Design flexibility, speed and economy often make metal building systems a healthy choice for retailers, especially multi-store operators.

METAL BUILDING STRUCTURES might be likened to a "health food" - a big glass of milk, for example, or a green salad or some whole-grain bread.

We've been told for so long how good for us a health food item is that when we actually try it, we're pleased and surprised to discover that it also tastes great.

Metal buildings, or pre-engineered metal buildings, for decades have offered users economical construction, flexible design and lower maintenance. Add to that the potential for trend-setting appearance and you have a blueprint for success.

According to recent industry figures, retail projects represent some 8% of business for metal building suppliers.

"For us, it's the third-largest segment of our business," says Doug Jurney, vice president of marketing for Ceco Building Systems in Columbus, Miss. "Manufacturing accounts for 40% and warehousing is at 20%."

"There are no major trends in retail metal buildings," Jurney says. "Our business has remained fairly level the last couple of years."

There are hot spots in the market, though. Ceco will be supplying materials for some 100 new Dollar General stores in the coming months. The Nashville-based value retailer plans to build as many as 700 facilities this year. It currently boasts 4,700 stores.

Dollar General attracts bargain hunters. Using conservative metal buildings structures helps companies like this keep costs and prices down.

Harley-Davidson, the all-American motorcycle manufacturer based in Milwaukee, in recent years has re-invented itself by greatly improving product quality and recapturing lost market share. It also redefined the Harley image, or brand, expanding it past the bad-boys group to include "Rolex riders," says Bud Warford, director of marketing at Star Building Systems in Oklahoma City. "These are professionals who enjoy the independence and performance of biking."

To serve these upscale riders better, Harley retailers are upgrading their properties by remodeling stores or building new ones for displaying extensive lines of Harley-logo apparel and accessories.

"Many Harley stores are metal buildings," Warford says. "We do several a year." Unlike Dollar General outlets, the Harley stores feature a variety of designs, and tend toward upscale. "Metal buildings frequently get the lower end of the market," says Jurney. "The high end is a goal.

"High-end buildings are more likely to be architect-controlled," he says. The metal building industry is working to market itself more effectively to architects.

Reality improves the image Traditionally, metal building systems were viewed by developers and the construction industry as an economical way to put up a building. They were thought to be 15% to 20% cheaper to construct.

"In fact, you must be very careful in making that assumption today," says Star Building's Warford. "The percentage of savings could change."

A lot depends on local labor costs, he says. However, being able to utilize a single crew to put up the entire metal building brings obvious economies.

Uninsulated, a metal building used to reflect the extremes. It would be colder in the winter and hotter in the summer than traditional buildings. However, with modern insulating materials, metal buildings can now be very energy- and cost-efficient.

Metal buildings are moving out of temperate climes to locations as far north as Canada. "Energy codes are becoming more prevalent and affecting the building industry," Warford says.

Improvements in insulation and its application in metal buildings have greatly expanded the market for metal buildings. "We have product in areas ranging from Mt. Hood to Guam," says Rod Horton, West Coast corporate accounts manager for VP Buildings Inc., Memphis, Tenn. Improved wind resistance, self-healing metal roofing and the ability to add amenities such as skylights are all plusses for metal building systems.

What's important to VP Buildings customers, including aggressive national big-box retailers such as Costco, are speed of construction and flexibility of design. Horton says work on a typical 150,000 sq. ft. Costco can be completed in 100 to 110 days after ground is broken. Time is money, he notes.

"We are there when they need the steel," he says. "A single labor crew puts up a building, from insulation to skylights. This eliminates several [construction] positions."

Penetrations, once a problem for metal roofing systems, now are taken in stride. "Our roofs don't leak," he says. "There may be 250 penetrations in a Costco roof. You couldn't ask for a better testimonial."

Better materials, better product Improved technology in computer-aided designs and improvements in resin-based roof and wall panel coatings make metal buildings infinitely adaptable and maintenance-free, Warford says.

With respect to designs, it's possible today to have virtually any configuration of structural, roofing and facade components, he says. "We're no longer prisoners to the 40-foot lengths that once were the rule. Metal building systems provide clear-span structures over 60 feet that are still very economical," Warford says.

Cookie-cutter-style metal buildings of the past likely represent less than half of today's market, he contends. Shopping centers are being built with stylish "L" shapes. Eight-sided metal building structures are popular for contemporary churches and could also have retail applications.

"Metal buildings now use long-life coatings. Roofs can be coated with zinc aluminum alloys that carry a 20-year warranty against perforation," Warford says.

Coatings such as polyvinylidine fluoride products have a 20-year warranty against chalking and fading. Pigments currently being used are ceramic in nature and are less likely to fade than earlier color products, he says.

"There's a trend on the West Coast to use concrete, load-bearing tilt-up walls with metal roofs," Warford says. "These walls are more rigid than steel and can be cast in various textures and colors."

Second-chance buildings A big issue with some architects, builders and owners is the potential for re-use of a big-box metal building structure.

"Communities favor re-using existing facilities," says Jeffrey Green, retail feasibility consultant with the Green Group in Troy, Mich. "They exert a lot of pressure to avoid tearing down a building and also to upgrade appearance," he says.

Green says that in some instances Costco moved into former HQ facilities. "It made significant modifications so that the building would fit its needs and image, and so it could make a quick entry into a particular market."

While purely functional metal buildings from past decades may have been viewed as albatrosses if they faded and rusted, modern techniques and materials make it possible to renovate them, industry spokespersons say. A new metal roof with a small amount of slope can be secured atop an old metal roof or put over one or several layers of built-up roofing. Walls or facades may be either removed and replaced or they can be covered over with modern materials for fresh interiors or exteriors of brick, stucco or stone.

While they are not necessarily low-cost to produce, metal buildings denote value to the customer, Green says. Dressing up or improving buildings using metal components increases their usefulness and helps keep municipalities content.

For roofing, various shades of green continue to be popular, says Blake Batkoff, national accounts manager and director of marketing for Elk Grove, Ill.-based Petersen Aluminum Corp., which provides metal roofing to the industry. Sandstone and other earthtones appear to be coming back.

Practically speaking, though, "A roof is only as good as its flashings," Batkoff says. "It must be watertight.

"Metal roofing today is color-coated before it is fabricated," he says. "It offers a finish guaranteed for 20 years."

Metal interior and exterior trim for new and older buildings provides visual interest and aids the building's lifespan. Brushed stainless column covers, for example, from Copper Sales Inc. (Una-Clad) in Anoka, Minn., are in the Mall of America.

"Our products include roofing, wall panels and column covers," says Jack Rogers, an owner. "We don't specifically target retail, but, in general, the market for us is growing."

The growth Rogers sees points to an even healthier slice of the shopping center apple for the metal building system industry.