The Miller/Hull Partnership knows the architectural power of metal. When designing 1310 East Union, a live/work lofts project in Seattle, the architects incorporated an expressed structural steel frame, exposed red-painted steel cross-braces on the façade, aluminum garage doors as windows, and corrugated metal in the ceilings. Miller/ Hull describes the project as “structural architecture” that conveys “a sense of economy, efficiency, discipline, and order”—characteristics the firm considers essential to urban loft living.
Prized for its strength, metal has long been a popular spec for commercial and residential applications. Unlike engineered wood joists, steel beams allow architects to achieve large structural spans, including uninterrupted floor planes, with thinner framing members. “We do lots of cantilevers and overhangs,” says Ali R. Honarkar, principal of Division1 Architects, a Silver Spring, Md.-based design firm. In most cases, he adds, “there's no other way to do them.”
But metal has become more acceptable—even valued—for its decorative qualities as well. “Most of the work we do incorporates metal in some way,” says William Moore, AIA, president of Sprocket Design-Build, Denver. “We use folded sheet metal with a factory finish to clad certain exterior volumes, or we may use raw metal with a natural finish for fireplaces and other elements.”
Other designers who rely heavily on the material are quick to acknowledge its versatility. “We use metal as an exterior finish, corrugated metal for inexpensive [applications], and flat metal panels for higher-end projects,” says John Brown, principal of housebrand, a design/build firm in Calgary, Alberta. “I think it's more about seeing the raw features,” adds Honarkar, whose firm uses exposed steel in nearly every residential project. “Usually all the framing is hidden behind the walls, so I think it's interesting to people to see the structure of the building exposed.” Honarkar says Division1 specs metal in other unexpected places, too, using it to enliven fireplace surrounds and doors, stair treads, flooring, and even custom furniture.
Multifamily projects—especially those in cities—are particularly ripe for experimentation. After all, apartment buildings aren't necessarily bound by the whims of the resale market, and people are much more willing to accept expressive, contemporary design in a loft or condo project. “Metal and steel are a good fit for urban projects because you bring other industrial buildings into the process,” Moore explains. “The project draws inspiration from them.”
You don't have to work in an urban market to fully appreciate steel's versatility, however. Jackson, Wyo.-based Carney Architects uses an abundance of the material for projects in rural Wyoming and other mountain states—and not just out of necessity. “Because of the snow, our structural systems get hammered, so we use steel to support the loads,” says associate Eric Logan, AIA, adding that the region's tough weather conditions sometimes expose the framing for what it is. Nonetheless, the firm clearly values metal's aesthetic qualities: Logan says it's not unusual to see a Carney project clad in oxidized steel or equipped with a rusted-steel door or steel interior wall paneling.
proven mettle Metal can be found in various forms, including steel I-beams, iron, Corten, mild steel (also known as “poor man's Corten”), corrugated panels, and as stainless steel mesh, cable, and paneling. Most metalwork requires a skilled craftsman or the assistance of specialized contractors, but some products are easier to spec.
Cambridge Architectural manufactures woven metal products for industrial and architectural interior and exterior applications. The Cambridge, Md.-based company's architectural mesh façade products use metal fabric panels as parking garage covers, window protection, and general building cladding. Its space-sculpting systems help define interior areas, and its metal fabric solar systems are designed to offer shading from harsh sunlight or floodlighting at night.
The Tampa, Fla.-based McNichols Co. is a favorite among architects looking for perforated metal panels, grating, and flooring or for wire mesh, stair treads, and handrail components. For a dramatic look, incorporate the sheets into sliding doors or shoji screens, or use the flooring to reflect light penetration from a skylight. Other suppliers of similar products include BarnettBates Corp. in Joliet, Ill., and Wyoming, Pa.-based Perforated Metals Plus.
For something slightly different, architects might turn to Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Aswoon/Susan Woods Studio, a design and fabrication outfit that offers a line of room dividers and screens in various materials, including metal. The studio is also working on a highly unusual and avant-garde prototype partition made from steel tubing and stained glass.