Building Higher, Stronger and Better

For many years steel was primarily used for small handheld implements like tools and weapons. But few materials have revolutionized architecture like steel has. As cities grew and railroads were built, steel producers realized the potential value of better steel production methods. Streamlined steel production led to cheaper, better quality steel. When the metal became affordable and reliable in mass quantities, more people began to envision new ways to use it.

A mill in the United Kingdom was the first to integrate steel into a building’s framework. The structural benefits of steel were not yet realized, so sheets of steel were merely wrapped around wooden beams in order to fireproof them. The metal worked well as a fire proofer, but people soon began to recognize other things about it, such as its visual appeal.

The aesthetic qualities of steel began to propel it into building designs. Steel facades, particularly in combination with large panes of glass, came into vogue. This combination was used on everything from train stations to shopping centers. The high tensile strength combined with the malleability of steel lent itself to all kinds of decorative arches and curves.

In the 1800s, the structural qualities of steel were finally realized. Steel beams were used to allow buildings to carry more weight. Improvements in engineering led architects to discover how better design could lead to taller buildings. Instead of depending on walls to carry the structure, a framework of steel was used as the load bearer. Chicago led the foray into new building design with its ten story steel framed Home Insurance Building. Across the nation, other metropolises quickly followed suit. Chicago and New York developed a friendly rivalry as the two cities tried to outdo each other in building height. In these new, increasingly high structures, steel became a necessary component. By the end of the 1800s, steel was in high demand and skyscrapers littered the horizon.

In the early 1900s, The Great Depression created a lull in skyscraper production. It wasn’t until after World War II when improvements in architecture engineering and an increase in wealth led to the revival of skyscraper building. Tubes were often used in place of solid structures. The newly engineered buildings broke out of the rigid forms imposed on them by previous building methods, leading to creative new designs. The low cost and high availability of steel made it a popular building material once more.

Steel has now been a staple of architecture for hundreds of years. It can be made into many different forms and riveted together for strength. Its durability leads to long lasting design, while its aesthetic continues to attract builders and buyers. Over the last few centuries, steel construction has continued to evolve to meet changing needs. It has remained one of society’s most reliable and innovative metals.