CROSS Safety Report
No structural design for steel portal frame building
This report is over 2 years old
A reporter is concerned that, in some cases, no structural design is carried out for steel portal framed buildings.
They believe portal frame sheds are often being fabricated to a cost rather than to a proper design.
Key Learning Outcomes
For steel fabricators:
Be aware that a structural design should always be carried out for steel portal frame buildings
A lack of structural design may require costly remedial works when obtaining building warrant approval as demonstrated in this report
It can be more economical and safer to procure steel portal frames from a steelwork contractor who has design offices that carry out the design
Purchase structural steelwork from a reputable supplier with a CE Certificate – Factory Production Control to EN 1090-2
For civil and structural design engineers:
Look to share your knowledge and routinely discuss the importance of carrying out structural designs with clients and steel fabricators
Find out more about the Full Report
The Full Report below has been submitted to CROSS and describes the reporter’s experience. The text has been edited for clarity and to ensure anonymity and confidentiality by removing any identifiable details. If you would like to know more about our secure reporting process or submit a report yourself, please visit the reporting to CROSS-UK page.
A reporter, who is a Chartered Engineer, regularly designs commercial, domestic and agricultural steel portal frame buildings. They are also regularly asked to prepare structural calculations to support retrospective building control applications. This is usually as a result of a farmer or commercial building owner being reported to a local authority for not having applied for regulatory approval.
Lack of structural design
In such cases, the reporter always asks the fabricator who prepared the original design for calculations and is invariably told that ‘this is the way we always do it’. In other words, there has been no structural design carried out and the fabricator has simply used the section sizes that they normally use for a particular shed size.
The reporter says that these sizes are often suitable for an enclosed shed but can be much too light for sheds with one or more open sides. They state that the connections are also often inadequate.
From the reporter’s experience, a significant number of fabricators consider structural calculations as an optional extra which can be provided. These are only typically provided if they are asked for to support a building control application.
From the reporter’s experience, a significant number of fabricators consider structural calculations as an optional extra which can be provided
Inadequate portal frame design
The reporter recently met with a fabricator and erector after preparing calculations which demonstrated that a completed commercial portal frame was inadequately designed. Some of the issues were:
Haunches comprising simple flat plates i.e. no flanges
No full depth stiffeners which were required to prevent column web buckling
Inadequate bolting arrangement at the eaves
Unsuitable bracing arrangement
The fabricator for this project agreed to carry out the required remedial work but stated that if they always had to work to a proper specification they would never win any work. The reporter finds this very concerning as it may mean that, in many cases, portal frame sheds are being fabricated to a cost rather than to a proper design.
Highlighting the risks to fabricators
The reporter is regularly told by fabricators that there have never been any problems with their sheds. The reporter reminded them of the heavy snow of 2012 when there were a large number of portal frame failures. These were largely due to web buckling because of lack of full depth stiffeners and inadequate purlins.
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This report reminded me of a portal frame I surveyed that was being used as a workshop. I found the connections and some of the bracing to be insufficient but, overall, it was just serviceable once we carefully replaced the bolts and added some eaves ties.
However, I noted the original design had a central runway beam that was not installed. This omission meant that for the last 6 years, the head of the central gable post was acting as a flagpole, or more likely held up by the purlins, as the head of it was short of the underside of the frame above by the depth of the omitted runway beam, and no one had thought to connect the two! I immediately highlighted that some angle cleats were required.
The problem with these portal frames is that they can be smarter than a structural engineer and find other ways to stand up making our arguments harder. I have found sending CROSS reports on failures to the client a good way of convincing them that things should be designed properly.
This feedback is from a fabricator who regularly designs portal frames. They are accredited to the highest standard for design, and fabrication (EXEC 4) with full QA and safety accreditations. However, they are not members of BCSA. They say that BCSA are a trade organisation which does a lot of good in the industry, but their members are not the only competent fabricators. The suggestion in the CROSS Panel comments that clients should use a competent contractor are of course correct, but BCSA is not the only method used.
The CROSS Panel comments on the report have been updated to incoporporate this feedback.
The report in portal frame construction highlights a number of issues, particularly with agricultural buildings. Designers should note the 2013 amendment to BS 5502-22 which requires design to Eurocodes. There are now only two building classes, so designers should expect less relaxation than allowed by the previous standard.
In my opinion, the situation with agricultural buildings (and similar) is often much worse with frames formed of cold rolled members, supplied by companies who simply do no design at all. If design is completed, connections are generally assumed to be rigid in analysis (which they are not) meaning overall frame stability is compromised and the moments around the frame are quite different to those assumed. Restraints to the inside flange are often not provided. At the eaves level, a torsional restraint is often not provided, meaning the fundamental verification of the members is not valid, in addition to the spurious design bending moments. A summary of the concerns with this common type of structure can be found in New Steel Construction of April 2015.
Expert Panel Comments
Expert Panels comment on the reports we receive. They use their experience to help you understand what can be learned from the reports. If you would like to know more, please visit the CROSS-UK Expert Panels page.
What is being reported here is an approach where there is a real risk of a structural failure and building collapse. There is other evidence from previous CROSS reports that proper structural design and verification may be grossly inadequate for routine work such as domestic extensions and minor works. Inadequate structures in this market sector, along with agricultural buildings, pose a risk to life safety.
Restraint to portal frame rafters
Portal frames need special attention, particularly for overall sway stability which depends on the rafters that are usually very slender. Furthermore, the members need consideration of the stability of the inner flange because this, or any plates on the inner face, may be subject to compression under either gravity loads or wind loads. Frequent restraints may be needed to resist buckling of the inner flange when it is in compression.
Restraint to the inner flange is commonly provided by diagonal ‘stay’ braces to the purlins which must be of sufficient stiffness. There also needs to be adequate bracing so that the purlins are held in position. Excellent guidance on the above and other aspects of portal design is given in Steel Construction Institute (SCI) publication P397 Elastic Design of Single-span Steel Portal Frame Buildings to Eurocode 3.
Reputable steelwork contractors
It is usually most economical and safest to procure steel portal frames from a steelwork contractor who has design offices that regularly undertake the calculations for portal frames in addition to the drawings. The vast majority of structural steelwork in the UK is supplied by reputable steelwork contractors with recognised accreditations. This is to ensure that the contractor is deemed competent with robust systems in place under 4 main headings:
Product CE marking: mandatory under European legislation
Quality: ISO 9001:2015
Safety: ISO 45001:2018
Environmental management: ISO 14001:2015
It is usually most economical and safest to procure steel portal frames from a steelwork contractor who has design offices that regularly undertake the calculations for portal frames in addition to the drawings
Risks due to lack of structural design
The issue highlighted by the reporter is that less than competent suppliers are cutting corners and failing to design steelwork. It is implied that some companies think it is acceptable to miss-sell the product and compromise their clients. In addition to the worst-case scenario where a building collapses, there are the risks of a prosecution and insurance policies being invalid due to a lack of structural design resulting in business or livelihood failure.
BCSA and CE Certification
Advice for clients looking to buy structural steelwork is to use a reputable steelwork supplier. The British Constructional Steelwork Association (BCSA) is a trade organisation whose members are accredited and audited. They employ structural engineers who design steelwork to the structural design codes required by the building regulations.
There are other competent contractors who are not members of BCSA, but this is readily shown by their CE Certificate - Factory Production Control to EN 1090-2. The challenge is to deliver this advice to clients who are not involved in the construction industry. It is understood that the BCSA are taking steps to address the situation.