There are few metals that afford a comparable combination of versatility and affordability to what aluminum offers. It is one of the most abundantly available non-ferrous metals on the planet, and although it is unavailable directly, and must be extracted from bauxite, its prevalence in the twentieth century has led to countless innovations that have made it an indispensable component across most industries.
The building and construction industry is no exception. For almost one hundred years, aluminum alloys have been applied in the construction of homes and office buildings. Most famously, the Empire State Building was one of the first modern structures to rely heavily on aluminum, including its iconic spire. Now, aluminum is widely acknowledged to be one of the most energy efficient and sustainable construction materials available on the market.
What makes aluminum so valuable in construction?
There are a whole host of reasons why aluminum is so suitable as a building material. One of aluminum’s most important advantages, no matter what the industry, is its high strength to weight ratio. In building construction, this characteristic has many specific advantages. For example, aluminum alloys in the infrastructure of a building are able to bear the weight of heavy glass spans, an important consideration in many modern office buildings and skyscrapers. The ability to use so much glass allows for more sunlight, thus reducing lighting costs while also saving on heating and air conditioning.
Another benefit of using aluminum is its air tightness. The cracks that can naturally occur in materials in the window frames are a major source of air leakage, which can increase the heating and cooling load of buildings. Aluminum is known for its air tightness and does not suffer the same deterioration that plagues materials such as steel and wood. For example, in the 90’s, the steel frames of the Empire State Building were replaced by newer aluminum frames to help increase the landmark’s energy efficiency.
This leads to the next major advantage of aluminum over rival materials, which is its durability. Aluminum is known for its high corrosion resistance. Anodized aluminum is both highly receptive to polishing and incredibly long lasting, an important consideration for the construction industry, as long term maintenance costs will be much lower than comparable materials. Aluminum also isn’t susceptible to weathering conditions and can withstand in both humid and dry climates extremely well, nor does it become brittle in low temperatures.
Aluminum alloys are also highly valued for their appearance. Because of aluminum’s receptiveness to being polished, it’s possible to get smooth and bright finishing that is aesthetically pleasing. Aluminum can also take on any color following the anodizing process by immersing it in a warm bath of coloring agents, making it a favorite for designers to work with. In fact, one of the earliest uses of aluminum in the building process was for decorative purposes.
Because of its versatility and light weight, aluminum is also much easier to work with than most other materials. This leads to a great deal of cost savings during the construction process. Aluminum alloys can be welded, cast, forged, extruded, or rolled, meaning that aluminum can be found throughout the building, from its main support structure to the decorative elements and electrical fixtures. Another added benefit is that because of its light weight, it’s easier to transport, an important cost factor during construction.
Aluminum meets the highest environmental standards
With environmental concerns becoming more and more prominent, architects and building owners have made finding green materials that can contribute to a building’s overall sustainability an important concern. The use of aluminum alloys has helped many building projects qualify for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.
Because of aluminum’s high reflexivity, buildings that use aluminum can reflect heat and save on cooling costs. As mentioned, aluminum is strong enough to hold large glass panels as well, another way of regulating the temperature of a building. By reducing the amount of heating and cooling required, this also significantly lowers the overall carbon footprint of a building over its lifetime.
Another bonus of aluminum is that it’s 100% recyclable, losing none of its properties during the recycling process. By using recycled aluminum, the energy consumption is reduced by 90% compared with having to produce new aluminum. And because of its adaptability and form-ability, aluminum is often used to refurbish older buildings, making them more energy efficient and longer lasting.
What alloys are commonly found in buildings?
The alloys most widely used in the construction of buildings and other large structures come from the 5000 and 6000 series, with the latter being most popular. This is due to it being highly extrudable and therefore capable of being shaped with greater versatility.Silicone alloys (ex: LM6) and manganese alloys (ex: 3103) can also be employed in certain building applications.
When selecting an alloy, all of its properties must be taken into account. The 6063 alloy is valued for its combination of extrudability, corrosion resistance, and surface finish, making it popular in window frames. Individual alloys can also be affected by the shape of the casting die. Builders and architects need to be very knowledgeable about how alloys will respond to particular shapes and whether their performance and durability will be affected.
Modern architecture would not be possible without aluminum. The beautiful and awe-inspiring skylines found around the world are a testament to the versatility and strength of aluminum. Not only can aluminum be relied on for its functionality and cost effectiveness, but it allows for a greater variety of aesthetic and environmental considerations during the design process. For all these reasons, aluminum will grow in popularity as a building material.
Aluminum alloys offer durability, versatility, and ease of use to meet all of your construction needs. No matter what scale of construction, Clinton Aluminum adheres to a philosophy of “The Right Alloy for the Right Application” and we take pride in being a technical resource partner to our customers. Contact us today to speak with a member of our knowledgeable staff about what alloy is right for you.