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Prefabrication – The Past Of The Future

While I rarely have much to do with new buildings, I read various engineering and design journals, so I’m reasonably familiar with the topics of the day. For some time now, there’s been discussion of prefabrication as the future of construction. More accurately, there’s been talk of expanding the extent of prefabrication, as some has been in use for years. Structural work, today, is generally assembled on site, with some prefabrication of elements in the shop: steel connections are made in the shop and only the final bolting or welding is done in the field; rebar cages for reinforced concrete columns and beams often come to the site pre-assembled. I could go on about this, but since I’m far from the cutting edge of new construction, I’m simply the wrong person to do so. The past, on the other hand…

Yesterday’s post about the Bidwell Bar Suspension Bridge got me thinking about this topic. The major elements of the bridge were manufactured in Troy, New York and shipped thousands of miles to California for use. This is not unique or an accident: iron elements were seen as a form of prefab structure and were regularly shipped around. I recently mentioned Daniel Badger and the Architectural iron Works of New York, which was a firm that shipped pre-fabricated cast-iron structure all over the place. The picture above, for example, is one of their most famous buildings, a storehouse at the Watervliet Arsenal in upstate New York. (By coincidence, directly across the Hudson River from Troy.) The cast iron exterior and wrought- and cast-iron roof trusses were fabricated in New York and shipped up to Watervliet. Here’s Badger’s presentation drawing of the arsenal, with the section on the lower right showing almost all of the details visible in the photo:

I mentioned in my previous post on Badger that the company catalog lists places they had shipped buildings. Here are a few pages from that list:

A storehouse – possibly a complete building, like the arsenal – to Egypt. A bunch of oil tanks across the East River to Brooklyn. A complete facade to Albany. And storefronts – partial facades – all over the place. Here’s another page:

Some big complete buildings to Havana, and facades and storefronts all over the place. One last page, with a bit of history to it:

There’s the Watervliet arsenal, the usual facades, and “Iron Work, Ford’s Theatre.” This catalog was issued in 1865, and my guess is that it was printed in the early part of the year; by April, Ford’s Theater was famous in a way that would discourage its use for advertising. The theater was constructed in 1863, so it was most likely added to the list early in the catalog’s development.

The logic behind Badger shipping iron isn the 1850s and 60s is exactly the same as used for prefabrication today: work performed in the factory was easier for quality control and cheaper than equivalent work on site. Cast iron facades were replacements for site-built masonry, providing similar appearance at a lower cost and with faster construction. Sound familiar?