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Composites in Architecture: Is It Polished Steel or Not?

A typical conversation about composite materials centers around the prevalence of carbon fiber in the aerospace and marine industries. After all, those two industries make up the lion’s share of large-scale composite manufacturing across the globe. But there is a new kid in town, and that kid is architectural design.

Imagine standing in front of a newly erected high-rise in downtown Los Angeles. As your eyes scan the height of the building from street level, you notice part of the facade appears to be polished steel. And yet, there is something not quite right. You begin asking yourself whether the facade really is polished steel or not. Well, guess what? It’s not. It is a composite material polished to a lustrous shine.

The description you have just read is not fiction. The building in question actually exists, but it’s in downtown London rather than Los Angeles. It is the One Blackfriars tower flanked by two smaller buildings collectively housing retail, residential, hotel, and public spaces.

A Modern Building in Every Respect

The 52-story One Blackfriars tower is a modern building in every respect. What makes it so special is the generous use of composites in the building’s design. For example, the tower was designed to include three 45-foot long canopies. Those canopies look like polished steel to the naked eye, but they are actually made of a composite material covered with a glass fiber laminate that gives it the shiny luster everyone talks about.

The canopies’ designers started with a lightweight but durable core made with a closed-cell structural foam. They then covered the foam core with a glass fiber laminate. The laminate was constructed using metal-coated areas embedded underneath the glass fiber and then treated with special spray to create a consistent finish.

The end result of the design is an architectural element that speaks to the ultramodern architecture of the entire One Blackfriars development. What passersby see with the naked eye is just an outward reflection of great engineering deep within the tower’s facade.

Composites Can Be Beautiful Too

Getting back to the discussion of the aerospace and maritime industries for just a minute, composite materials like carbon fiber are used to improve structural integrity while reducing weight at the same time. Indeed, carbon fiber is a great material for doing just that. But the advantages of composite materials are not limited to structure and weight alone. Composites can be beautiful, too.

There is little doubt that polished steel is very attractive from an architectural standpoint. A good design featuring polished steel can truly set a building apart. But practically speaking, building 45-foot long canopies out of steel would not have been viable. Steel canopies would have been much too heavy to work with the design of the One Blackfriars tower. The entire core of the tower would have had to be redesigned to support them.

Turning to composite materials was the logical solution, as explained by Utah’s Rock West Composites. Even though the canopies themselves are only aesthetic features, they still need to be strong and durable enough to withstand London’s often harsh environment. Steel and aluminum may have been out of the question, but a composite design was not.

If you ever have the opportunity to see the One Blackfriars tower in downtown London, make sure to take a good look at the canopies. What looks to be polished steel is actually a combination of structural foam, glass fiber, and a very thin layer of metal. Had you not read this article, you probably wouldn’t know the difference.

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