Launch Slideshow

the softer side of steel

the softer side of steel

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    Debi Fox

    Steel factors prominently in Division1 Architects’ projects, including the catwalk in this Washington, D.C., residence (above). Carney Architects uses the material internally and as an external shading device (right).

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    Christie Goss

    Steel factors prominently in Division1 Architects’ projects, including the catwalk in this Washington, D.C., residence (above). Carney Architects uses the material internally and as an external shading device (right).

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    Ron Pollard

    Sprocket Design-Build chose steel for this home’s fireplace surround and chimney (left). Division1’s Lacey project (above) will have cantilevered steel framing, stairs, and privacy screens.

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    Division1 Architects

    Sprocket Design-Build chose steel for this home’s fireplace surround and chimney (left). Division1’s Lacey project (above) will have cantilevered steel framing, stairs, and privacy screens.

chemistry lesson

As is the case with any material, architects must be mindful of several issues when specing metal. It's important, for instance, that overall interior detailing be well thought-out; otherwise the room may feel cold and sterile. Division1 usually paints exposed structural steel members in a rich gray or plain black color to create a dramatic effect, though it sometimes allows the steel to rust naturally. Other architects use it in conjunction with heavy timber, colorful walls, wood flooring, or veneer wall panels to warm the space. Logan says Carney's metal countertops and wall panels “are treated with a patina solution and a wax for a rich finish.” The detailing itself, he adds, “depends on the vibe the owner wants to achieve.”

Sprocket Design-Build chose steel for this home’s fireplace surround and chimney (left). Division1’s Lacey project (above) will have cantilevered steel framing, stairs, and privacy screens.

Sprocket Design-Build chose steel for this home’s fireplace surround and chimney (left). Division1’s Lacey project (above) will have cantilevered steel framing, stairs, and privacy screens.

Credit: Division1 Architects

Although some clients have a high tolerance for contemporary elements such as exposed-steel detailing, many do not. Some architects warn that it's important to have discussions about materials early to avoid headaches down the road. “We try to drag everybody through a rigorous process instead of ramming it down their throats,” Logan explains. The firm also asks clients to bring in pictures of interiors they like to help inform the architects during the design process.

Others have an easier time gaining acceptance. “We haven't had any negative reaction from clients,” Honarkar says, adding that they often seek his firm's services because of its reputation for edgy, contemporary design. In fact, Division1 clients don't just tolerate contemporary elements like exposed I-beams and stainless steel mesh—they desire them. “When we started doing it here [in the Washington, D.C., area], people thought we were nuts,” he says. “But now people have become more exposed to it. Now it's cool.”

One of the main benefits of using structural steel systems, of course, is that they're fabricated off site and can easily be bolted on site with a crane. Such convenience comes with a high price tag, however. According to Logan, architects must generally buy steel by the pound and then pay separately for services such as cutting, drilling, and soldering. It may not be cheap up front, he adds, but at least it assembles quickly. Exterior steel applications such as cladding and detailed work can blow a budget, too. Says Moore: “We use it sparingly because it's more expensive than alternatives.”

Custom fabrication also demands a long lead time, so architects would do well to design with those considerations in mind. (Of course, some firms control the problem by handling metal fabrication in-house.) And contractors aren't always happy to work with metal because it requires a whole new set of tools and blades. In those cases, it's a good idea to inform subs up front that a job will involve some metalwork so they can, well, steel themselves for the job.