Iron Clad Houses

Maybe it’s only because we’re from Australia and I’m interested in all aspects of architecture, but I was once again fascinated by the variety of iron clad buildings during our recent visit to Valdivia. Some are utilitarian and plain, some new, many old, and some are surprisingly ‘grande’ in size and style.

From our home country we’re familiar with the typical tin shed in the Aussie backyard, corrugated iron roofs on many structures, large and small, and old churches and farm houses completely clad in corrugated sheeting. Modern architecture once again incorporates “Colorbond” in residential and public buildings. We built a small dwelling in 1995/6 with Colorbond roof and walls, just when this new trend was beginning. Now, years later, you can find all kinds of prefabricated flashings and profiles to make such a construction with Colorbond ‘foolproof’.

Due to my familiarity with iron cladding, I first saw and became fascinated with a number of large structures in Alaska and the Yukon which were completely clad in iron . It was here also that I first noticed many decorative trimmings which, under a thick coat of paint, initially looked like wood but were in fact simply pressed metal.

Later, as we travelled south, corrugated iron was the preferred roofing in all poorer regions of Central and South America, until we ventured south into Patagonia. First in Argentina, and later in Chile, metal cladding was once again the preferred exterior material for many buildings. I guess this makes a lot of sense since all materials had to be transported in by ship; forests were small with stunted, distorted trees (due to the prevailing winds); iron sheets are thin, lightweight, and easy to transport; and they require less substantial framing than heavier outer walls. This makes it the perfect material for ‘frontier regions’.

You would think that these days you could find information about almost everything on the Internet, yet there seems to be hardly any comprehensive publications about the history of metal cladding in frontier regions. Corrugated iron sheeting was first patented by the Englishman Henry Robinson Palmer in 1829. A short time later, in the mid 1840s, the process of hot-dipping sheets to galvanise them became common practice; this made it a more durable product and suitable for the development of kit structures.

Our gallery of iron clad houses we discovered in Valdivia/Chile:

When you browse through these images you might be surprised by the detail of some of the pressed iron features such as elaborate corner flashings made to resemble hand-carved timber beams, window surrounds, and copies of ornate cast iron frills.

Would you have spotted that all theses houses are clad in iron?

Further Reading:
Corrugated Iron Architecture , by Tim Nicholson
WikiPedia: Tin tabernacle


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17 Responses

  1. I never heard of iron-clad housing and this was a great introduction!

  2. No, I never would have guessed these buildings were iron clad although I suppose the lack of lumber trees should be a clue. How do these buildings fare during electrical storms? I’d be a little concerned about taking shelter in a potential lightning rod.

    • Juergen says:

      An interesting contemplation, and I must confess I have no clear answer to your question. My best guess would be that in a lighting storm these houses have similar properties to your car – a Faraday cage which protects you as long as you don’t touch the metal.

  3. Your gallery of iron clad houses in Valdivia, Chile is interesting. I was unfamiliar with that concept before.

  4. No, you definitely wouldn’t know these houses are all clad in iron :-) Love the lime green one! Growing up as a child in Elizabeth, South Australia, Janice lived in a tin-roof house – she remembers the deafeningly loud sound of the rain beating down on it (when it did occasionally rain).

    • Juergen says:

      Since I moved to Australia I have owned only houses with corrugated iron roofs; once you do the right thing, insulate your ceiling, it ain’t that bad anymore – unless go get big hail stones coming down (which happens quite frequently where we live)…

  5. Hi Juergen – No, I would have been fooled by about half your photos. I really enjoy the way you curate what you see. Now that we’re in “your neck of the woods” we’ve been fascinated by the corrugated metal everywhere. I loved the effects gained by pressing the metal, particularly in the first historic building on the corner.

    • Juergen says:

      Yes, I was astonished how well they managed to “fool the eye”; this finally led me to pick the topic for this gallery.

  6. Interesting post! I would never have guessed from the photos that those homes are made of pressed iron cladding. They’re surprisingly beautiful!

    • Juergen says:

      There was a lot of money to be made in Chile (there still is for a privileged group), Chileans certainly like to show off their wealth. At the turn of the century wealthy families aspired to own western style buildings, so they often ordered kit homes from overseas. They looked the same as European mansions – only for logistic reasons the style was recreated in pressed metal.

  7. noel says:

    That is fascinating, I’m sure with harsh conditions and lots of critters, it makes sense to go with something that can survive vs organic materials

    • Juergen says:

      A reason for the use of iron was foremost the ease of transport and quick construction (most older homes were delivered as kits).

  8. Like you, we noticed the corrugated roofing used extensively in Central and South America, especially in the poorer areas. But, I never would have guessed, from the huge variety of architectural styles shown in your photos, that some of these were clad in iron. Reading about the history and seeing these homes was very interesting!

    • Juergen says:

      When I first noticed some of these large stately homes during our last trip, in Porvenir and Punta Arenas in Patagonia, I couldn’t believe it either. This time my eye was better ‘trained’…

  9. Very interesting post about something I did not know. I am amazed by the beauty of some of these houses. Thanks.

    • Juergen says:

      I believe not many people notice such details, but I was really surprised how little the internet seems to know about this style of building.

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