Thin Shell Concrete: Structures & Construction

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.

Thin-shell concrete in architecture and design was developed out of pressing engineering and economic consideration. Its design was pioneered by Dyckerhoff and Widmann in Germany and used for great commercial and aesthetic effect.

Thin-Shell Concrete: Structures and Construction

Imagine that you want to gather thousands of people in one building and make sure that they don't get rained on, or that you want to put a bunch of planes into a garage. With your car or a small party, you can safely fit them all under your home or garage roof because the beams holding up your ceiling are light enough for your load-bearing walls to handle. But instead of roofing a distance of a couple of feet, you now need a roof that can travel hundreds of yards. How would you make such a feat possible? You could beef up your walls to hold an enormous grid network to sustain a heavy wood, glass, or metal roof, but the wood roof will require sight-blocking columns, the glass roof is not a sturdy or economical structure, and metal will require serious maintenance in the elements. Instead, engineers and architects in the 1930's turned to thin-shell concrete as an economical and effective use of roofing. In this lecture, we will explore the use of thin-shell concrete in Germany and the United States to meet economical and large-scale roofing needs, and then look at its use for design and effect at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and in Sydney, Australia.

Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House

Dyckerhoff and Widmann

In 1922, the German firm Dyckerhoff and Widmann engineered the first thin-shell concrete structure in the Jena Observatory in Jena, Germany. While concrete had been used in roof construction throughout architectural history, the Jena Observatory's concrete roof was just 1 ¼ inches in thickness as compared to previous thin-concrete structures, like the firm's work on the Dome at the Church of St. Blasien, which had a 3-inch-thick ceiling. The innovation of thin-shell concrete roofing at Jena was made possible by the use of a geodesic structure of precisely-cut iron rods that reduced the weight of the roof on load-bearing walls, as well as gave it remarkable integrity to withstand live load (the shifting weight added to a structure by wind and weather) and dead load (the weight added to load-bearing walls by the materials of the roof itself that remain stable). This type of structure is known as a Zeiss network. The success of Dyckerhoff and Widmann's designs, as well as thin-shell concrete's low cost as compared to alternative large roofing structures, led to the concrete's use in commercial applications throughout Germany. The additional development of Torkret, a process of quick-drying cement on vertical surfaces, gave the additional aesthetic benefit of the roof having a smooth surface.

Dome of Church of St. Blasien
Dome of Church of St. Blasien


With the success of thin-shell concrete in Germany, Dyckerhoff and Widmann sent Viennese architect Anton Tedesko (1903-1994) to build thin-shell concrete structures in the United States. Tedesko not only introduced these structures to U.S. commercial architecture, he also improved upon the designs of Dyckerhoff and Widmann by developing the wide spanning roof, the short barrel shell roof, and the ribless shell roof. Due to the nature of the contracts and the available workers, Tedesko managed to develop thin-shell roofs that either did not use a Zeiss network or relied on a modified one to handle the demands and limitations faced by commercial architecture in America. Tedesko's largest achievement in the United States was the construction of the Hershey Sports Arena in Pennsylvania, where his wide-spanning, short barrel shell was successfully implemented to build an enormous structure of scale economically during the Great Depression.

Hershey Park Arena
Hershey Park Arena

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