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The cost of building fabric structures (part 2)

Features, Structure Basics | January 1, 2011 | By:

Experienced professionals comment on cost estimating awnings and canopies

Editor’s note: Part 1 of this two-part series on cost estimating appeared in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue.

It used to be that an awning was an awning was an awning,” states Richard Forward, owner of Out West Awning Co., Colorado Springs, Colo. “But not anymore. The business has gotten much more complicated. There are so many more options for the client.” Forward would know. Out West has been fabricating and installing awnings since 1903 when locals, in pre-air-conditioning times, needed protection from the intense Colorado summer wind, sun and heat. He’s been working for the company since 1977 and bought the business from his parents in 1989. As his clients are increasingly concerned about energy usage, they are turning to awnings to cut down on heat gain in the summer.

Out West’s projects range from $500 to $250,000. “We work with a lot of local architects who need advice,” says Forward. The Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, Colo., has been a client since 1916, and Out West recently completed a 9m by 12m freestanding pavilion for The Broadmoor’s championship tennis complex. Working with designer TAG Galyean, Out West fabricated a permanent structure of forest green Cooley Weathertyte® fabric with a yellow mesh underliner and a powder-coated welded steel frame that cost in the “low 40s” for design, fabrication and installation.

Matt Franta, owner of Canvas Craft Inc., Rogers, Minn., echoes Forward on the complexities of the awning business as does Mike O’Connor, vice president of Loane Brothers Inc., Baltimore, Md. Both Franta and O’Connor describe the awning business as a project-by-project operation. “Everything is basically 100% custom,” comments O’Connor. “Few projects are alike.”

Started in 1976, Canvas Craft was purchased by Franta’s father in 1989. Matt took over as owner in 2004 and the company has quadrupled its size. Canvas Craft will do repairs for as little as $200 and has worked on $200,000 projects, with most jobs falling in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.

Working with architect Brian Tempas of Cuningham Group Architecture P.A., Canvas Craft designed and installed a 24m by 30m tension shade structure for the 2010 Minnesota State Fair in Saint Paul, Minn. They did the steel cable, custom connectors, fabric work and installation. “This was a great project. We got the budget under control for the client, and the architect thinking about the potential of engineered fabric,” says Franta. “Ultimately, we brought a level of practicality to the table and were able to get a $400,000 cost down to just under $200,000 to meet the fair’s budget.”

Loane Brothers began in 1815, and it is now in its sixth generation of single-family ownership. “Each project has its own requirements, particularly on the commercial side. Choices of frame material, the material, color and shape of the awning, graphics or no graphics,” are all decisions that need to be made, says O’Connor. For Loane Brothers, a typical residential awning project costs $2,000 to $4,000. They also service about 600 seasonal customers, putting awnings up in the spring and removing them in the fall for cleaning, repair and storage. An average commercial project runs in the $4,000 to $7,000 range, but Loane does projects much larger than that. “Each project is different and comes with its own set of challenges,” says O’Connor.

Granted, it’s a custom business needing a custom approach. But how do these companies cost out their projects, and what are the variables? The consensus seems to break down to this: 60% of a project cost is labor, 25% is materials and 10–15% is installation. And size definitely matters: how big is the awning anyway? The style (shape) of the awning and its fabric type also affects cost. Is it made of solution-dyed acrylic from Sunbrella® or does the project need an eradicatable fabric? “In 1977, Sunbrella had about 25 samples,” says Forward. “Now they have about 400 choices.”

Other considerations include what metal is used for framing—extruded aluminum, structural steel or stainless steel—and whether the frame requires trussing or a custom brushed- or powder-coated finish. Does the project need backlighting built into the frame? Is the fabric laced to or stapled into the frame?

Ultimately the project evolves. Seldom are these companies given a budget upfront or a detailed concept. Usually the client approaches with “Here is what I am thinking.” Needs, scale and impact are discussed. Engineers are consulted and several renderings are done and fabric possibilities identified. “I kick around ideas and try to find the most appropriate solution and then send the renderings back to the client,” says Forward. “Budget is a later consideration.” Generally, if the budget is too high the overall scope of the project is reduced. O’Connor notes that installation significantly impacts cost. If it is a commercial project that needs to be installed in off-business hours, a “rush” job or is located in a distant site, installation costs will increase.

Forward also finds the aesthetics of a project more important to clients in recent years. “If you don’t finish off a building, people aren’t going to notice,” he says. “Clients want an awning that ties into a building’s architecture—they are looking for curb appeal.”

“Oh yeah, and they want it yesterday,” he adds.

Mason Riddle is a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture. Her case study of Behnisch Architekten’s Unileverhaus appeared in the Nov/Dec issue.

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