Post Frame at a Crossroads—Is This the 11th Hour for the Industry?

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Issue #11240 - July 2019 | Page #56
By Sharon Thatcher

For several years, there has been a foreboding trend in the post-frame industry: the disappearance of post-frame engineers. At once a strong coalition of devoted proponents who worked diligently on both personal and professional time to promote the industry through research, education and builder support, they are now ‘graying out’ at an alarming rate. It was bound to happen, but what many people did not see, was that most of these post-frame professionals were not being replaced. There has literally been no one left behind to continue the post-frame engineering journey.

This trend is no more apparent than at the university level where wood construction is not being taught to prospective engineers.

Frank E. Woeste, Ph.D., P.E., is one of those post-frame engineers who blazed a prominent trail before retiring from Virginia Tech in 2003. He was not replaced with a wood engineering specialist, a trend being seen nationwide.

The Early Years of the Industry

Woeste explained that even in the boom years of post-frame’s popularity (arguably beginning in the 1950s and extending into the 1990s), universities struggled to incorporate wood construction of any kind into its engineering curriculum.

“If you go back to when I first started, very few civil engineering departments offered a wood design class,” he said. “It was the purview of agricultural engineers, because historically farm buildings were wood frame.”

Some professors discovered post frame and embraced it. Woeste was one of them. Donald A. Bender, Ph.D., P.E., now at Washington State University, was another.

Noted Bender:

“Back then (in the 1970s) most university agricultural engineering departments had a faculty member for wood structures: post frame and animal confinement types of construction,” he said. “And at most universities the faculty was a one-off person. At Virginia Tech it was Frank Woeste, at Texas A&M, where I was and now at Washington State, it was myself, at Wisconsin University it was Dave Bohnhoff, at South Dakota State it was Gary Anderson, at Penn State it was Harvey Manbeck, and at Cornell it was Kifle Gebremedhin.”

It worked because agricultural engineering programs at the university level were still prevalent and post-frame was seen as a revolutionary style of construction that universities could find potential in promoting.

These were the glory years for post-frame research. “Going back to the ’70s, there were many academic and industry professionals who were trying to establish that post frame could be code-conforming construction and meet the requirements of strict building codes,” Bender said. “But we first needed to understand how the buildings worked and how to design them, and how to make them check out on paper.”

Today, post frame in universities is rarely mentioned.

“To survive and thrive [university agricultural engineering departments] had to move to bioengineering and biomass conversion,” Bender said. “Most of them have dropped the structural engineering piece.”

As well, post frame has become a drop in the proverbial ocean of growing construction technologies. In wood construction alone, Woeste pointed out, ‘tall wood’, like cross-laminated timber (CLT) and podium construction (multiple stories of wood over 1–2 stories of concrete), are younger and sexier programs being promoted on the university level.

So What?

One might wonder what the ultimate impact on the post-frame industry might be if new engineers are not entering the field. “The impact is less than good,” Woeste said. “A lot of your local engineers do not have background in post-frame design.”

Not surprisingly, research for post frame has also slowed to a near standstill.

“Over the years, a lot of people have worked to develop engineering standards for post frame, even referenced in the building code, and those need to be maintained,” Woeste said, adding: “post-frame buildings are structurally complex and also fascinating. It took us about 20 years to understand why post-frame buildings did so well in high-wind events over types of buildings like concrete block and so forth. That has now been documented because programs were available to do all this.”

It isn’t just at the university level where the pinch is being felt. Some larger post-frame companies are struggling to find engineering replacements.

“I’ve become aware that a lot of the senior people in the larger companies are retiring,” Woeste said. “Someone just contacted me and they are desperate because their senior person just retired. They asked me where they could get some help, so the lack of education is starting to take its toll.”

Most likely the larger companies, of which there are only a hand full, will be able to develop their own solutions and carry on. Left behind will be smaller builders who may get stuck building smaller, less diverse structures where the engineering is less complex, or using packaged buildings with limited customization. It will be a struggle to advance beyond that.

Understanding the basics in post-frame engineering has become a must-have for any builder trying to advance.

“If the builder doesn’t have some background [in post-frame engineering] to communicate what types of designs are needed, what the structural design techniques are in general terms, it’s hard to have a good set of plans produced for a smaller builder,” said Woeste.

This is even more paramount now that fewer professional engineers have the background.

“It comes back to education,” Woeste said. “The builder needs to communicate with a local engineer or architect to give them direction as to who they need to contact for the design work and what kind of design work is needed.”

It’s Not Up to the Universities

It may be easy to assume that universities should just wake up and start teaching some post-frame courses again, but Woeste doesn’t agree.

“I don’t think it is realistic that universities are going to invest the resources in this area. It’s just not popular enough on the research side. It would be very difficult for a young faculty member to make tenure because of [lack of] funding. So going forward it will need to be a different path,” he said.

Bender has made the same assessment. “As these folks are retiring, their departments are not filling them with that kind of person any longer,” he said. “I don’t know any agricultural engineering department in the nation that is making structures an emphasis and that would hire faculty in that area.”

A Different Path

Woeste would like the post-frame industry to take a page from its own history to build itself back up before it is too late. His prescription for a cure can be broken down into three parts:

Basic Engineering Education for Builders

The only course currently available on an ongoing basis is a post-frame engineering webinar taught by Harvey Manbeck. In the interest of survival, Woeste believes the industry needs to provide more courses like this, on and off line, and to begin actively cultivating younger replacements.

For 10 years, Woeste and Bender teamed up to conduct workshops at the annual Frame Building Expo that were designed to give post-frame builders the basic tools they needed to build safe and properly designed buildings.

“We operated under the assumption that the participants had no experience in engineering. That’s how we presented it,” Woeste said. When those workshops ended about 10 years ago, he and Bender continued offering some limited post-frame design course work in a wood design course at Virginia Tech. Post frame is not given a lot of attention due to the audience, but Woeste sees no reason why a course like the former post-frame-specific workshop should not once again be part of the expo curriculum.

Such a course would inform builders of all the work that has already been done in post-frame research. At present, the technical resources are simply sitting there waiting to be dusted off and properly used.

“I don’t know if new people coming into the industry even know about all this and how useful it is,” Woeste said.

Cultivate Engineering Replacements

The agricultural building engineer is a dying breed, thus taking with it the post-frame engineer. Don’t expect a revival; instead, in addition to training builders on the basics, the industry needs to pull together the few practicing engineers and educators whose retirements have not dimmed their enthusiasm to train a new generation. Their expertise should be tapped into to serve on committees that are devoted to “maintain the progress in post frame that has been made over the last 30– or 40–some years,” said Woeste.

He added: “Back in the 1980s and ’90s, we had a lot of involvement by university and industry people. I fondly remember at one point we needed a bracing standard for recommended practice for installing post-frame trusses for safety concerns … about five of us met and wrote that standard in one day, and published it. The Truss Plate Institute (TPI) published it. I don’t see that type of activity anymore.”

The third recommendation is the most expedient of all:

Make Ownership of Code Standards a Mission of the National Frame Building Association

Bender said it is common for trade organizations to own and maintain building code standards and are referenced as such within the International Building Code. The standards for mass timber in the IBC are owned by APA – The Engineered Wood Association. For timber design, the standards are owned by American Wood Council (AWC).

For post frame, Bender believes “those standards should be managed by the NFBA. That’s the most relevant trade association.”

Without that kind of commitment, Bender fears: “The standards will just go defunct, discarded.”

That loss would be devastating since code reference is the gold standard for building code officials nationwide and has allowed post frame to move beyond pole barns.

“Post frame has always had a bit of a brand recognition problem with the ‘a’ word—agricultural,” Bender said. “People will say, ‘well they’re pole barns, they’re ag buildings. Well, no, they’re much more than ag buildings, so by moving them from ASABE to NFBA, you would build NFBA’s reputation in the code community and you wouldn’t have the word agriculture in the title of it anymore and it would add credibility and build the NFBA brand.”

The argument for NFBA ownership heralds back to the lack of up-and-coming post-frame engineers. Bender noted that engineers on the university level were heavily involved with creating the post-frame standards currently in the IBC. They accomplished this work through the ASAE (American Society of Agricultural Engineers). This is where post-frame standards were first reviewed, adopted, and moved into the building code.

The ASAE’s post-frame members were able to include several key code reference standards relating to diaphragm design, post foundations, terminology, and nail-laminated posts. But with few, if any, post-frame professionals still members of the ASABE (they have since been renamed American Society for Agricultural and Biological Engineers) there is no one to assure that the codes will be maintained.

Cautions Bender: “These standards have to be revised periodically to stay listed in the codes. And there is hardly anyone left to run that operation in the ASABE.”

Woeste explained further: “The standards are maintained by an ASABE Committee, composed of largely university faculty interested in post-frame research. With the demise of structures faculty in universities, these standards are at risk because they must be revised and re-approved on a periodic schedule. If the standards are dropped due to the lack of maintenance, they will be dropped and removed from the IBC on its revision schedule. Without these standards in the IBC, all post-frame builders, both large and small, will be back to ‘square one’ trying to justify their post-frame plan submittal at the local building department.”

Is This the 11th Hour for the Industry?

Both Woeste and Bender were asked if the post-frame industry was entering its 11th hour. Woeste agreed that it was. Said Bender: “It’s 11:30.”

With his own retirement decisions not that far on the horizon, Bender added: “I really have a spot in my heart for this industry. There are so many people, not me alone, but in academia and in the industry, who have given so much to get post frame to where it is today that I hate to give up. It pains me that we would lose ground. That’s all that motivates me.”

NOTE: Frame Building News reached out to the National Frame Building Association for comment. The NFBA issued the following comment: “The NFBA Board, with input from the Technical and Research Committee, is aware of the issues raised in this article. NFBA launched several initiatives in recent years to expose and educate current and aspiring, structural engineers to post-frame construction. A review of the NFBA’s initiatives and opportunities will be addressed in the August issue of FBN.”

This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Frame Building News. Reprinted with permission.

You're reading an article from the July 2019 issue.

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