Using Stainless Steel For The Building Envelope

Jim_Halliday.jpgBy Jim Halliday, Contrarian Metal Resources

Stainless steel is emerging as a material of choice in building construction. Its longevity is without question. Recycling statistics are impressive. Finishing methods offer substantial variety. And while the majority of architectural applications of stainless steel have been for interior elements like elevators, the shift toward sustainable materials has propelled the use of stainless steel as a building envelope in recent years. In this column, we will endeavor to make designers, specifiers, fabricators and contractors more familiar with the application of stainless steel in architecture.

Contrarian_Perspectives_logo_2.jpgWhile we are pleased to gain the reader’s input in terms of feedback as well as suggested subject matter, we envision future columns will share insight into specification guidance, energy efficiency, finishing methods, cleaning procedures, fabrication advice and other aspects of stainless steel building applications. For starters though, let us look briefly at the evolution of the use of stainless steel on building exteriors. 


The stainless steel crown on New York City's iconic Chrysler building (above) and the stainless steel facade on the Saucony Mobil building (below) have endured for decades, needing little more than a good cleaning to restore their appearance. Click images to enlarge.

A building envelope is what separates the inside from the outside and its components include the foundation, the roof, the walls, the door and the windows. The materials used for these parts help determine the effectiveness, structural integrity and durability of the building, which stated briefly means the way that the pieces interact with one another; their connections, their fasteners and fabrications. All these pieces and their details work in conjunction to provide physical protection from the weather, the indoor climate, the air quality, the durability and the energy efficiency. 

Stainless steel’s use in building envelope applications dates as far back as the 1920s. Perhaps the most prominent building from that era is the Chrysler Building in New York City. Completed in 1930, the stainless work has withstood the test of time, with maintenance limited to two cleanings—one in 1961 and another in 1997. In 1997 a few panels at the heating furnace exhausts showed evidence of pitting corrosion caused by the high sulfur soft coal that had earlier been used for fuel in the furnaces. (If a more highly alloyed grade of stainless steel had been available at the time of construction this minor maintenance would have been avoided.) Clearly, the use of such a durable material has saved the owners of this building considerable expense over the years.

Another example of stainless steel’s durability is the Socony Mobil building, also in New York City. The accompanying photo shows a recent cleaning that was undertaken.

Completed in the mid 1950’s, the building accumulated dirt until cleaning was undertaken in 1995. This cleaning was accomplished with soap, water and cotton cloths. The finish, being somewhat coarse, facilitated the buildup of dirt on the exterior surfaces but this condition did not prevent the appearance from being 100 percent restored with traditional cleaning methods.

These fine examples of stainless steel envelopes on historic buildings underscore what true sustainability is as stainless steel offers greater residual and resale value with lower maintenance costs as it does not require repainting or resurfacing.

In addition, stainless steel requires minimal maintenance. When properly specified and installed it does not require replacement and therefore avoids service disruption which should not be undervalued.

  Sacramento_Air_Terminal_B.jpg   CLAHS9.jpg

Design professionals today have a wide selection of stainless steels to choose from, featuring different finishes, textures and gloss levels. Among the most popular for applications where low-glare is important–including projects near airports or highways–is InvariMatte®, a non-reflective stainless steel finish developed by Contrarian Metal Resources. Recent uses for the product include the roof of Sacramento's Terminal B airside concourse (left) and wall areas of the Los Angeles' recently completed High School for the Performing Arts. Click images to enlarge.


Stainless steel lasts indefinitely without coatings that can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as in painted surfaces. Stainless requires minimal maintenance and has no leaching or runoff as with less stable materials. Worldwide stainless steel is 60% recycled, in the United States the figure is 80%, so a truly green, sustainable product that when used appropriately will garner LEED certification points. In addition when the building is no longer in service it is highly likely that the materials will be recycled, the result is a sustainable design with low maintenance costs and low environmental impact that generates long-tem value to the building owner.

Contrarian Metal Resources was founded July 23, 2001 by Jim Halliday and Fred Deuschle. They began working together at a major steel company where Halliday spent 20 years and Deuschle, a metallurgist experienced in quality control, joined the company after 10 years with another employer. Each offered alternative solutions to traditional ones in their responsibilities, eventually earning them the moniker, the “Contrarian Brothers”, from a superior. One of Halliday's recommendations was for the firm to create an architectural materials division to focus on the construction market by making flatter, more visually uniform products. He advocated coaching architects on writing stainless steel specifications and marketing to architects. The proposal was denied and later it became a key element in the business plan for Contrarian Metal Resources.

Contrarian Metal Resources helps architects, panel manufacturers, fabricators and contractors succeed in creating sustainable buildings with high performance flat rolled metals, including stainless steel, zinc and titanium. To learn more, visit

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