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Metal Lumber: A History

Jeffrey Syken

The beginnings of human habitation date as far back as 12,000 B.C., when lake dwellers built crude sapling huts along the shoreline. By the time of the Egyptians, sun-baked mud walls and flat roofs made their appearance. By 400 A.D., Roman villas featured tile roofs and glass windows. Around 700 A.D., the Saxons introduced the wooden frame and by the year 1,500, the English “Tudor” home – featuring oak beams and a stucco exterior appeared in England. In the 17th Century America, the Pilgrims constructed small houses with hand-sawn beams and the Swedes of Delaware introduced the ever-popular log cabin from their native land.

By the 19th Century, indoor plumbing and central heating had made their appearance, but the framework remained, primarily, wood. In the early days, mortised joints held together by wooden pegs were commonplace since nails, being individually forged, were expensive. In fact, it was common practice to burn down a house for the sake of recovering the nails alone. By 1800, machine-cut nails and a lighter wood framework had appeared. But still, the problems inherent in wood framing remained (i.e combustibility, termite infestation, warping/shrinking etc.). By the early 20th Century, earlier experiments with wrought-iron led to the adaptation of light steel frames for buildings.

Strong, durable, adaptable, economical, incombustible, inorganic (thus inedible), lightweight, cost effective etc., by the 1920s “Metal Lumber” was making a significant impact on the construction industry in America. Not meant to replace “hot-rolled” steel members (i.e. I-beams), it was nevertheless being used for floor, wall and roof systems in fifty-five classes of buildings. Its true calling would be in the private, detached house where its benefits were manifest. On display at the “Homes of Tomorrow” exhibit at the 1933/34 Chicago “Century of Progress” World’s Fair, the “Good Housekeeping-Stran-Steel House” made quite an impression on fairgoers. In the post-WWII building boom, Metal Lumber would help make safe, affordable, mass-produced housing s reality.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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