What construction can learn from 1851's Crystal Palace

construction Crystal Palace

What construction can learn from 1851's Crystal Palace

What construction can learn from 1851's Crystal Palace

At a time when the construction industry is facing urgent issues around productivity, skills and sustainability, could the 19th century Crystal Palace be a source of inspiration?

The Crystal Palace featured an innovative blend of materials and construction methods with inspirational design to deliver profitability, predictability and productivity gains.

Fast-forward to today and construction has fallen behind many other sectors on each of these fronts.

Now, the government’s industrial white paper and £170m of funding is aiming to incentivise investment in productivity initiatives. The sector has been challenged to catch up.

In this context, clients, architects, main contractors and tiered suppliers would do well to look back to Joseph Paxton’s famous Crystal Palace design, which employed inventive solutions to acute problems, as well as new ways of working collaboratively right across the supply chain. 

In January 1850, civil servant and inventor Henry Cole shared with friends and associates his vision of a Great Exhibition to showcase wonders from across the British Empire. And so the Royal Commission for the exhibition of 1851 was born.
“The 33,000 iron trusses and thousands of metres of wooden flooring were manufactured in factories and transported to site for assembly”


Their plans were ambitious: they had to source and import all the artefacts and cutting-edge technologies of the day, publicise the event and prepare for the attendance of six million people. They also needed an inspirational building – four times bigger than St Paul’s Cathedral – to house the exhibition. And they only had 16 months to design, commission and build it.

After the initial 245 building designs were rejected, and with time running out, Joseph Paxton came forward and developed an innovative and revolutionary approach, which effectively brought together many of the solutions being considered today to improve productivity. These involved: 

Harnessing emergent technologies

So striking was the building’s design that it quickly became known as the Crystal Palace, on account of its use of almost one million sq ft of glass.

Sheet glass had been invented only 12 years earlier; this new production process allowed large panes of glass to be manufactured cost-effectively and in large volumes.

The project could not have succeeded without harnessing the benefits of this recent breakthrough.

Using offsite fabrication

The Crystal Palace used just under 300,000 panes of glass that came almost exclusively from the Midlands.

Likewise, the 33,000 iron trusses and thousands of metres of wooden flooring were manufactured in factories and transported to site for assembly.

Taking advantage of fiscal opportunities

The Crystal Palace took full advantage of changes in government policy. The Glass Levy was abolished in 1845, as was the Window Tax in 1851.

Combined with the advances in technology, the cost of glass fell by more than 50 per cent in a decade, making Paxton’s design highly cost-effective.

Employing modular and flow methods

At the building’s heart was a single component: a cast-iron truss, 3 ft (0.91 m) wide and 23 ft 3 in (7.15 m) long.

This was fitted together with matching trusses to create a frame on which to hang the vast quantities of standardised glass.

The supply base relished having a reliable, predictable client, and was able to lower costs and lead times.

This approach allowed the largest building in the world – measuring 1,851 ft (564 m) long, by 408 ft (124 m) wide by 110 ft (34 m) high – to be constructed ‘in flow’ in Hyde Park in under 35 weeks.

Developing design-build systems

Paxton designed with highly efficient methods of construction.

For instance, the building’s design allowed for a special mobile platform to move along the roof supports, enabling workers to install 18,000 panes of glass per week.

The 32 km of guttering were installed using a machine that worked its way along the building, allowing a small team to install 610 m of guttering each day (traditional methods would have required more than 300 workers).

Delivered on time and on budget

The wonder of the completed building greatly enhanced the appeal of the artefacts inside, swelled crowds, and contributed to a profit of £18.5m (in today’s value), which was used to found the Victoria and Albert, Science and Natural History museums that now stand on the site.

In terms of sustainability, the whole building was dismantled and reconstructed in 1854 at Sydenham Hill, south London – the area now known as Crystal Palace – where it stood until destroyed by fire in 1936.

Importantly for the sector, the groundbreaking design demonstrated some astounding productivity gains, and was delivered on time and within budget for only £80,000 (about £8m today).

Where better to look for inspiration to deliver breakthrough gains, at a time when they are once again very much needed?

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