The Crystal Palace was designed by Joseph Paxton. Paxton's design was largely influenced by the greenhouses he remembered from his previous work as a gardener at the Chatsworth House. During his tenure there he initially worked with the technology that he would use on the Crystal Palace, cast place glass that supported the structure of greenhouses in combination with supports made of iron. Paxton was selected as the designer for the Crystal Palace after the committee selecting designers had rejected all of the entries of an international competition to design the structure. Paxton's design was selected in part due to the affordability and the expedience that the materials he proposed to use, iron and glass, could be assembled. Interestingly enough, Paxton was one of a few designers to submit a proposal based on the construction materials of iron and glass (Hitchcock 184). The engineer was Sir William Cubitt. Sir Charles Fox, who founded the engineering company Fox and Henderson, was contracted for the iron work.
The height of the interior of the Crystal Palace was approximately 39 meters high; the building's length was approximately 564 meters. The width was approximately 139 meters. The palace encompassed 990,000 square feet. The ground floor encompassed 71,794 square meters (Hunt et al. 685).
The most significant aspect regarding the design of the Crystal House is the fact that it was designed via the use of prefabricated materials, most of which were iron. Prefabricated materials are those that can readily be disassembled and taken elsewhere, which allowed for a new mobility and flexibility in the construction process. Additionally, it was due to the use of prefabricated materials which were relatively easy to assemble that the construction process took less than two years. Kostoff writes, "the casting process was geared to prefabrication in bulk, so that members could be shipped to the site ready-made and assembled with ease" (594). The levity of the parts used for this structure allowed for expedient transportation of the materials, which could then be put together in a variety of fashions to suit construction purposes, a fact which Nuttgens alludes to with the following quotation. "there was no reason why it should not be made bigger of smaller, longer or wider" (246).
Another practical innovation credited to Paxton and his work on the Crystal Palace was his employment of an internal skeleton consisting of wrought- and cast-iron beams and stanchions. The designers use of these iron materials helped to usher in the iron age of construction, and was widely replicated by a number of architects and structure in the ensuing years. Iron structures were used to make the framework and columns that supported the Crystal Palace.
A number of the special features that were contained in the Crystal Palace alluded to Paxton's gardening background. An eight meter tall crystal fountain was located near the central exhibition hall; the latter quartered a number of fully grown elm trees in a spacious park. The Palace itself housed several different cascading fountains, a pair of jets approximately 76 meters high to maintain the irrigation system. The water towres were located at opposite ends of the structure (on the south and the north sides, respectively). Three reservoirs were needed to supply the water for the palace and all of its cascades and foliage.
Other design innovations attributed to the Crystal Palace included the installation of public toilets for a facility of this size -- which indubitably added to the supply of water to maintain the building.
In a final tribute to the usefulness of the design principles introduced by Paxton to create the Crystal Palace, it is noteworthy to mention that the entire structure was dismantled following the six-month Great Exhibition and moved to Penge Place that had once sat atop Sydenmahm Hill as part of Penge Common, where it was promptly reconstructed. It continued to host an assortment of festivals and exhibitions until it was eventually destroyed by a fire in 1936.
The absence of conventional masonry techniques was readily apparent in the Crystal Palace. The building's roof was glazed and the floor was tiled with clay. Additionally, an the wood-framed glass sheets (Hobhouse 34) were supported by iron latticework, which typified the construction technique of this epoch. The glass was largely provided by a Smethwick, Birmingham company known as the Chance Brothers, which utilized sources of labor as far away as France to fulfill what has been estimated to be approximately 84,000 square meters of glass.
By utilizing the new technology of prefabricated parts, the Crystal Palace was built in roughly six months with the help of 5,000 navvies. Significantly, no more than 2,000 navvies were employed at the construction site at a time, which is a further indication of the degree of efficacy Paxton achieved in his design for the palace. The original construction of the edifice cost 150,000 pounds, which has been estimated at 13.1 million pounds by contemporary standards. After the palace was subsequently rebuilt in Sydenham, the construction cost was additional 1,300,000 pounds -- roughly equivalent to almost 100 million pounds in today's market -- which is due in no small part to the expanded nature of the palace. Desite the fact that many of the same construction materials were used in the updated version of the Crystal Palace, which was rebuilt in 1854, there were definite modifications including the fact that the dimensions of the building had significantly expanded.
The erection of the Crystal Palace helps to usher in the age of iron in construction. Additionally, its liberal usage of glass helped to distinguish this construct, and the ensuing epoch in construction it heralded, from the Victorian age, a fact attested to by Middleton and Watkin who wrote "iron and glass were not generally applicable to Victorian architectural needs" (359).
Another highly noteworthy aspect about the Crystal Palace is the fact that it was one of the first pieces of construction of this magnitude to utilize prefabricated parts. This innovative construction technique would be instrumental in the speed in which projects could be carried out, and revolutionized the building process for the simple fact that prefabricated parts could be disassembled and transported to erect the same structure in a different location. Worksites become more expediently mechanized, which directly resulted in the large contractors replacing the work typically done by craft guilds. Additionally, prefabricated parts allowed for the implementation of novel internal systems, which Nuttgens refers to by stating, "the needs of industry led to the development of new technical services in heating, ventilation and sanitation, which began to be applied to domestic architecture as well" (245). 430
Lastly, there was a rippling effect of the repercussions of Paxton's innovation in internal skeletons -- consisting of cast and wrought-iron beams and stanchions -- that immensely benefitted Western Civilization as Paxton's technique, which involved the creation of columns out of iron, would be consistently utilized by posterity. These three facets of the building of the Crystal Palace helped to issue a revival in this field following the Gothic Age, "when mass production was beginning to alter the age-old habits of the building industry" (Kostof 594).
Most significantly, however, was the fact that the design, the construction materials, and even the initial purpose of the Crystal Palace -- to host the World's Exhibit of Industry and Commerce and a plethora of new tools utilizing cutting-edge technology for the time -- signaled a transition from the remnants of the Dark Age that the Gothic era symbolized into the industrial revolution: which was a definite precursor to the 20th century. Although considered passe by today's standards, the innovations of iron and plate-glass that Paxton utilized for the Crystal Palace were considered by many to be the most radical advance in building material technology since the Roman practice of utilizing concrete in construction (Kostoff 595). During the 1850's the world was definitely changing, and one of the most tangible markers of that fact was the transportable construction materials associated with the Crystal Palace. Although the technique for plate-glass was developed in the 1840's, it was not until the 1850's that glass glazing, such as that found on the roof of the Crystal Palace, was made possible alongside other fairly modern innovations such as the construction of highways and the expansion of railroads and steam engine use, all of which typified the industrial age.