Approx read time – 3.5 mins

In this campaign series, I am going to explore the innovators of the past, not only in the construction industry but in other areas of great significance so that we can liken them to our lives today. Have they improved or have we lost something along the way? By taking a step back in time, we can show how perceptions change and how this needs to happen to create a better world.

When looking to the future we need to first look at our past, so I have decided to create a series of articles called ‘Innovators of the past’. This series will be celebrating the life and work of past pioneers who were brave enough to challenge the status quo, questioning the norm to build a better tomorrow.

In my first feature, I am going to be taking a look at a man who revolutionised how we build using steel. Very fitting for me at the moment, (I’ll explain why at the end) which is why I have chosen Charles Bage as the first to explore.

Charles Bage – Who was he?

An English architect (1751–1822) who revolutionised the use of iron in construction. Designer of the first ever iron-framed building, the Ditherington Flax Mill.

Charles Bage was the son of a Quaker, born in Derbyshire in 1751. His family moved to Staffordshire where his father founded a paper mill and later became a partner in ironworks. Charles had a keen interest in the use of iron for construction which was soon to pave the way for construction as we know it.

In 1776 Bage moved to Shrewsbury, working as a surveyor and a wine merchant but continued his interest of iron in construction. This soon become noticed, by John Marshall and Thomas and Benjamin Benyon who were setting out plans to build a new factory for Flax after suffering a devastating fire of one of their other factories. Desperate for a solution to common mill fires, in May 1796 Charles Bage joined the partnership of John Marshall and the Benyon brothers to build the Ditherington Flax Mill. Although Charles was not an astute businessman, he did know the properties of Iron and construction techniques to leverage them.

How did we build before Charles Bage?

Before the work of Charles Bage, tall buildings remained the status of the powerful, rich & clergy with enormous castles and medieval architecture. Wall thickness was seen as the solution to building tall along with external supports such as flying buttresses, but this meant they grew ever wider.

In the 19th century, however, Shropshire was at the epicentre of an industrial revolution with engineers mastering the production of IRON. This area of England gave birth to some of our greatest pioneers.

How did the use of iron in construction come about?

Charles drew upon the region’s groundbreaking use of iron and his knowledge of its supreme properties and used it to create an iron frame which would bear the weight of the building, making this, arguably the worlds first skyscraper and the first time that iron was used in multi-storey construction.

The construction of the building was costly, weighing in at £17,000. That’s about £1.9m in today’s money. With 5 storey’s, an attic and an area of 31,000 sqft, this Flax mill with its iron-framed construction set the tone for tower blocks and skyscrapers today.

The production of iron and the understanding of its properties have allowed us to advance the product even further. The Steel that we use is an advancement on iron, which is a mixture of metal (mostly iron) and carbon making it stronger and harder.

Steel framed buildings of today

If it wasn’t for Charles Bage and his innovative approach to construction, we would not have had a cornerstone from which to build. Today, we have improved techniques and technologies, figured out what works and what doesn’t, and created systems that surpass many others seen before. Now, we are able to work safer, build stronger, design for manufacture and produce buildings with precision engineering.

Are we afraid of change in the construction industry?

Many people in the construction industry are seeing ‘modular’ and ‘off-site’ as the ones who are taking away from an industry, as if we are stealing jobs and pushing out traditional construction. This is far from the case.

Throughout history we have seen innovators such as; Leonardo Da Vinci; Sir Isaac Newton; The Wright brothers and Charles Babbage to name a few. All with the goal of making the world a better place for tomorrow. At the time the common view would have been to see them as crazy and it was easier to tell them it would never work than to imagine a world of the future. Although it’s easier for us to imagine the future today, we still seem reluctant to change.

Are there any other steel framed building in Shropshire?

In a timely fashion, and speaking of Shropshire, M-AR Offsite have just completed their first steel frame residential apartments in Shropshire for Henry Riley Consulting and Housing 21. I think we will be paying a visit to the Ditherington Flax Mill whilst we are there.

Charles Bage has changed our landscape in a way that no one would have ever thought possible. He was certainly a disruptor but can you imagine a world without his techniques?

If you would like to read more about the ‘Innovators of the past’ follow my page or and we’ll keep you updated

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