The Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was a new and exciting building. Joseph Paxton, although he was only a gardener, knew that he had to impress the Victorians with something quite innovative and extraordinary. Since then, conservatories have evolved greatly, but at that time, an incredible 900,000 square feet of cast iron and plate glass was a modern wonder. The Crystal Palace was basically a shell of glass with thin iron columns, with very few internal walls, and 128 feet high, ideal for the 14,000 exhibitors showing off the products of many countries of the world.
The organisers were looking for something cheap, simple and easy to build. Isambard Kingdom Brunel dismissed it at first, but, having changed his mind, Brunel actually based his next project (Paddington Station) on the Crystal Palace. Eventually, moe than 5000 navvies and 80 glaziers worked on the consuruction.
The shape and size of the whole building was based on the size of the panes of prefabricated glass available from the supplier, Chance Brothers of Birmingham, mass produced in large numbers. Each was of the same measurement, 10 inches wide and 49inches long, meaning the building could be built with the minimum amount of materials, using a ridge and furrow roofing system. The modules were erected quickly, and it needed no masonry for supporting walls and only relatively light concrete footings. On site steam driven production lines were set up and because of the simplicity of the design and the efficiency of the contractor and suppliers, it took only five months to complete.
The conservatory roofing system also shed water very efficiently, and as the main portion of the roof was horizontal, the weight of any rainwater needed to be drained before the glass panes shattered. Rain ran off the glass into u shaped channels of cast iron which acted as joists and as guttering, after being first used as places for the glaziers to sit as they installed the roof.
There was a problem that Paxton could not solve – leaks. In over a thousand places rain was leaking into the building, and although they tried to seal them with putty, this solution never really worked properly. The other problem Paxton found was that, because there were full sized elm trees growing inside the building, sparrows became a nuisance, and shooting them in a glass edifice was obviously not a practical solution!
It was another challenge to keep a comfortable temperature inside – the heat build up from the glass would have been excessive, even allowing for the 27 foot tall crystal fountain in the centre, so canvas cloths were stretched across the roof ridges and sprayed with water, plus louvres on the glass which could be opened to the outside were installed, which, along with gaps in the floorboards created an air flow.
A little known fact – the Crystal Palace had the first set of public toilets which cost both men and women one penny to use.
Paxton was acclaimed worldwide for his building, and was afforded the ultimate Victorian accolade – he was knighted by the Queen.