The cost of pole barns tends to hover around $15 to $30 per square foot, depending on a host of factors such as size and location. The low cost of pole barns makes them a compelling option for simple, temporary structures where large clear spans aren’t required.

Pole barn kits are a good option for many applications such as small garages, shops and horse barns. But for large-scale, customized agricultural applications —total containment barns, equipment sheds, cattle feedlot buildings or other types— pole barns aren’t up to the challenge.

Any building is an investment, and as such, you need to consider much more than upfront cost when evaluating the cost of pole barns — and whether steel might be a better alternative. Pole barns and pre-engineered steel buildings are two vastly different building types, and each fit well in different applications. If you are trying to decide between the two, you need to consider a variety of factors from initial cost to long-term value, maintenance needs, energy costs and insurance rates.

Comparing the cost of pole barns with prefabricated steel buildings

Pole barns are simple, foundation-free structures often used in smaller agricultural applications. Wooden poles set into the ground with concrete on 12’ or 16’ centers provide the primary structural support. Each opposite pair of wood posts has an associated roof truss system which serves as roof support. Typically, light-gauge corrugated steel or aluminum sheathing is used around the perimeter of the structure.

Pole barns are generally cheaper for buildings up to about 40’ wide; however, above 40’ wide the roof trusses must be designed to be much larger, making pole barns less cost-effective than steel buildings. Interior support columns are often introduced for buildings above the 40’ threshold to support the heavier truss system. Steel buildings are cost-competitive, more durable and can clear much larger spans without using a truss system or interior support columns. Regardless of size, though, steel buildings offer the greatest customization and provide the best long-term value.

Prefabricated metal buildings replace wood with stronger steel frames, which are placed about every 20’ to 25’ — allowing for larger doors and framed openings on the sidewalls than pole barns can. Steel buildings have a foundation, which provides support, anchors the building and helps prevent structural movement due to soil expansion.

While farmers may be drawn to the low price of a pole barn, it is important to consider factors beyond price when purchasing a building. With pole barns, the building itself might cost less, but its spans are far less accommodating, can take substantially longer to build and require more maintenance throughout its life.

Below, we will weigh different factors you should consider when comparing the value of pole barns with metal buildings — and offer advice on which option might be most cost-effective for your application in the long term.

Resistance to weather, water, pests and mold

This discussion comes down to a comparison between the long-term structural integrity of two building materials: Wood and steel.

Wood is a strong, cost-effective building material useful in many applications. However, wood is vulnerable to pest damage and the wood poles in a pole barn come in direct contact with the concrete and water from the ground — which can result in water damage and decay. Throughout the life of the structure, maintenance and repairs may be required to mitigate these threats.

Another important consideration is that pole barns lack a foundation. This saves costs initially over steel buildings, but could leave your pole barn vulnerable to structural damage in areas underlain with expansive soils prone to shifting.

Steel, on the other hand, is impervious to all of the above: Steel members are coated to prevent water damage and corrosion and the risk of fire is lower. This is why owners of steel buildings typically enjoy lower maintenance costs over the lifespan of their building.

Because steel buildings are designed to last for decades with minimal maintenance, they often come with warranties to protect your investment. At Searcy Building Systems, we stand behind our buildings with a 20-year panel finish warranty to prevent peeling, chalking and fading.

Insurance costs

Insurance rates are a good gauge for the structural integrity of building methodologies. The lower a building’s risk of weather, fire, earthquake damage, the lower the insurance rates are likely to be. Beyond cost savings, lower rates generally indicate a building is safer.

Metal buildings can have annual insurance costs as much as 42% lower than wood-framed buildings in some areas of the country, according to a study comparing insurance rates by construction method. Wood-framed buildings like pole barns may be cheaper initially, but insurance costs could potentially cost the owner more over the lifespan of the building.

Customization options and expansion

Chances are, there is a reason you are purchasing a building: Protecting equipment, giving shelter to livestock, building a total containment barn with NRCS funding. Whatever the reason, you need your building to meet the unique needs of your application.

Steel buildings offer greater design flexibility than pole barns do and can achieve wider clear spans. If, for instance, you need a 100 x 200 building to store an 80’ combine, your metal building consultant could easily design your building to be free of interior columns. Pole barns, on the other hand, can only efficiently handle clear spans of about 60’ or less.

Metal buildings are more easily designed for future expansion —simply by substituting a traditional endwall for one that’s rigid frame expandable— adding the value of cost-effective additions down the line. Pole barns, on the other hand, are difficult and expensive to expand if you require more space in the future.

Comparing the costs of pole barns and steel buildings comes down to short-term versus long-term value. If you’re looking for temporary, smaller structures, pole barns are a cost-effective option to consider. But for heavy-duty agricultural and commercial applications, steel buildings simply provide greater value, structural integrity, customizability and lower lifetime costs.

At Searcy Building Systems, we offer a host of standard and optional features that allow you to design a building perfectly suited to your end use. Get in touch with one of our experienced metal building consultants today for one-on-one advice regarding the cost of your building. Or, if you’d like to learn more about what goes into metal building so you can effectively communicate exactly what you want, check out our steel building anatomy guide.

Capture long-term savings with a metal building: A buyer’s guide

Low upfront cost. Quicker construction. Unmatched durability. Long-term energy efficiency savings. And much more. This guide walks contractors and owners through the long-term value of prefabricated steel buildings.

Download today