As an architect, I get along well with all kinds of metal, but I have a special affinity for weathering steel.
By DAN MAGINN
Special to The Star
Invented in the 1930s under the trademark COR-TEN, it is unique in that it gets rusty like regular steel, but it never completely corrodes. Whereas regular steel keeps rusting away into oblivion, weathering steels oxidized surface magically locks itself shut, never quite breaking down. It proudly stands its ground, getting darker and richer in color over time.
In my mind, there are two big benefits to using weathering steel. From an aesthetic standpoint, the mottled brownish-black and dark ochre tones are really great-looking. From a maintenance standpoint, you never have to paint it.
The only trick to using it is to make sure the material is detailed in a way that communicates that the rusting is intentional. To civilized humanoids that tend to associate rust with decay, weathering steel can be seen as an unlikely even unwise choice for a house. Nothing says we ran out of money quite like improperly situated COR-TEN.
My wife and I decided to use the material on the fence that surrounds our property in Brookside. We thought its oxidized appearance would pair nicely with our terra-cotta-colored stucco house and serve as a counterpoint to the row of hornbeam trees that define the perimeter of our yard.
But we were a bit nervous about how our neighbors would react. We love our tidy little neighborhood, and we have great relationships with our neighbors, but we knew that a rusty-looking fence could be perceived by them as visually inappropriate amid the traditionally designed bungalows and Four Squares that surround us.
Our first step was to take the time to measure the yard and really design how the fence would look in context. We studied our fence in plan and elevation and eventually developed an idea that worked within the overall layout of our site.
Instead of having the fence follow the gentle slope of the yard, we made its top consistently level, to better connect with the lines of the house. The fence is roughly 6 feet tall at the south, and gradually increases in height as the grade falls away to the north, at which point the fence tops out at about 7 feet.
We reckoned this was tall enough to provide a sense of privacy without coming across as too aggressively unneighborly. Additionally, it was tall enough to keep our three restless yet under-motivated cats corralled.
To structure the fence, we decided to use cleanly detailed galvanized steel posts, which provided a visual counterpoint to the rusting metal. We spaced them to occur between the hornbeams, which reinforced a vertical rhythm as the fence marched around the yard.
And finally, we designed a line of dimmable string lights to float about a foot in front of the fence line, which would define the space at night by simultaneously illuminating the fence and back-lighting the trees.
Our next step was to tell the neighbors what we were planning, as a courtesy. We knocked on their doors and smiled nervously, gesticulating with great purpose as we used overblown phrases like reddish patina and natural coloration every possible phrase to communicate rust without saying the dirty word itself.
One of our more relaxed and straightforward neighbors heard us out quizzically and then said, Oxidize? You mean rust? He then paused for a very long 15 seconds (as a single bead of sweat traced down my neck) and finally finished his thought: Thats cool. We sighed in relief.
Our fence went in without a hitch, and we love it. As far as we know, our neighbors think it works within the context of our neighborhood pretty well at least they dont boo us when we walk down the street.
The only hiccup occurred during the oxidation process itself. When first introduced to the elements, COR-TEN has the same dull gray appearance as regular steel it takes about three months to properly rust out. As our fence navigated the pubescent waters of transition, these 90 days roughly approximated my experience in seventh grade, a nightmarish era of miscommunication, uncontrollable blushing and zits.
Could be that as a Royals and Chiefs fan Im hard-wired to root for the underdog. Perhaps thats what draws me to weathering steel. It doesnt want to be anything other than what it is its own rusty self. It doesnt want any trouble you dont need to keep painting it like regular steel, or shining it like stainless steel.
Like a field of dandelions on a summer day, it reminds us that if you keep your mind open, you can find great beauty in unlikely places.
Reach architect Dan Maginn, principal at El Dorado Inc. in Kansas City, at Eldo.us.