According to the most recent annual survey of architects published in Metal Architecture, the amount of material used in all new construction for exterior metal panel walls has increased almost 50 percent in just the past year. We have seen significant evidence of this increase reflected in orders for the high-end building segment. Driving forces behind this trend include sustainability and competitive long-term cost, design flexibility and quality improvements, and new finish choices in high performance metals. These factors have positioned metal as a top choice for high-end buildings in every category.
Building owners and architects often approach projects with sustainability in mind, using materials such as metal that can have a positive impact on the environment. This is clearly desirable for the public good, and a requirement for projects seeking LEED® certification. However, the intrinsic value delivered to the building owner in terms of low life-cycle cost may be the most cogent factor contributing to the growth of metal panel specifications today.
Life-cycle costing involves adding all of the costs of a conventional wall system, including installation and maintenance over the life of a building and comparing that figure to the present cost of a sustainable installation. As an example, a $5 million wall system replacement 20 years from now at 5.25% interest would cost $1.8 million today. This calculation suggests that it would be more beneficial to upgrade to a sustainable panel system, provided the installation cost does not increase by more than $1.8 million. When this analysis is conducted, the sustainable option usually prevails.
While high performance metals like stainless steel, zinc alloy, titanium and copper can seldom be justified on strip malls, for example, they offer a compelling argument for use in high-end buildings that are typically designed to last a century. When evaluating the relative merits of different materials, and certainly different metals, it is important to consider how long the building is expected to last – essentially its projected life cycle. In most cases, there are economic, as well as environmental benefits from choosing construction materials that will last the life of the building.
Designers appreciate the creative flexibility metal offers through its ability to be easily fabricated into any imaginable shape. Panels can be flat, curved, corrugated, or perforated. While more common metals like galvanized steel and aluminum can be painted in a wide array of colors, high performance metals are best left uncoated. Nevertheless, the variety of finish textures and colors available in high performance metals provides the designer with a broad palette of choices with which to achieve the desired visual effect.
Aesthetics are especially critical for high-end, high-profile buildings. Quality improvements and finish options have pushed the aesthetics of metal far beyond the initial expectations of architects, designers and owners. Additionally, there has been a considerable amount of work in recent years directed to improving the quality of high performance metals to meet architectural standards. Certain finishing methods have been developed that provide excellent uniformity. With the recent availability of coil stretching, flatter sheets are now possible without incurring the expense of sheet stretching. Composite panels have also come a long way, with high performance metal versions now available that exhibit excellent flatness with the economic advantage of using inexpensive core material to stabilize much thinner skins of more exotic metal – further reducing material costs.
The need for high performance metals of better quality is how Contrarian Metal Resources got its start. Several years ago, we identified a need to make flatter, more uniform metals available for architectural applications and created a company to do just that. We have since developed excellent rolled-in finishes, launched a domestic zinc alloy program to compete with imports, and even brought high quality metals to the domestic market from other parts of the globe.
When properly specified, metals have an advantage in the marketplace. Metal delivers low cost on a life cycle basis. Metal can be fabricated to execute unique architectural designs. Recent quality improvements and finish options in high performance metals like stainless steel, zinc alloy and titanium have now made it possible to take advantage of the longevity of these metals without sacrificing cosmetics. The combination of these factors makes a powerful argument in favor of continued growth in the use of high performance metal panels on high-end buildings.