supply cost differentials. Our industry is much more flexible than it used to be."

Star Building Systems in Oklahoma City, with 700 distributors around the country, is a major supplier of metal building systems. "Metal buildings have had a reputation for being economical," says Bud Warford, Star's director of marketing. Standing-seam metal roofs with 20-year, no-perforation guarantees, outlet malls and good-looking, clear-span big boxes like Home Depot back up that reputation, he says.

"Building designers today should take note of architectural colors that enhance both visible and practical elements of even the most basic single-slope metal roof," he says. Warford adds that designers should take advantage of the opportunity to give a metal building a rustic appearance through cedar shakes.

Robert G. Lyon and Associates Inc. project manager Lee Bothast, in the firm's Pasadena, Calif., office, says a metal building was the structure of choice for a Pep Boys auto parts store in Monrovia, Calif. The architectural firm took the basic metal building system the parent company had chosen for its outlets and dressed it up with a West Coast, Spanish stucco facade and tile parapet roof to meet local building-code requirements. The firm also supplied the prototype design for 18,000 sq. ft. Pep Boys' stores that can be built in just 70 days.

Adios, colorless strips In complying with code, metal buildings often gain the extra benefit of curb appeal. Metal buildings can be - and frequently are - visually attractive.

"The roadsides of America are filled with smart-looking strip shopping centers constructed of metal buildings," says Douglas Jurney, vide president of marketing with CECO Building Systems in Columbus, Miss. "You would not necessarily realize it from the curb view."

Jurney cites the growing use of high-slope painted architectural roofs to draw the eye and spirit to well-designed strip centers.

"The developer can create the basic shell of the building in a quality method, realizing both economy and speed of construction with a metal building," continues Jurney. "Add a metal roof - the best roof available - and the developer has funds left to maximize the project's curbside appeal using other local materials."

Jurney also reports that local shopping strips are not usually constructed by large, national developers who are well versed in the benefits of metal buildings. Instead, local strip centers are more likely to feature traditional construction, which employs a bar-and-joist frame, block walls and tar-and-gravel roof.

"A metal building solution is often a better solution," Jurney continues, "because it offers a complete package, including frame, standing-seam metal roof, side metal exteriors, and the opportunity to add a decorative front." In addition, the time savings realized in thedesign and erection of metal building systems translates to more dollars for trims and facades, he adds.

Dispelling myths The metal building systems industry is well aware of the reputation it has acquired over the years. Critics, including many architects, scoff that all metal buildings look exactly alike - they are buildings in a box. They all have industrial appearances and, therefore, are not suitable for communities that have strict building-appearance codes.

"We have dropped the term 'pre-engineered' from our vocabulary when referring to metal building systems," says Prager. "Everything we do is from scratch, matching buildings, budgets and time. We utilize series of systems to come up with the most economical solutions to building needs."

"The metal building industry is evolving quite rapidly," agrees Joe Loomis, vice president of Spokane, Wash.-based Garco Building Systems. "It has gone from a commodity industry for pre-fab or 'kit' buildings, like silos, to a specialty industry. It's more design-engineered today."

Loomis also says metal building systems offer the most efficient use of steel. The steel skeleton or framing system can be designed for each use. Building system suppliers buy flat-sheet, recycled steel and cut everything to size for each project. It can be more expensive to custom-cut components and the steel may cost more per ton, he concedes, but in the end, it is more efficient and cost-effective.

As for the image of metal buildings, Loomis cites the success of national warehouse-style retailer Costco. Yes, those are metal buildings, he says. But Neiman Marcus, with its traditional construction stores, would love to have the customer demographics that Costco boasts - metal buildings, Costco and well-educated, higher-income consumers have hit it off.

Augmented arguments "The statement that metal buildings have a barn appearance with gables or a plain facade that's not conducive to upscale retail properties is one we hear quite often, especially from architects," says Warford. "In some cases, we agree with them, but it doesn't have to be so."

The large, clear spans characteristic of metal building systems increase versatility and traffic-flow patterns. "Traditional materials usually stop at 40 feet," Warford continues, "whereas 60- to 80-foot spans are still in the economical range for metal building systems."

Looking for lasting value? Metal building systems feature long-life materials. A 20-year color warranty can be stipulated when ordering a wall panel exposed to the weather. The same goes for roof systems, which also come with guarantees against corrosion and perforation.

"Metal building systems are thermally efficient," says Warford. "Current building codes in many states require up to R30 insulation in the roof. We can provide that with our roofing systems."

Because metal systems are designed by licensed engineers, they can be specifically created for extreme local conditions including earthquakes and heavy snows, Warford continues. They also have proven to be highly resistant to hurricanes, and their inherent flexibility helps them withstand other vagaries of nature.

It's ironic that the longevity of metal building structures sometimes works against them. Warford says structures dating from 1965 incorporate the technology of the mid-1960s, and that people often point to those structures as examples of metal buildings. "That's like comparing a '65 Chevrolet to a current model," he adds.

"Modern Star material uses a variety of geometric shapes and roof slopes, for example," Warford continues. "Panel coatings are as much as five times better than materials from 1965."

Speed, budget, quality and ... There are four considerations driving the building industry today, says Michael Crosson, CEO of JGA Inc., a Southfield, Mich.-based architectural firm specializing in retail.

"The challenge going forward in the construction industry is this: Number one, how can we speed up the construction? Number two, how do we reduce the cost? Number three, how do we increase the quality at the same time? And lastly, how do we create different kinds of environments?" says Crosson.

Each consideration has its own set of dynamics. What the metal-truss system and pre-fab buildings have done is control the quality of production in a manufacturing environment, replacing a more volatile on-site construction environment.

"With pre-fabricated components, you aren't as subject to weather conditions and labor-market fluctuations over an extended period of time," Crosson says. "If the normal framing period is a week, it might be cut to two days - decreasing by 50% the potential time in which a conflict could arise."

Crosson describes a new building in the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights that consists of a metal frame covered with a layer of wood sheeting, followed by a masonry exterior.

"It's the best of all worlds when one combines the technologies available - metal, wood, sheeting and foam," Crosson says. "When they are combined in the right way, you get optimum results."

Architect David Shea of Minneapolis-based Shea Inc., a division of Freeport, Minn.-based Forbes Shea, says metal-building systems may not be as popular in the upper Midwest as in other parts of the country.

"We don't see a lot of it here," says Shea, whose company is currently constructing a number of PetCo pet food metal buildings. "Conventional (stick) framing seems to be available at the same price.

"Many municipalities don't accept metal buildings," he continues. "They have particular requirements - for example, masonry."

Metal buildings are more popular in rural areas, he asserts. There, building codes may not be as strict, and metal buildings have the advantage of being able to go up in the dead of winter - an important virtue in Minnesota.

To Shea, the term "metal buildings" is probably an unfortunate one. Metal buildings often conjure up images of factory outlet centers and 30,000 to 50,000 sq. ft. buildings.

Crosson, on the other hand, suggests that small commercial and residential buildings may represent a promising new arena for metal building structures. And while different systems bring their own complications, such as wiring, already solutions are at hand.

"For any project, you can always define the appropriate application or combination of materials," Crosson says. "In the end, it's about quality, speed and budget. That sums it up."