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Building Light

Shira Yehudit Djalilmand

Today, with modern technology and concern for the environment, many large buildings are designed to be lightweight. What is a lightweight building made of, how can it still be safe and sturdy, and why does it matter how much a building weighs?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

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Although lightweight buildings might seem a modern innovation, it’s actually a really, really old idea. One lightweight structure has been around for thousands of years — the tent! There are many examples in the Torah of people living in tents, and of course in the Torah we have the perfect example of a lightweight building, made from natural materials and portable — the Mishkan!

But the beginnings of today’s trend to build light really began in the 19th century. You probably never heard of Joseph Paxton, but you might have heard of the famous building he designed — the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace was basically an enormous greenhouse, made from huge sheets of glass over an iron framework, which, when the sunlight shone through, looked like it was made of thousands of crystals. It was built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in London’s Hyde Park, to celebrate art in industry. Paxton’s design was adapted from a glass and iron conservatory he’d built for the Duke of Devonshire

Lightweight Building Evolving

The Crystal Palace’s revolutionary design set the stage for more lightweight buildings. In 1889, Paris’s famous Eiffel Tower was completed. Because it was built using a similar iron lattice framework, the Eiffel Tower (even though it was then the highest building in the world) used a relatively tiny amount of iron; if all its iron was melted down, it would fill just six centimeters of the tower’s base!

The Eiffel Tower was followed by another revolutionary lightweight building, the Carson Pirie Scott and Company Building in Chicago, designed by architect Louis Sullivan. After the Great Fire of 1871 destroyed much of the city, Sullivan designed a new building for the Jewish dry goods store of Schlesinger and Mayer. The building used a steel-frame structure with huge expanses of glass, and instead of heavy, expensive marble between the windows, lightweight, inexpensive terracotta.


The building was renamed the Sullivan Center in 2006. In 1964, German architect, Frei Otto, founded the Institute for Lightweight Structures at the Stuttgart College of Technology. Frei Otto became world famous for his wild and wonderful designs, all using lightweight materials. The shapes of many of his buildings were based on nature — bubbles, the wings of insects, bats, birds, spider webs, trees… Otto’s building were so revolutionary that he was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2015 — the “Nobel Prize of Architecture.”

Bamboo and Blocks

So what exactly are lightweight buildings made from? We’ve already seen how steel and iron are used to make lightweight frameworks, and of course, how fabrics are used to make tents. But there are plenty of other lightweight building materials, too.

Bamboo is incredibly useful for building. It’s super lightweight but also extremely strong and flexible and is very popular in the Far East for building light, inexpensive, and surprisingly elegant homes. (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 657)

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