Replacing collapsed buildings? Build strong and to code

The collapse of farm buildings last winter showed why it pays to invest in well-built, engineered structures

This central Alberta machine shed looked OK from the front, but had actually collapsed under heavy snow this winter (see below). Whether replacing or building new, experts say an engineered structure is worth the investment.
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A spate of farm buildings that collapsed from heavy snow loads this past winter has Alberta farmers looking at replacing structures they never expected to fail.

More than a dozen collapsed barns were reported in central Alberta. In one case near Ponoka, more than 30 cattle were reported killed. Other cases saw expensive farm equipment either damaged or destroyed when the roofs of machine sheds crashed down on them.

High snowfalls and structural problems were the main reasons for the collapses.

Now producers face the task of replacing buildings which, in some cases, were not covered by insurance even though owners thought they were.

Talking to insurance companies before replacing farm buildings is one of the first things producers should do, according to Kelly Lund, a project engineer with the Energy and Climate Change Section of Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development in Edmonton.

“Our recommendation is that they talk to their insurance companies right from the start, especially if the building or the contents are high value,” said Lund.

Collapsed shed from heavy snow. Photo: Supplied
Collapsed shed from heavy snow. Photo: Supplied photo: Supplied

“As soon as you don’t have insurance, you are protecting your financial investment (on your own).”

Lund said producers should also check with their local county to see if new and repaired farm buildings require building or development permits. Electrical wiring requires a permit, as do mechanical installations.

But farm buildings themselves are subject to a surprising lack of building code requirements. They do not have to be engineered structures. Nor do they have to meet standards that other buildings do.

Agricultural buildings are not covered by the National Building Code of Canada, which deals only with the design and construction of new commercial and residential buildings, as well as the substantial renovation of existing ones.

The provincial building code exempts farm buildings in Alberta. A national farm building code, last published in 1995, is now defunct, although engineers might still use it as a benchmark standard.

But Lund recommends constructing farm buildings to code, even though it’s not actually required.

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“When they look at the potential consequences for failure, why wouldn’t they get an engineered structure right from the beginning? The value is so high,” she said.

“(Otherwise) the insurance company would not necessarily cover them in the event of a collapse.”

Ron Britton, a retired University of Manitoba biosystems engineer who specializes in farm buildings, says a “tremendous number” of farm buildings that went up over the years “were essentially underbuilt — just not strong enough.”

Britton says the days of putting a large door at the end of a barn and storing farm equipment inside are gone because machinery today is so sophisticated and expensive.

“You’re not putting up a garden shed. You’re putting up a building that has the potential to fall down on millions of dollars’ worth of equipment,” he said.

Since the stakes are high, Britton recommends hiring an agricultural engineer who knows what pitfalls to avoid.

“You’re talking about long spans and big doors because the equipment’s big. All of this means you’d better look at the wind loads and snow loads you’re going to deal with. Get someone who’s competent to deal with that to make sure you don’t just put something up that’s going to fall down.”

Britton said the National Building Code contains data on expected snow and wind loads for various regions of Canada. He recommended following them to ensure a farm building is able to withstand high winds and heavy snow buildup.

Britton also said sites for new buildings should be clear of windbreaks that cause snow to eddy and accumulate. According to an old rule of thumb, the distance between a building and a windbreak should be at least twice the height of the structure.

Another tip is to make sure sliding doors are secured at the bottom to keep them from flying out when the wind is strong.

“If you’ve got sliding doors, which are a tradition in farm buildings, you have to be able to pin them at the bottom when they’re closed so they’re not just hanging from up top. You need to stop them from billowing out when the wind gets high,” Britton said.

“You put the building up to keep the weather on the outside. You put it up to protect the equipment from the weather.”

To help with the design and construction of agricultural buildings, The Farm Building Plan Service provides drawings, plans and design information. Details are available on the Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development website.

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