Aluminum was first used in quantity for building and construction in the 1920s. The applications were primarily oriented toward decorative detailing and art deco structures. The breakthrough came in 1930, when major structures within the Empire State Building were built with aluminum (including interior structures and the famous spire). Today, aluminum is recognized as one of the most energy efficient and sustainable construction materials. The estimated recycled content of aluminum building materials used today is between 50 and 85 percent. Aluminum-intensive LEED-certified buildings have won awards for Platinum, Gold and Best-in-State sustainability across the country.
The Empire State Building continues to demonstrate the usefulness and value of aluminum as a building construction material. In 1994, 5,460 windows in the historic building were replaced with aluminum frames. (The original steel frames had deteriorated, allowing for frosting, water and air leakage.) Through chemical analysis, the original paint color was matched and the restoration gained the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Society.
Modern aluminum alloys can easily support the weight of heavy glass spans, thus maximizing the building’s capability for using natural sunlight. The George Bush International Airport uses high-strength aluminum framing to support large glass spans. The structure provides stunning views of the runways and jet taxi grounds. At Rice University, aluminum frameworks support a glass fenestration design that maximizes natural sunlight in the K-8th Grade and Magnet Schools. Buildings across the country benefit from maximum use of glass windows supported by high-strength, low-weight aluminum frames.
The Sacramento, California Capitol Area East End Complex was the first LEED-certified building in the state of California. (LEED is a designation of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.) This certification was awarded in part due to a high-performance, nonreflective aluminum curtain wall that conserves energy by maximizing the use of sunlight. Aluminum is considered a vital component of green/sustainable buildings for several reasons. The metal is easily recycled and loses none of its properties during the process. Also, the recycling process reduces energy consumption by more than 90 percent, as compared to energy required to produce new aluminum from its source materials.
Thousands of concrete and steel-reinforced bridge decks now require rebuilding due to their age and condition. Aluminum will be a critical building material in this new infrastructure. The metal and its alloys are lightweight, durable, corrosion resistant and infinitely recyclable. Nearly 75 percent of all aluminum produced is still in use today.
Aluminum was expensive and generally unavailable for architectural use until the early 20th century. Use of aluminum in buildings increased in the 1920s, primarily for decorative detailing. In construction applications, aluminum first appeared in roofing, flashing, wall panels and spandrels (the space between arches and structure enclosures). The first extensive use of aluminum in construction occurred in the Empire State Building (1930-1932). The tower structure and spire are built in part from aluminum, as well as components such as the entrances, elevator doors, ornamental trim and more than 6,000 window spandrels.
When used for construction, aluminum structures can weigh 35 to 65 percent less than steel, while providing equivalent strength. The modern skyscraper could not be built without aluminum.