Andrew Carnegie once said, “Aim for the highest.” He followed his own advice. The powerful 19th century steel magnate had the foresight to build a bridge spanning the Mississippi river, a total of 6442 feet. In 1874, the primary structural material was iron — steel was the new kid on the block. People were wary of steel, scared of it even. It was an unproven alloy.
Nevertheless, after the completion of Eads Bridge in St. Louis, Andrew Carnegie generated a publicity stunt to prove steel was in fact a viable building material. A popular superstition of the day stated that an elephant would not cross an unstable bridge. On opening day, a confident Carnegie, the people of St. Louis and a four-ton elephant proceeded to cross the bridge. The elephant was met on the other side with pompous fanfare. What ensued was the greatest vertical building boom in American history, with Chicago and New York pioneering the cause. That’s right people; you can thank an adrenaline-junkie elephant for changing American opinion on the safety of steel construction.
So if steel replaced iron - as iron replaced bronze and bronze, copper - what will replace steel? Carbon Fiber.
You’ve probably heard of it. Carbon Fiber is that super high-tech woven nano-fiberused in professional bicycles and racecar bodies. It’s the ultimate material - five times stronger than steel, twice as stiff, weighing significantly less - this is the featherweight champion of materials.
Unfortunately, carbon fiber is still seen as novelty, and while it has been applied in small-scale building projects such as pavilions, the carbon fiber skyscraper idea hasn’t yet hatched. Why not? People - including designers - are wary of carbon fiber, scared of it even. Engineers in the automotive and aerospace industries may utilize and push the material to extreme limits, but R&D in architecture is moving at a snail’s pace.
But why? Architects should be drooling over this stuff. The material properties of carbon fiber allow for architectural innovation never previously imaginable. When CADD software was originally released, it allowed architects to push steel to its threshold. This is the reverse. Carbon fiber drives the computer to its threshold. Imagine SHoP Architect’s recently completed Barclay’s Center without the tons of resource and labor intensive rebar. And with the first carbon fiber 3d printer hitting the market this summer, it is not impossible to imagine a world where we print buildings stronger than steel.
Of course there are drawbacks to carbon fiber. In turn, the naysayers emerge. Yes, it is a brittle material, less likely to bend than its steel counterpart. Perhaps more significant, it’s a material in infancy. The youth of carbon fiber makes it expensive. Whereas steel is less than a buck a pound, carbon fiber is ten dollars a pound to produce -. This youth also means carbon fiber production is annoyingly slow.
However, carbon fiber’s journey is mirroring the growing pains of steel. In fact, the lethargic, cost-intensive process of producing steel led Eads Bridge construction to come to a screeching halt. Causing one of the richest men in history to nearly go bankrupt. But Carnegie didn’t go bankrupt. He adapted a process designed by inventor/engineer Henry Bessemer to mass-produce steel. Bessemer’s processes meant a steel beam that once took five hours, now took ten minutes -- hello industrial revolution. With a revolutionary material and all of his eggs in one giant basket, Carnegie became, for a time, the richest man in the world.
At this very moment, carbon fiber needs the investors like Andrew Carnegie that steel had. Carbon fiber needs the inventors like Henry Bessemer that steel had. Sure, there are still a few kinks to work out, but when those discoveries are made, an architectural and industrial revolution will occur. Carbon fiber has the ability to be mass-produced in a cheap and sustainable way; we just need to figure it out. Once we do, we can work on getting that elephant across the bridge.