An outdoors-based industry requires equipment and facilities that endure, but there’s some debate as to which building material is best suited for storage structures, labor housing and logistics in mining applications. Advances in engineering and related technologies now bring into question whether the traditional steel or brick-and-mortar building may be the most economical or functional choice.

concrete buildingAccording to a 2012 report, tilt-up concrete buildings are constructed at a rate of 10,000 new units each year. This method of concrete building construction is reminiscent of 19th-century barn raising, but it’s a valuable time-saving process that is ideal for those with tight schedules and limited resources.

The advantages of a tilt-up concrete building are clear: they’re among the most durable and resilient buildings in the world, but cast-in-place facilities tend to be stronger and more in compliance with safety and security standards. Their downsides: questionable energy efficiency due to solar heat gain inherent in the material itself and the sheer permanence of the facility—an unwise investment if a site is considered temporary or short-term.

A major perceived downside of steel buildings is the incorporation of long-span steel floors, which have a tendency to bounce. Poured-in-place concrete not only serves as a better foundation for steel beams, it also reduces bounce. However, using steel requires a less complex and permanent foundation system, allowing construction in areas where soil stability is substandard.

In extreme environments, steel construction is easier and less costly per R-value of insulation than concrete tilt-up facilities. The potential for customization in the design of steel facilities is much greater than concrete, as the malleability of the material and the long-term general knowledge and experience of building with steel buildings provides better reliability.

Steel is also recyclable and “greener” than concrete, as structures can be demolished, recycled and reused in other applications. In fact, each wide-flange steel beam produced in the United States is made from more than 90% recycled or scrap material, giving construction contractors a significant leg-up in achieving LEED certification.

The advantages of concrete tilt-up building construction (left) and all-steel construction (right) hinge on the customer’s schedule, resources and intended service life.

Although there are justifiable concerns about the quality of cheaper, lower-end large-scale fabric buildings, many suppliers do, in fact, provide highly durable and cutting-edge designs suitable for use in some of the most extreme environments on earth. High-end custom fabric designs withstand wind and snow loads, and can be insulated to any R-value without exorbitant cost. According to a recent report by the United States Green Building Council, common myths surrounding tensioned fabric buildings are largely outdated.

While it’s true that fabric materials aren’t as durable as steel or concrete, the tradeoff comes in the form of portability and speed of installation, as many structures can be deployed with just a few day’s notice. Fabric building systems are also easier to expand and customize as an operation shifts focus or grows beyond the limits of a single building. Higher quality fabric structure manufacturers comply with common standards for building design and construction and will offer extended warranties.

Furthermore, tensioned fabric buildings tend to be among the most energy-efficient of the three building types, with built-in HVAC and ventilation systems allowing for efficient climate control throughout an entire facility. The lifespan of these building types varies by manufacturer and intended use as well as by climate in which the building is ultimately located, but building service life can be extended through the use of powder-coated metallic frames and occasional maintenance on tensioned-fabric panels. Many of these types of buildings can be expected to last 20–30 years.

This article was provided by William Hansen, marketing director, Alaska Structures (, an Anchorage, Alaska-based manufacturer of fabric building systems.