Coordinating Roof Insulation with Metal Building Construction

Energy codes and increasing energy costs have prompted the installation of more roof insulation into metal buildings in recent years to make them more energy efficient. That is fundamentally a good thing and metal building manufacturers have developed ways to accommodate a variety of building enclosure packages that increase energy performance while still being engineered to meet the structural requirements of the building. This allows the whole building envelope to be designed and fabricated so it works as a complete, coordinated system.

Metal Building
Insulation helps maintain a comfortable interior temperature in your metal building during the winter and summer months. 

The metal roofing or metal building suppliers typically don’t design the insulation systems. However, it is important to include them in the discussions or make them aware of what type of system is to be installed. It is not uncommon for a metal building to be ordered with the design stipulation of “insulation by others.” In that case, coordination is needed between the person ordering/designing the insulation system and the metal building manufacturer or roofing supplier. Since there are a great many variables in the way that insulation can be provided, it is not appropriate to think that the design of structural systems (purlins and roof bracing) and cladding systems (clips, fasteners, and metal roofing profiles) will necessarily accommodate all the same insulation in all conditions. Rather, unless the specific details of the insulation system being used in the building are communicated effectively at the time of the order, the manufacturer can not assure compatibility of the systems used with the insulation system that is to be installed.

In order to understand some of the variability in the options, let’s look at some of the common ways that metal buildings are or are not insulated.

Uninsulated Roofs:

Buildings that do not have any heat or air conditioning in them may not need for an insulated roof. This could be true for outdoor shelters, some agricultural buildings, or vehicle storage buildings. However, uninsulated metal roofs have the potential for “roof rumble” as they move due to thermal expansion and contraction, wind, or weather as there is no insulation to mask or deaden this noise. Absence of insulation can also lead to condensation during certain times of the year if temporary heat is added to the building. This condensation builds up and can drop or fall onto whatever is below. Many times condensation issues are mistaken for roof leaks when in fact it’s a mechanical design issue of the building envelope that’s not been properly addressed. If neither sound nor potential condensation are a concern, then there’s no problem. But if either or both need to be avoided, then some basic level of insulation may be prudent.

Over the Purlin Systems:

One of the most common insulation systems for metal buildings and/or open framing systems is to simply install rolls of blanket insulation. In this case, fiberglass insulation with a reinforced liner is draped over structural beams and purlins. The rolls are supplied to length by the insulation supplier based upon the roof structural layout and the required “R” value necessary for the building envelope in thicknesses that can vary from 3″ to 12″. Is is this thickness to be installed over open framing that the metal building/roofing supplier must be made aware of. Based on this thickness, the panel profile can be verified to determine if it can be used as well as confirmation of the correct clip heights and screw lengths for installation. Keep in mind that the supplier will offer a guide to the installer based upon insulation thickness. As insulation can vary by manufacturer, it will be up to the installer to make adjustments as needed in the field to ensure proper placement and hold modularity of the steel system. (See Respect the Module: Metal Roofing Panels are Modular for Good Reason)

Cavity Fill Insulation Systems:

When higher “R” values are required for roof insulation, a single layer over the open framing system may not be sufficient. When that occurs, the designers of the building envelope may need to employ the framing cavity to add more insulation. There are also variation on the cavity fill approach.

One means is to simply introduce a second layer of unfaced blanket on top of the faced insulation. Sometimes referred to as a “sag and bag” approach, here the first layer of insulation over the purlins is ordered to accommodate larger amounts of drape between the roof structure to permit another layer of unfaced insulation to be added on top. This increases the insulation thickness between the purlins but keeps it thin enough to be compressed to accommodate the roof panel installation. For coordination purposes, the thickness of this upper insulation over the purlins needs to be known by the building manufacturer so the clips and fasteners can be properly sized. Likewise, the amount of insulation draping between the purlins needs to be known to determine if purling bracing or other accessories may potentially interfere with the insulation installation.

Other types of cavity fill system may include a faced batt or face roll insulation with long tabs, which are secured to the tops of roof purlins and nest fully into the purlin cavity to fill the space more effectively. This helps in eliminating greater compression of multiple layers of insulation on top of the purlins and permits an additional layer of unfaced insulation on top of the roof structures and/or a thermal spacer block. This system may also require some intermediate banding to support the insulation between the primary supports.

A liner system may be installed that employs a continuous vapor retardent material. This liner is secured to the bottom of the roof structure and additionally supported with metal banding allowing the cavity to then be filled with unfaced insulation between the purlins. More unfaced insulation can also be added on top of the purlins as well. In all of the cases where cavity fill systems are used, it is important to advise the building manufacturer/roof supplier which type is being used to ensure proper panel clip heights and screw lengths. This is important because these systems can and will interfere with the roof structural bracing making them more difficult to install. The metal building supplier may be able to offer bracing alternatives or remedies to eliminate some or all of the bracing that would otherwise be in the way when installing the roof insulation. There may also be suggestions on how to avoid impeding or penetrating the vapor barriers which could lead to condensation issues. Overall, it is best to discuss and coordinate all of these items ahead of time.

Rigid Board/ Composite Systems:

In this insulation approach, rigid foam insulation board is used to achieve the sought after energy performance. Commonly, these use metal deck panels over the roof structure thus supporting the insulation and a vapor retardant material on top of the deck. The insulation and the metal roofing can then be secured to the framing substructure or to the metal deck itself, which means the details of attachment need to be reviewed and engineered to avoid adverse affects on the roofing system.

Metal Building
Minimum decking gauge, clips spacing and clip screw lengths should be considered as well as associated adjustments to labor costs.

Spray-on Insulation:

All of the above systems typically require attention to providing additional air and vapor barriers and proper cutting and fitting during installation so as not to cause unwanted infiltration or to prevent condensation from occurring. For these reasons and more, some people will consider the use of closed cell spray-on foam insulation, which can continuously provide all of these features in one product. It can also be installed after the roof is completed and structure is weathertight.

Metal Building
Any corrosion of the panel due to adhesion of the insulation is not covered by the panel.

In the case of metal buildings, spray-on insulation is typically applied in the field onto the inside face of installed roof panels and sometimes wall panels too. There are, however, a few concerns with this approach in metal buildings. First, if conditions are not right and the panels are not properly prepared, then the spray foam can, in fact, trap moisture between the insulation and the metal components it is sprayed onto. That can lead to corrosion of the metal or deterioration of the insulation. Secondly, not all spray foams on the market are intended for this type of use so they don’t always adhere well to some metal panels, meaning it could become loose and fall away. Finally, continuous spray foam in this application will not always be able to expand and contract at the same rate that metal does. In some cases, that could mean that the foam suffers from differential movement causing it to break or lose adhesion.

For all of these reasons, be certain to research all options before considering or selecting a foam spray-on insulation that will not negatively impact your roof performance. If a foam insulation is preferred, it may be worth considering the use of insulated metal panels (IMPs) that are designed, engineered, and fabricated to be compatible with metal building construction.

Recognizing all of the above variations and options, the key point to remember about insulating metal buildings is the importance of communication between those designing and ordering an insulated metal building and those who are manufacturing and fabricating it. To find out more about the best ways to do that, contact your local MBCI representative.

Ventilated Metal Roofing Systems

Metal roofing is commonly installed on residential or light commercial buildings, where longevity and aesthetics are a priority. When those buildings are wood framed or use roof sheathing, the desired results can still be achieved, as long as some basic guidelines are followed. One of the most fundamental items to address is making sure that the roof system is properly ventilated in a manner that works with the rest of the building construction. Let’s take a look at the two most common means to achieve that.

Ventilated Attic:

Conventional residential roof construction typically involves a trussed or rafted roof system with insulation installed along the ceiling line and a ventilated attic above it. The premise here is that the ceiling is sealed tightly to prevent any conditioned air from entering the attic, but if it does, then any moisture in that air is ventilated out of the attic, preventing any build up and potential damage.

The most effective way to ventilate an attic is with continuous vents along the soffits and a corresponding continuous vent along the ridge. The International Residential Code (IRC) recognizes this approach and provides the formulas for determining the proper amount of net free vent area (NFVA) required for the total roof assembly. It then goes on to state that 50 percent should be split between the ridge vent and 50 percent along the total soffit area. Some building experts suggest, however, that 60 percent along the ridge and 40 percent along the soffits will provide a slight pressurization of the attic and help with the desired proper venting flow.

Either way, the overall intent is to create a situation where outdoor air is moving freely in through the soffit vents and up through the ridge vent. The continuously moving air then helps keep the roof sheathing, and the roof cooler than it would be when compared to sitting in the sun without the ventilation – on the order of at least 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ventilated Roofing:

Not every roof system is built with an attic and insulated ceilings. Sometimes, the roof deck defines the building enclosure either in the form of an upper floor ceiling or as a cathedral-style ceiling and roof system. In some of these cases, insulation may be installed between the roof framing which still requires ventilation between the roof sheathing and the insulation on the order of an inch minimum of air space (2 inches preferred), as in an attic.

In other cases, the insulation may be rigid foam that is installed above the roof deck or sheathing. Here, the insulation needs to be thick enough to keep the exposed ceiling warm and prevent any condensation inside the structure. The International Energy Conservation Code prescribes the minimum R-values of insulation based on climate zones, and typically, the required amounts for energy control also assure condensation control.

Above sheathing ventilation (ASV) is achieved by having continuous air flow between the roof sheathing and the metal panel system.

Nonetheless, if a layer of wood sheathing is placed directly on the insulation and then the metal roofing placed directly on top of that, the metal roofing will tend to get warmer in the sun than in a ventilated condition. Therefore, metal roofing manufacturers often recommend providing an air gap between the metal roofing and the sheathing. This is achieved with furring strips ran vertically to assure air flow, and then run horizontally to support the roof. The spacing and details of these supports should be determined by a structural engineer who can perform the needed analysis and calculations, taking into account the panel strength and imposed loads from snow, wind, etc.

Is this approach effective? A series of studies undertaken at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and sponsored by the Metal Construction Association has determined the answer is yes. These studies used a common asphalt-shingled roof without any ventilation above the sheathing as the control case. Then different versions of a metal roofing system with ventilation between the sheathing and the roofing were tested and compared to each other and the asphalt-shingled roof. The results found that “all test roofs were highly effective in reducing the heat flows through the roof and ceiling, and in reducing the diurnal attic temperature fluctuations.” (References below)

Clearly, paying attention to ventilating the roofing system, regardless of the type of construction, can make a difference in the overall performance of a roof. To find out more about ventilated roofing systems for a current or upcoming project, contact your local MBCI representative.



Performance Evaluation of Advanced Retrofit Roof Technologies Using Field-Test Data – Phase Three Final Report

Authors: Kaushik Biswas, Phillip Childs, Jerald Atchley

Volume 1 Published: May, 2014 ORNL/TM-2014/141

Volume 2 Published: January 2015 ORNL/TM-2014/346


Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37831-6283

Managed by UT-BATTELLE, LLC for the U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY under contract DE-AC05-00OR227

Urban Heat Islands, Part 1: How Cool Metal Roofs Benefit the Community

Summer in the city usually means it’s hot – hotter than surrounding areas. Those who have investigated this phenomenon have identified the presence of “urban heat islands” – places that heat up disproportionately to those nearby.

Urban Heat Islands Form from an Abundance of Dark Surfaces in Cities

One reason for this is the predominance of dark asphalt pavement and dark-colored roofing. The significance is that dark surfaces are known to absorb sunlight and re-radiate it back as heat. That’s how thermal solar panels work, but it is also dramatically apparent when walking across a black asphalt parking lot in the summer sun. The heat is coming not only from the sun above, but from the pavement below.

If nearby buildings have dark-colored roofs, the same is happening there. Studies have shown that this re-radiated heat can build up in urban areas and raise the surrounding air temperature by up to 5 degrees Fahrenheit on average. So while it might be a tolerable 85 degrees and pleasant a few miles away, the urban core could be sweltering in a self-induced 90 degrees – even higher on those dark roofs and parking lots.

Measuring Solar Heat

How do we know what materials help or hinder these urban heat islands? First, all materials will absorb and reflect varying amounts of solar radiation based primarily on the color and reflectance of a material. The way to measure that variation is based on ASTM test standards E903 and C1549. These tests are used to determine the solar reflectance (SR) of materials, which is expressed as the fraction of solar energy that is reflected on a scale of 0 to 1. Black paint, for example, has an SR of 0 and bright white titanium paint has an SR of 1 (highest reflectance).

Reducing Heat Islands with Cool Metal Roofs

Taking things one step further, the Solar Reflectance Index (SRI) has been developed as a measure of the ability of a constructed surface, particularly roofs, to stay cool in the sun. It relies on both an initial SR value as well as a thermal emittance value being determined for a material or product. Using ASTM E1980 and values from the Cool Roof Rating Council Standard (CRRC-1), an SRI of between 0 (common black surface) and 100 (common white reflective surface) can be determined. The higher the SRI, the higher the amount of solar radiation that is reflected and thermal radiation minimized, thus creating a comparatively cool surface.

Metal roofing is particularly well suited to achieve high SRI values, minimize heat build-up, and reduce urban heat islands. Recognizing this, many manufacturers test metal roofing products and publish the SRI results, allowing professionals and consumers to make informed decisions. Of course, other roofing materials are tested for SRI values too, but few test as effectively and economically as metal roofing.

(For specific information about the radiative properties of MBCI’s colors, consult our listings in the respective databases on the CRRC and ENERGY STAR websites.)

Benefits to the Community

Specifying and building with high-SRI metal roofs has benefits beyond just the immediate building—reducing urban heat islands keeps excess heat from building up in the surrounding community too. Higher summer temperatures can be detrimental to plants, trees, and people who are outside in urban areas. By using cool metal roofs that reduce the surrounding air temperature, plants don’t lose water as quickly, people are more comfortable, and trees are less stressed. Cooler air temperatures around a building also means air conditioning does not need to work as hard or as often. That translates into less energy use and fewer greenhouse gas emissions from electricity to run the air conditioning—both of which could significantly contribute to cleaner air in the community.


By recognizing the existence of urban heat islands and their impact on people and the environment, those of us in the design and construction field can choose to do something about them. By specifying and installing high-SRI cool metal roofs, the environment benefits, people benefit and our buildings benefit.

Learn more in our blog post, “Code Requirements for Cool Roofs with Climate Zone Specifics.”

Better Barriers: Meeting Thermal Performance and Controlling Air & Moisture

Panelized metal exteriors have joints. It’s just a rule of best-practice design. Yet these joints are seen by some as interruptions in the façade or roof, when in fact they are connections — the opposite, one can argue, of the word “interruption” that suggests a discontinuity.

Edie's CrossingIn fact, engineered metal panel systems offer arguably the best possible continuous exterior system. Not only are they properly applied exterior to the building structure—outboard of columns, joists and girts—but they are also designed to ensure an unbroken chain of thermal control and barrier protection. Combined with controlled penetration assemblies as well as windows, doors and skylights that are engineered as part of the façade and roof system, the insulated metal panel (IMP) products provide unequaled performance.

That’s the main reason that specialized facilities designed for maximum environmental barrier control are made of IMPs: refrigerated warehouses, R&D laboratories, air traffic control towers and MRI clinics, to name a few.

But any facility should benefit from the best performance possible with metal roofing and wall panels. Consider insulation shorthand for the code-mandated thermal barrier required for opaque wall areas in ASHRAE 90.1 and the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). For a given climate zone, says Robert A. Zabcik, P.E., director of R&D with NCI Group, the project team can calculate the functional amount of insulation needed by using either the “Minimum Rated R-values” method or the “Maximum U-factor Assembly” calculation. For IMPs, teams use the Maximum U-factor Assembly, which can be tested using ASTM C1363.

With IMPs, the test shows thermal performance values up to R-8.515 and better per inch of panel thickness, meaning that a 2.5-inch-deep panel would easily meet the IECC and ASHRAE minimums.

With metal roofing panels and wall panels, a building team can achieve needed energy performance levels with this single-source enclosure, providing a continuous blanket of protection.

The same is true for air and moisture control. In a July 2015 paper by Building Science Corp., principal John Straube wrote, “Insulated metal panels can provide an exceptionally rigid, strong and air impermeable component of an air barrier system.” He noted that, “Air leakage condensation cannot occur within the body of the insulated metal panel, even if one of the metal skins is breached, because all materials are completely air impermeable and there are no voids to allow air flow.”

In terms of water control, Straube writes that IMPs have a continuous steel face that is a “high-performance, durable water control layer: water simply will not leak through steel, and cracks and holes will not form over time. The exterior location of the water barrier,” he adds, “offers some real advantages.”


Connecting the panels at transitions, penetrations and panel joints is the key, of course. Straube notes that sealant, sheet metal, and sheet membranes are effective and commonly used to protect joints.

In my experience, these joint details are incredibly effective. They often outlast most other components of the building. Even more important, they help make IMPs better barriers that meet thermal, air and moisture performance needs. They help make metal panels one of the best choices of all.

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