Re: Steel Windows

Home Forums Ireland Irish say no to PVC windows Re: Steel Windows


© Devin

As we’ve seen through this thread, the steel window is a part of our built heritage that is not being given the attention deserving of it, and is disappearing at a worrying rate from our urban and suburban streetscapes. Within the next decade it’s most likely that the steel frame will be all but extinct in Ireland, with nothing other than incidental fragments surviving to the odd rear elevation, in modern movement houses with considerate owners on the south side of Dublin, or retained in flagship commercial conservation projects in the occasional urban centre. Although steel is making a comeback in a chunkier form for office developments, the vast majority of our dwindling period stock is surviving purely through neglect – indeed not dissimilar to the timber sash in rural areas – where owners simply don’t have the will or the money, or have lived all their lives with the same windows, to have them replaced with something else.

Period steel windows are of course not without their faults, especially ones made pre-1955 or thereabouts when galvanising was finally introduced to protect from rust. They suffer from various problems including frame distortion, jamming, rusting, and poor sound and heat insulation. Up until recently they also needed to be painted, with decades of once-fashionable thick, gloopy gloss paint contributing to snagging, and detracting from the frames’ smooth, slim line profiles. It’s no wonder people want rid of these windows.

But it is also because of these now-resolvable latter-day faults that the beauty and quality of steel frames are so overlooked. As a result, they now carry the same baggage with the public as even the gems of modern architecture – there’s an impenetrable barricade that just flatly refuses to allow people view them in any other way than ‘ugly and modern’. Without question some were better designed than others, but the majority have an unabashed appeal in being slender and elegant, crisp and modern, and with an underlying hint of an admirable desire to open up their host buildings to the world, in a new light-filled, transparent era. How grand, bright and optimistic the great wine-bricked complexes of 1930’s Dublin must have been in their original forms, before being short-sightedly bastardised with cheap plastic frames, merely contributing to perceptions of the second-rate, and down-at-heel environments.

Of course, whatever of their heritage value, there is little question that steel was the PVC of its age: a cheap, mass-produced, quick-fix solution that could be churned out at lightning speed, and be adapted for use in everything from industrial to commercial to residential applications, the latter also encompassing both public and private housing in urban and suburban locations. It was the wonder material of the inter and post-war years, arriving just in time for the explosion in housing building and the wider construction industry in the UK of the early and mid-twentieth century. It also arrived in Ireland in time for the great slum clearances of the 1920s and 1930s, and their replacement with social housing along modernist lines. It was even advertised in a disconcertingly similar way similar to PVC as we saw earlier.

However, unlike PVC, steel is both aesthetically pleasing and relatively environmentally friendly – it is most compatible with the dominant architecture of its age (including today), and is easily recycled and repaired. Like early forms of PVC, period steel was not up to standard in terms of heat and sound insulation, nor longevity or rate of recycling. However it has moved on in leaps and bounds since then, whilst PVC remains as the aesthetically stodgy, environmentally disastrous and historically insensitive product it always has been, from production, through its life cycle, to disposal, in spite of improvements in insulation and security.

Steel, relative to timber is still environmentally damaging to produce – albeit not as much as PVC – due to pollutants emitted and the enormous amounts of energy consumed during production. However once steel has been created, it can be easily recycled over and over again, using only a quarter of the initial energy (this time electricity) consumed to produce it, and with minimal discharges. The steel industry now relies on scrap/recycled steel for a third of all steel in circulation, and increasingly so. Steel windows can be easily recycled, and in theory recycling old units could actually help contribute to the cost of replacement frames were proper procedures in place, such is their value as scrap metal. Construction scrap like steel window frames is also one of the easiest metal products to recycle as there’s little to separate: for example, over 95% of certain types of structural steel like I-beams and plates are recycled in the UK. Hence when period steel frames come to the end of their life, it could be argued that recycling them returns steel back into the lifecycle, to be replaced – in theory – with the same volume of recycled steel. Unfortunately global demand for the metal at the moment is such that twice as much raw steel is created as is recycled annually, so in spite of the principle, a small gesture like replacing domestic window frames with recycled steel makes little difference in the current market.

Steel windows gradually replaced iron window frames, used mainly in industrial buildings and churches, in the early 20th century, but really arrived in Ireland following the destruction of Dublin’s north inner city in 1916 and 1922, and Cork’s city centre in 1920. Their subsequent reconstructions offered the ideal opportunity to put this new material to the test in modern commercial architecture.

One of its first uses was in the rebuilding of what is now the Supermacs building on Lower O’Connell Street in Dublin, completed c.1918.

On initial impression, the traditional leaded lights belies the nature of the modern material. Curiously, it would appear that the bay decorative swags are also of cast metal, probably iron.

Across the road, the current Ulster Bank building made minimal use of the material c.1921-23.

While further down, the Grand Central building also features highly elegant steel frames, complemented with timber sashes.

A lovely tilting specimen.

The same can be said of the Garda station on the Upper street from the mid-20s, relegating the (probably still cheaper) timber sash to the attic storey.

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