Before there were steel buildings, there were steel-support buildings. It was the invention of these structures in the 19th century that ultimately lead to all-steel structures. While there’s no clear separation between the two, constructions that consist of both steel supports and steel coverings are what define steel buildings. Also, the history of these buildings is intertwined with developments in steel production, industrialization, and computer technology.
Industrial Building Revolution
The first known use of iron in partially supporting a structure is the Ditherington Flax Mill building erected in Britain at the very end of the 18th century. Since steel was too costly, this establishment relied on wrought iron. A growing number of buildings using wrought iron for their entire framework sprang up in the first half of the 19th century. Spurred on by the industrial revolution, the Bessemer process, invented in the middle of the century, proved to be the biggest breakthrough. This allowed cheap, high-quality steel to be mass-produced. From then on, steel started taking the lead as the preferred material for putting up big buildings.
With cheap steel and decades of construction experience, some contractors began developing commercial buildings made totally of steel around the beginning of WWI. These edifices were meant primarily to function as garages and storage facilities. They came in a very limited number of models. On the other hand, they could be shipped to a work site and assembled quickly. In the military, the idea of quickly-erected steel buildings was much more popular. At first, the British-designed Nissen hut offered fast, permanent shelter to both troops and supplies. This later evolved into the Quonset huts of WWII. Both the Nissen and Quonset huts offered the innovation of using bolts and hooks for fasteners instead of welding and riveting. This allowed unskilled workers to assemble them.
The growth in manufacturing after WWII provided greater versatility in steel products that could be applied to building. The one downside was that most people’s awareness of metal buildings came from Quonset huts in the war. Their reputation for being uncomfortable and the fact that no one wanted to live in a “hut” kept steel from being used in residential homes. Beyond this, though, a wide assortment of prefabricated designs were offered. During the 1950s, the practice of pre-engineered designs gained ground. Instead of creating all the parts meant for one particular design and having some parts already combined, more generic components were developed that could be arranged into a variety of structural configurations that would be erected on-site.
During the 1980s, computer-aided design took center stage in metal building design. This has brought about two trends. First, computers have allowed designers to create building shapes that weren’t possible before. Second, newer individual components have been created offering greater strength with less material and weight that permit things like greater open floor space and improved natural lighting. Overall, both factors have resulted in buildings that are far more customized than in the past.