Steel Versus Red Iron Buildings: Which Material is Best for Your Project?

FMP Construction MarketingBlog

Interior view of empty metal building with red iron beams and columns

The metal building craze is taking the commercial world by storm. Steel buildings, in particular, are slowly becoming the number-one alternative to traditional wooden structures.

Their weather-resilient, eco-friendly, and sustainable traits make steel buildings incredible long-term investments from a business perspective.

But steel isn’t the only type of metal building.

Red iron steel buildings are picking up considerable steam, as well.

Both deliver significant benefits.

But which one is right for your project?

The guide below will help you decide!


Building Materials

Aside from their distinct colors, how do steel and red iron buildings compare material-wise?

You’ll be surprised!

Steel Buildings

Steel is one of the most versatile, durable, and damage-proof construction materials on the entire planet. This material is engineered for strength at a microscopic, elemental level.

It all begins with crushed iron ore tossed into a blast furnace. After removing the impurities and infusing minerals like manganese and carbon, the steel is strong and malleable enough to be fabricated into shapes.

What happens next depends on whether you choose a structural steel or a pre-engineered steel building.

Structural steel buildings combine I-beams, tubing, and sheets with other materials, like wood and concrete, to build sturdy buildings from scratch.

Pre-engineered buildings (PEB), on the other hand, are 100-percent steel and made almost entirely in factories. The manufacturer will ship all of the supplies to a commercial site for a crew to assemble.

Red Iron Buildings

With an iconic rust-colored tint, there’s no question that red iron buildings live up to some portion of their name.

But here’s a little-known fact:

They’re not really made from iron.

Red iron buildings are actually built with industrial-grade steel primed with a coat of red-tinted iron oxide mixed with other alloys. This primer layer creates a water-wicking barrier to protect the steel from rain and snow.

Manufacturers configure this steel/iron duo into a capital “I” shape, known as an I-beam, to shorten construction times.

The result?

An industrial red appearance, enhanced corrosion prevention, and added durability when bearing heavy loads and severe weather.

Not familiar with all of these building material words? Learn all of the terms and definitions you need to know in our Commercial Construction Glossary.

The Building Process and Timeline

Construction worker installing solar panel on metal building roof

How long does it take to break ground on a steel or red iron building? Is one of these steel structures more costly and time-intensive than the other?

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two:

Steel Buildings

The “claim to fame” of steel buildings is how quickly they go up.

They have a very short “lead time,” which means that the materials arrive relatively fast.

The average lead time for a shop, restaurant, or small self-storage facility could be as little as six to eight weeks. Manufacturing plants, data centers, and community rec centers have lead times closer to sixteen weeks.

From there, it could take less than a few months to convert that freshly laid foundation into a fully functional commercial building.

That’s why PEMBs are a better option for companies with tighter deadlines.

How Steel Buildings Are Made

In a traditional wooden build, a timeline of a few weeks (or even months) typically means low-quality construction.

Yet, since PEBs ship ready to assemble, with all materials in one load, here’s how simple the building process is:

  1. Pour the foundation and position the anchor bolts as recommended by the blueprint.
  2. Erect the columns from the anchor bolts with nuts and washers; be sure to work on one bay at a time.
  3. Begin installing sidewall girts, rafters, eave struts, and purlins to complete the framing.
  4. Install bracing to prevent wind sway before installing the base trim.
  5. Drill the wall sheets into the steel frame.
  6. Add insulation to the walls for better temperature control and pest prevention later on.
  7. Start installing the roof sheeting and roof insulation.
  8. Finish installing the trim.

The exact process will depend on the complexity of your customized steel structure. For example, adding skylights, solar panels, roll-up doors, or exterior paint could add days or weeks to your project’s timeline.

Red Iron Buildings

Red iron buildings could take somewhat longer to build than standard steel structures.

The extended lead time stems from the simple fact that red iron buildings are best for larger facilities. Bigger buildings require additional planning and larger material orders, adding weeks or months to the lead time.

Red iron buildings are almost fully customizable in the structural sense.

They tend to be a good deal taller than traditional steel, often sporting mezzanines, lofts, and even second stories. Their reinforced I-beam frames are so strong that they can support near-unlimited lengths, widths, and heights without interior columns.

Understandably, it could take up to five times as long to receive the materials and erect a red iron building.

How Red Iron Buildings Go Up

From afar, a red iron building’s frame might look similar to that of a steel building. But upon closer inspection, you’ll see a red iron building is more a mix of I-beams than a complicated steel structure.

In a red iron building, the column I-beams interconnect with the roof I-beams via a series of secure bolts. As a result, construction requires little on-site welding.

Related: 9 Things to Know About Metal Buildings


Weather and Pest Resilience

The longevity of your metal building could very well depend on its ability to withstand weather, fire, and pests.

Let’s see how these two structures hold up to destructive elements:

Steel Buildings

The thought of steel sitting in thunderstorms might make you nervous. After all, research shows that an alloy exposed to acidic rain with a pH of 3.5 or higher is vulnerable to corrosion and degradation.

Thankfully, that’s rarely an issue with steel buildings.

Most manufacturers treat their steel with molten zinc, creating a moisture-proof barrier that can prevent unsightly rusting. Steel buildings are also surprisingly safe when lightning strikes because the electricity flows to the ground rather than inward.

These structures are remarkably resilient to other natural disasters and pests, too. Thanks to their sturdy structures, steel buildings can:

  • Handle the rocking from earthquakes with a low risk for damage
  • Withstand hurricane-force wind gusts
  • Keep termites or insects out
  • Survive blizzards without collapse (if they have high-snow-load roofing)
  • Avoid water leaks due to their water-tight fasteners and trims

In addition to fewer repairs, steel buildings fall into the “fire-resistant” and “non-combustible” categories. If a fire does engulf some part of your facility or plant, it’s unlikely to continue spreading.

Red Iron Buildings

Red iron buildings are even more resilient than their traditional steel counterparts, making them a better choice in regions of the country with extreme weather.

The linked I-beam frame allows these structures to withstand fierce winds and heavier snowfalls without sustaining structural damage or risking roof collapse.

Of course, that iron oxide coating provides red iron buildings with an edge:

While a steel building might develop rust patches decades from now, the red-tinted coating can prevent corrosion for even longer.

This feature alone might just seal the deal, at least from the long-term investment perspective.

Related: What to Look for in Commercial Construction


Customization

Interior shot of metal building with concrete flooring

The best way to protect this multi-million dollar investment is by customizing the building’s design to match your company’s specific needs. But how much can you customize steel and red iron buildings?

Here’s your answer:

Steel Buildings

Steel buildings are highly customizable, whether you head a retail center, office warehouse, or maintenance facility. By partnering with a builder, you can build a structure that matches your company’s needs.

In addition to a custom length and width, your company can select:

Awnings and Canopies

These overhead covers can shield entryways and exits from rain, snow, and heavy wind gusts.

Roof Pitch

Gable roofs with pitches lower than 4:12 tend to deliver that boxy, industrial design. A pitch of 8:12 or higher (or even a wind-resistant hip roof) allows for better snow and rain spill-off in inclement weather.

Clear Span

“Clear span” is a term used to describe buildings that don’t require interior columns for structural support. Many steel buildings can extend 150–200 feet before needing columns.

With columns, your building can be as long as you want and over 400-feet wide, adding impressive square footage.

Doors and Windows

When it comes to entryways for your steel building, you have a few customization options:

  • Remote-controlled metal roll-up doors for garages or loading docks
  • Hydro-swing doors for hangars
  • Sliding doors if your company welcomes visitors

Window choices include everything from long-lasting aluminum windows to overhead skylights embedded in the roof.

Exterior Appearance

You can also add an aesthetic touch that matches your building to your company’s branding.

Customize the outward appearance of your steel building with a range of add-ons:

  • Stucco for a more natural feel
  • Brick veneer to achieve a luxurious look
  • Wood for a rustic appearance
  • Basic metal paneling

Or, you can invest in a mix of several facades. Metal paneling might be just fine on the rear of the building, but brick might be better for welcoming your customers.

Red Iron Buildings

Red iron buildings are quite similar on the custom design front. Depending on which builder or manufacturer you select, you have full control over both the interior and exterior finishes.

If a building tailored to your company is your top concern, either building type will work for you.

Related: Custom vs. Standard Metal Structures


Warranties

Whether red iron or steel buildings spark your company’s interest most, the best way to protect this long-term investment is with warranties.

So which metal building is best?

Steel Buildings

You can cover just about every aspect of your steel building under some type of warranty. That could include:

  • 1 year on workmanship
  • 20+ years on the framing
  • 25+ years on exterior paint
  • 10–25 years for the roof paneling
  • 30+ years for either snow or wind damage
  • 40+ years on rust and corrosion
  • 50+ years on the trusses
  • Lifetime guarantee on the steel fasteners

If a beam develops a crack or the fasteners develop a rusted tinge, your company won’t owe any out-of-pocket fees.

Red Iron Buildings

While quite different from steel buildings on the structural level, red iron buildings carry similar warranties to boost confidence in your investment.

The key distinction is that red iron buildings often come with longer warranties than steel buildings, such as:

  • 25+ years on sheet metal paneling
  • 40+ years on walls and trim
  • 40+ years on the paint
  • 30–40 years for the roofing
  • 50+ years on the I-beams
  • 50+ years (or even a lifetime) structural warranty
  • Lifetime warranty on all fasteners that hold your structure together

Now, how do these added years of protection protect your corporation?

For one, a 30 or 50-year warranty can spark confidence in the manufacturer’s materials. Think about it: why would they offer a 25-year promise on sheet paneling if past clients have complained about damage in only five years?

It also makes red iron buildings a better choice in areas with heavy rain, snow, wind, and inclement weather. These buildings can practically survive it all.


Pricing

All of the above doesn’t matter if the building falls outside of your company’s budget. Which one of these buildings is the more economical choice?

Let’s find out.

Steel Buildings

As you might already know, steel buildings are generally more affordable than wood-framed buildings. They also require fewer repairs, have energy-efficient roofs and insulation, and reportedly last a lifetime.

That makes steel structures great investments. If your company eventually decides to relocate or sell the lot, the business can also take the “green” route by recycling and repurposing the steel.

Regular steel tends to be the more cost-effective of the two materials. Pre-engineered structures also require less rented machinery and fewer man-hours to erect. What you lose on materials, you’ll save on labor costs.

Generally, a steel building costs about $20 per square foot for a standard model. Customized versions cost almost double that, at $40 per square foot.

Red Iron Buildings

On the other side of the spectrum, red iron buildings typically yield higher price tags, take longer to erect, and require more materials (since they’re on the larger side).

For example, erecting a 300-foot wide, two-story red iron building could require cranes and other heavy machinery, which will cost you more. Red iron buildings may also take longer to build, given their sheer size, adding extra in the form of labor costs.

These buildings will often cost more upfront, but their longer warranties will offset those fees in the future.


Steel vs. Red Iron Buildings: Which Is Right For You?

Now, you’re probably wondering where steel buildings or red iron structures are your best option?

Here’s a quick guide to help you decide:

When to Choose Steel

Steel is a better material if your company checks any of these boxes:

  • Needs a building erected within a span of a few months or less
  • Hopes to spend less on upfront material fees, delivery, and labor costs
  • Doesn’t need a clear span to operate day-to-day
  • Owns a riding arena, storage building, retail center, medium-sized manufacturing plant, or recreational center

When to Choose Red Iron

Meanwhile, red iron is a better call for a company that fits these criteria:

  • Building in an area with heavy rain, snow, or wind
  • Needs a 50-year warranty on all parts
  • Can afford to spend more upfront
  • Wants a durable facility that can withstand the elements better
  • Requires or prefers a large, column-less building
  • Owns a manufacturing plant, concrete works facility, office warehouse, vehicle storage facility, or large-scale data center

Conclusion

Both commercial steel and red iron buildings are safe building options for companies in need of massive structures that last forever.

No matter which one is right for your company, FMP Construction can handle it. Email us today to learn more about our Colorado-area metal buildings.