Our iron-clad legacy
Michael Russell Wood examines the 'temporary' corrugated iron buildings peppered around Dorset that stayed around
Published in January ’14
Although it does not have the widely appreciated appeal of materials such as Purbeck, Ham, Portland or other local stones, corrugated iron has proved itself to be a remarkable material, enabling buildings to be erected quickly and at low cost and now carries with it a charm all of its own.
Although denigrated by Victorian architects such as Pugin and Scott, it has now made a comeback in the architect’s catalogue of useful, practical and decorative materials. Architects such as Jesse Judd and Glen Murcutt in Australia, Foster and Rogers in Great Britain, Nicholas Grimshaw in Germany and many others all over the world are using corrugated iron in exciting and innovative ways.
In the year 2000, Lizzie Induni was so shocked to see an old corrugated iron building being demolished in her home town, Swanage, that she set about compiling a list of the important remaining iron buildings in Dorset. Since her millennium survey, several of these have been demolished, and their rate of disappearance means they may soon become an endangered species.
Corrugated iron buildings were prefabricated, or of what we now call modular construction. A wooden framework supported the corrugated iron outer shell that was interlined with felt or horsehair for insulation and the whole was lined with matchboard. The floors were wooden with an airspace underneath to prevent any dampness coming up from the ground.
Corrugated iron is still a popular material for roofing and cladding commercial buildings. Although today there are many profiles other than the original simple fluting, the principle is the same – converting a floppy sheet of iron into a rigid building material. Today the iron sheets are often coated with coloured plastic, for protection from corrosion while providing an alternative to the appearance of shiny galvanizing zinc.
The heyday of domestic and religious iron building manufacture was the last third of the 19th century, with the trade virtually dead by the 1920s. There were two exceptions to this; one was military – including Nissen huts and aircraft hangars, the other was agricultural and commercial structures. The day of the prefabricated iron church and mission hall, however, was over.
Pictured here are some of the remaining examples of Victorian, Edwardian and other corrugated iron buildings in Dorset. Since they were usually made to answer a temporary need – and could be easily moved or demolished, we are lucky that the few structures that do still exist are in such good order, despite their age.