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Making the Connection – Making Architecturally Exposed Structural Steel Work

on May 10, 2012

The use of Architecturally Exposed Structural Steel (AESS) opens up an enormous range of aesthetic possibilities across civil, commercial and residential building projects.

There are many unique considerations when using exposed steel aesthetically. The keys to successful use of AESS are good communication and planning. The dynamic between architects, engineers and fabricators is fundamentally changed when using AESS. When the steel that is normally part of the support structure becomes part of a building’s aesthetics, the structural engineer and fabricator are active participants in helping to empower and shape the project’s architectural vision.

There are many critical success factors in using AESS, including:

Clear Specifications

Best practices for AESS specifications include:

  • Having a separate section for AESS specifications
  • Clarifying which elements are AESS and which aren’t

Understanding Viewing Distance

Having a steel member or connection in view can mean many different things. In a small restaurant, steel supports may be visible from a few feet away. For a bridge, the closest view of the trusses will be hundreds of feet away. This distance will drive many decisions from structural member choices to connections to final finishes


Connections are fundamental to the aesthetics of structural steel. Connections can make or break the visual impact of exposed steel. Many architects are not fully versed in the opportunities and challenges of steel connections, particularly when it comes to connecting Hollow Structural Sections (HSS).


Input from structural engineers and fabricators in the design process is critical not only to avoiding complications and cost overruns but also to helping an architect understand the possibilities –connections, finishes, etc. The people who understand the ins and outs of steel are fundamental contributors in the design process.

Exposing a structure’s underlying supports and load transfers can result in substantial visual impact and help an architect achieve an expanded artistic vision. Making this happen is a matter of dynamic and collaborative communication.