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Structural stainless stands the test of time in buildings

Keywords: Tags  stainless steel, structural, Chrysler Building, corrosion, 316, LEED


Architects, designers and structural engineers first discovered the durability of stainless steel as a building material when automobile magnate Walter P. Chrysler commissioned the iconic building bearing his name in midtown Manhattan.

The 77-story Chrysler Building officially opened for business in spring 1930. "It was the first-ever large installation of stainless steel in an architectural installation," said Catherine Houska, senior market development manager at TMR Stainless, Pittsburgh.

Houska, who has managed the market development program of the Nickel Institute to promote increased use of stainless steel in architecture in North America, said the Chrysler Building’s six-tier roof was clad in stainless steel to mimic the chrome hubcaps and hood ornaments of 1930 Chrysler roadsters.

The architects who designed the Chrysler Building didn’t expect the stainless cladding on the skyscraper’s roof to last anywhere near as long as it did, but nature has conspired to keep it as corrosion-free 80 years after its installation as it was when it was first installed. Houska said the roof height shields it from much of the de-icing salt used at ground level, and because of the winds at the summit every rainstorm that sweeps across Manhattan essentially pressure washes the building with clean water.

When engineers tested the exterior of the building in the 1990s, they discovered that the stainless used to clad the art-deco structure was close to the chromium and nickel content of Type 304, a popular structural stainless grade today.

Less well known is that another 325 tons of structural stainless were used to create the ladder-like spandrel panels on the windows of the Empire State Building, as well as the skyscraper’s observation deck and radio mast. Eight stories higher than the Chrysler Building and located just less than a mile to the south, the Empire State Building opened in 1931.

Houska pointed out that the two New York City buildings are models for the hundreds of skyscrapers worldwide that have included structural stainless in their construction ever since. She noted that the long-term sustainability and minimal maintenance of several grades of structural stainless are responsible for an average 14-percent annual growth rate of stainless steel applications in North America during the first decade of the 21st Century.

Those applications include the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. Opened in 2003 just above the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in downtown Pittsburgh, the convention center boasts a sweeping roof made of 304 stainless that covers more than 250,000 square feet, and at the time of its opening it was the largest building in the United States to win a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification. It cited the 136 tons of stainless steel sheathing on the roof for contributing to the building’s reduced energy consumption.

When structural engineers significantly expanded the Jamaica Station in the New York borough of Queens to support a new light rail system from Kennedy International Airport, they specified 316 stainless for interior applications and roof panels in the seven-story, 250,000-square-foot addition.

In 2008, the Rafaello Sanzio Airport in Ancona, Italy, opened its new departure and arrival terminal featuring glass interior and exterior walls supported by 316 stainless beams, rods and fixtures. To keep the interior of the facility from experiencing excessive solar gain, architects specified 316 stainless sunscreens on the exterior windows.

Chicago has been a leader in structural stainless applications in the 21st Century, with many of the Windy City’s Millennium Park architectural attractions built using stainless. The metal was used for the exterior of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the BP Bridge and the Cloud Gate, which was fabricated from about 100 tons of three-quarter-inch mirror-polished stainless plate. All of the park’s architectural attractions opened after 2004.

Stainless steel also has topped Chicago’s skyline in recent years. Two new stainless-clad buildings at 111 Wacker Drive that opened in 2005 used about 400 tons of 316 stainless in the exterior cladding. At the time 111 Wacker was going up, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP was overseeing the design of the 96-story Trump Tower adjacent to the Chicago River. Originally designed to be the tallest building in the United States, the Trump Tower was scaled back in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. When it opened in 2009, clad in 170 tons of stainless, it became the second-tallest building in the United States, behind Chicago’s Willis Tower, formerly called—but still referred to by Chicago residents—as the Sears Tower.

"Stainless steel is an ideal choice for exterior building applications," the Specialty Steel Industry of North America (SSINA) said. "It has been used for many LEED-rated buildings around the world that were designed for 50- or 100-year service."

SSINA noted that "stainless steel is also a sustainable choice for interior building applications because it produces no volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. This makes it ideal for buildings where control of the interior air quality is critical, such as museums, laboratories, archives and medical facilities, but it is also ideal for any structure where low-air VOC levels are desired."

Houska said that a project currently being funded by SSINA, the Nickel Institute, the International Molybdenum Association and several stainless producers and service centers will result in publication of stainless code specifications.


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