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The psychology of steel construction

Cedric Price, long a source of innovation and inspiration for architects, designed a complete user-modifiable steel housing system as long ago as 1971. What are perhaps less well known are his insights into the psychology underlying the choice of building

Talking to Cedric Price about the Steel Frame Homes Association's plans for the greater use of steel for housing is rather like trying to manoeuvre a loaded trolley in a crowded supermarket. Thoughts move back and forth like mobile obstructions and the conversation seems difficult to keep on course; there is always another idea being brought into play . . . Then, quite suddenly, just when it is least expected, the meaning of it all becomes clear and an empty checkout appears as if by magic.

Thus, for example, it might appear that Cedric is talking about door locks, when it suddenly turns out that he is talking about the role of the reactionary mindset. The really important piece of door furniture is not the lock but the hinge, a device that still doesn't work properly after hundreds of years.

This question of the mindset of the choosers of materials is important. In terms of steel-framed homes the problem is, as Cedric sees it, that housebuilders, house designers, component manufacturers and engineers are not taught to think laterally about framing materials. They think in sets of materials - houses are structured in brick, concrete and timber; cars are steel and plastic; door locks are made of iron, steel and brass. To think of structuring or cladding a house in steel, even after a century of steel construction, requires a shift of perception and a flexibility of mind that few possess, even today.

Cedric thinks that psychological factors hold back the introduction of new materials and techniques for years, perhaps centuries, after their invention. It is not a natural progression, he says, for a cost consultant or a surveyor to visualise a door as a section of a wall - which it becomes when it is closed - or as a retractable section of a wall, which it is when it is a sliding door. Such hybrids have no place in the traditionally distinct families of materials identified by conservative professionals.

Cedric's own steel housing system of 1971 grew out of the student housing he had originally proposed for the Potteries Thinkbelt, followed by some input from a competition entry for the design of a steel house, and a later 'sprawl' housing concept study. The finished steel house system featured an additive enlargement system whereby the basic house could expand laterally but could only be built in single or two-storey form. Designed to demonstrate the flexibility and speed of steel construction (with wet trades reduced to a minimum), the project was intended to be tested on two different sites, urban and rural.

In its glazing details, the steel housing project bore some similarity to the architect's British Transport Docks Board Computer Centre. Both designs used rigid portal frames made of cold rolled steel channels together with lighter gauge non-structural full-height glazing frames capable of receiving opaque or transparent cladding panels. The basic unit of the housing system comprised a sealed glass box with an external relocatable service tower supporting air-conditioning and other equipment. Both end walls were to be removable to facilitate the addition of a wide range of extensions. Internally, no partition walls would be load-bearing, and sliding doors would be used throughout.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the design was the thoroughness with which the range of alternative panels had been worked out and the simplicity with which they could be attached over the standard glass cladding. It was intended that site planning and layout design would be facilitated by the production of standard Letraset sheets featuring all plans and elevations.

None of this advanced thinking put the system into production, but Cedric is philosophical. 'You always have to stay ahead of the game to avoid boredom,' he concludes suddenly. 'It is only through staying ahead of the game that the choice of materials by professional background will ever be overcome.'

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