Metal Buildings

Christopher P. Crall

October 1, 2001

Developing construction specifications to ensure compliance with energy standards is sometimes a source of confusion for specifiers of metal buildings. Insulation manufacturers often receive questions similar to the following:

"What R-value of insulation do I need to comply with my local energy code?" The answer, of course, is, "It depends."

The thermal performance of building envelopes depends on more than just the R-value of the insulation installed. For metal buildings in particular, the influence of metal components such as purlins, girts, sheeting and fasteners can have a significant impact on the overall thermal performance. Fortunately, energy standards are beginning to recognize this and are incorporating information specific to metal buildings in their envelope requirements.

Developing specifications that comply with energy standards involve the following steps:

  • identifying the U-factor requirements based on the building’s location and use

  • selecting envelope designs which meet the U-factor requirements

  • specifying the use of insulation materials with assured performance

    ASHRAE 90.1 – 99

    The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers has approved Standard 90.1-1999, "Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings." This is the latest revision in the 90 Series originally published in 1975. The 1999 revision (available for order at is significant in that, for the first time, metal building walls and roofs are treated as distinct envelope elements.

    Also for the first time, the standard establishes envelope criteria based on life cycle economics. The previous version, published in 1989, established maximum U-factors based on the consensus professional judgment of the standards committee and didn’t differentiate metal buildings from other commercial construction types.

    The revised standard establishes criteria for metal building walls and roofs for each of the 26 climate zones defined by heating and cooling degree-days. The criteria are based on cost and performance estimates of actual constructions so that the prescribed criteria are achievable and cost effective.

    The ASHRAE Standards Committee utilized data originally publicized by the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association in the brochure, "ASHRAE 90.1 Compliance for Metal Buildings." The document is available through NAIMA and may be ordered through its Web site ( NAIMA members also consulted with the 90.1 standards committee in developing the revised standard.


    As in previous versions of the 90.1 Standard, the envelope thermal performance criteria for walls and roofs are expressed as maximum U-factors. The U-factor is the overall heat transfer coefficient of the envelope element. It’s understood to include air films on both inside and outside surfaces, and it accounts for all the construction details of the building element being described. Units are Btu/(hroft2o°F). By convention in the building industry, U-factors are evaluated at a mean temperature of 75 degrees fahrenheit. For horizontal elements (floors and roofs) Standard 90.1 specifies that they be evaluated assuming the heat flow direction is up (normally the worst case). In steady state, the heat loss or gain through an envelope element can be calculated by multiplying the U-factor by the area and by the temperature difference between inside and outside air.

    The goal is to describe, in a single term, how real insulation systems perform as installed in real buildings. Unfortunately, real buildings are complicated. Temperatures (both inside and out) are very seldom steady enough to permit accurate heat flow measurements. Solar gains, air infiltration, lighting loads and occupancy effects complicate the situation further. For metal buildings, the thermal performance is further complicated due to the abundance of highly conductive metal components. Thermal short circuits due to fasteners and compression of insulation over purlins and girts contribute to the thermal system’s complexity. NAIMA’s approach was to develop U-factors for metal building insulation systems based on a combination of hot box testing and three-dimensional finite element analysis of metal building insulation systems.

    Finite Element Analysis

    Finite element analysis is a numerical method whereby a complicated geometry can be mathematically modeled by dividing the region of interest into many small "elements." This essentially turns a complicated problem into many simple problems that can be solved by iteration using a computer. FEA software (such as the ANSYS package) is routinely used in many industries to solve a variety of complex thermal problems. Using FEA, it’s possible to properly account for the thermal complexities of metal building envelopes and to develop accurate U-factor estimates. A validated FEA model can be used to investigate many more cases than would be possible with hot box testing alone.

    The FEA model was validated using hot box testing to verify the assumptions involved. In these tests (performed per ASTM Test Method C 976) a representative section of a metal building roof was constructed in an opening between a hot "metering chamber" and a cold "climatic" chamber. Metering section size was 8 feet by 8 feet. Steady temperatures were maintained on both the hot and cold side of the box, and energy flow into the hot side was monitored accurately. The method has proven accurate, but these tests are costly, time consuming, and require considerable skill to produce accurate results, particularly for highly insulated or geometrically complex constructions.

    Thermal Performance of Metal Building Roofs

    The validated finite element model was used to calculate U-factors for a number of metal building wall and roof configurations insulated with traditional faced mineral fiber insulation. Table 1 gives selected results for roofs:

    As in any modeling effort, the results will vary depending on the assumptions. Key assumptions that apply to these results follow.

    • faced insulation is NIA 404 certified

    • emittance of facing is 0.9

    • 8 inches tall by 3 inches wide purlin and girts (0.0625 inch steel)

    • 5 foot purlin spacing

    • 0.026 inch roof sheet

    Key assumptions for screw down roofs:

    • #12 steel screws

    • fastener spacing 12 inches o.c.

    • insulation compressed to 1/8 inch between purlin and roof sheet

    Key assumptions for standing seam roofs:

    • 24 inch clip spacing

    • 1/4 inch steel screws with rubber washers

    • insulation compressed to 3/4 inch between purlin and thermal block

    • insulation compressed to 1/8 inch under clips

    • 1 inch by 3 inch extruded polystyrene thermal blocks

    These assumptions were felt to apply to typical metal building roof constructions.


    Table 1 includes a column that gives the percentage reduction in heat flow through the roof compared to the uninsulated case. As we know, insulation systems follow the law of diminishing returns. The first increment of insulation produces the largest return, with additional increments reducing heat flow further, but by smaller amounts. This is clearly shown in the table. Determining the "optimal" insulation level becomes an engineering economics problem, which attempts to balance the incremental installed cost with the incremental dollar savings generated over the life of the project. Standard 90.1 utilizes this approach in setting the U-factor criteria for the various climatic zones.

    For screw down roofs, the compression of the insulation between the purlins and the roof sheet has a major impact on the thermal performance of the system. In addition, metal fasteners are a significant short circuit for heat transfer through the envelope. The FEA model properly accounts for these details. Even with these defects, reductions in heat flow of roughly 90 percent (compared to the uninsulated case) are possible.

    U-Factors Better for Standing Sean Roofs.

    For standing seam roofs, the U-factors are significantly better (lower) than for the SDR roof with the same nominal insulation value. This is primarily due to the inclusion of the 1 inch by 3 inch thermal spacer block placed over the purlins where the insulation is compressed. The block is an effective fix for the thermal short circuit at the purlins. Thermally, the SSR with the thermal spacer block is a much more efficient system that should be considered in colder climates. Using double layers of insulation, U-factors down to 0.046 Btu/(hroft2o degrees fahrenheit) are achievable (a 96 percent reduction compared to the uninsulated baseline).

    Finally, note the results for filled cavity insulation systems. For most metal buildings, the vapor retarder facing and the insulation layers are installed from the top of the roof prior to installation of the roof sheeting. This method leaves the purlins exposed to the indoor conditions below. Other installation approaches use banding to support the insulation from below the purlins. These systems can be used on new buildings, and may be adaptable to re-insulation work in existing buildings. The approach has the additional advantage of allowing the insulation to completely fill the cavity between purlins. While the thermal short circuit of the steel purlins is still present, its effect is reduced.

    Thermal Performance of Metal Building Walls

    Table 2 summaries the FEA results for selected metal building walls installed in the conventional manner. These calculations assumed a girt spacing of 7 feet.

    As expected, the results are somewhat lower than the U-factors for screw down roofs, reflecting primarily the wider girt spacing assumed.

    Insulation Material Specifications

    In developing these U-factors, one key assumption was that insulation material installed performs as designed. To ensure this, the construction specification should require that insulation materials comply with National Insulation Association (NIA) Standard 404. NIA 404 is a standard product specification for flexible faced fiberglass metal building insulation. It was developed by NIA’s MBI Laminators Committee (, and it covers the composition and physical properties of faced insulation intended for use in the walls and roofs of metal buildings. The standard requires that the thermal performance of the laminated insulation product meet the rated R-value out of package, with verification by periodic sampling and testing by a nationally recognized laboratory.

    The revised ASHRAE Standard 90.1-99, for the first time, treats metal building walls and roofs as distinct envelope elements. Maximum U-factor criteria are set based on life cycle economics. The NAIMA three-dimensional finite element model was used to estimate the thermal performance of typical metal building envelope elements, taking into account compression of insulation at the purlins and girts as well as thermal shorts due to clips and fasteners. The resulting U-values are published in Appendix A of the 90.1 Standard and may be used to demonstrate compliance of the design. Specifying NIA 404 compliant insulation materials ensures that the wall and roof assemblies perform as designed.

    Table 1

    Assembly U-factors for Metal Building Roofs

    Insulation System




    Btu/(hr? ft2?Deg F)

    Percent Reduction

    from Uninsulated





    Standing Seam Roof












    Screw Down Roof




    With Thermal Blocks




    (Single Layer)












    Standing Seam Roof




    With Thermal Blocks




    (Double Layer)
















    Filled Cavity with




    Thermal Blocks





    Table 2

    Assembly U-factors for Metal Building Walls

    Nominal R-Value


    Btu/(hr?ft2?Deg F)

    Percentage Reduction

    from Uninsulated Case












    This article originally appeared in Metal Construction News, published by the North American Insulation Manufacturer’s Association.