Using Stainless Steel as a Building Envelope 

Stainless steel is emerging as a material of choice in building construction. Its longevity is without question. Recycling statistics are impressive. Finishing methods offer substantial variety. While the majority of architectural applications of stainless steel have been for interior elements like elevators, the shift toward sustainable materials has propelled the use of stainless steel as a building envelope in recent years. In this column, we will endeavor to make designers, specifiers, fabricators and contractors more familiar with the application of stainless steel in architecture.

While we are pleased to gain the reader’s input in terms of feedback as well as suggested subject matter, we envision this column will share insight into specification guidance, energy efficiency, finishing methods, cleaning procedures, fabrication advice and other aspects of stainless steel building applications. In this very first column, we will explore the evolution of the use of stainless steel on building exteriors.

A building envelope is what separates the inside from the outside and its components include the foundation, the roof, the walls, the door and the windows. The materials used for these parts help determine the effectiveness, structural integrity and durability of the building, which stated briefly means the way that the pieces interact with one another, their connections, their fasteners and fabrications. All these pieces and their details work in conjunction to provide physical protection from the weather, the indoor climate, the air quality, the durability and the energy efficiency.

Stainless steel’s use in building envelope applications dates as far back as the 1920s. Perhaps the most prominent building from that era is the Chrysler Building. Completed in 1930, the stainless work has withstood the test of time, with maintenance limited to two cleanings (one in 1961 and another in 1995) and the replacement in 1995 of a few panels near the heating exhausts that showed evidence of pitting corrosion. Clearly, the use of such a durable material has saved the owners of this building considerable expense over the years.

Another example of stainless steel’s durability is the Saucony Mobil building, also in New York City. The accompanying photo shows a recent cleaning that was undertaken.

Completed in the mid 1950’s, the building accumulated dirt until cleaning was undertaken in 1995. This cleaning was accomplished with soap, water and cotton cloths. The finish, being somewhat coarse, facilitated the buildup of dirt on the exterior surfaces but this condition did not prevent the appearance from being 100 percent restored with traditional cleaning methods.

These fine examples of stainless steel envelopes on historic buildings underscore what true sustainability is as stainless steel offers greater residual and resale value with lower maintenance costs as it does not require repainting or resurfacing.

In addition, stainless steel requires minimal maintenance, when properly specified and installed it does not require replacement and therefore avoids service disruption which should not be undervalued.

Stainless steel lasts indefinitely without coatings that can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as in painted surfaces. Stainless requires minimal maintenance and has no leaching or runoff as with less stable materials. Worldwide stainless steel is 60% recycled, in the United States the figure is 80%, so a truly green, sustainable product that when used appropriately will garner LEED® certification points. In addition when the building is no longer in service it is highly likely that the materials will be recycled, the result is a sustainable design with low maintenance costs and low environmental impact that generates long-term value to the building owner.
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