Albert Kahn and his “Kahn-crete”: The Revolutionization of Factory Architecture


Archbold Stadium at Syracuse University. Designed by Revels and Hallenbeck. Built Kahn System. Photo from Kahn System Standards.

Oscar Niemeyer, an architect who explored the aesthetic possibilities of reinforced concrete, once said, “I deliberately disregarded the right angle and rationalist architecture designed with ruler and square to boldly enter the world of curves and straight lines offered by reinforced concrete” (The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer (2000), p. 62). This is an example of one of the many architects who were able to adapt and invent new ways of using materials and construction techniques to create what they envisioned. One major entrepreneurial architect was Albert Kahn, who innovated and invented new types of construction in factory architecture. Kahn’s work revolutionized factory architecture and has been said to have influenced modernist architects such as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. This paper will look at Kahn’s system of reinforced concrete and innovations in architecture, but more specifically at the innovations within the Gear Factory on West Fayette Street, and compare it to other factories in the 19th and 20th centuries in an attempt to prove that Kahn’s way of design revolutionized factory architecture and was more efficient than what was available at that time.


The Architect, Albert Kahn

To understand the innovations, we must first understand the architect. Albert Kahn was a German Jew who grew up in Echternach, Germany but moved to Detroit, Michigan with his family in 1880. From 1884-1895, Kahn gained his architectural training from the Detroit architectural firm of Mason & Rice. He quickly became chief designer and designed in the styles of H.H. Richardson and McKim, Mead & White. This is especially seen in his designs for the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the General Motors Building in Detroit. In 1908, Kahn was approached by Henry Ford and asked to design a new factory in Highland Park in Detroit for the Model T. In Ford’s new factory, Ford introduced and used assembly-line methods for the first time in heavy industry. This introduction of the assembly-line influenced Ford and Kahn to develop a vast new industrial complex to build the Model T through the assembly-line process. This factory, the Ford Rouge Plant on the Rouge River located south-west of Detroit, which began construction in 1917, became the largest industrial complex in the world during the 1920s and 1930s. It was also arguably the most efficient.

Albert Kahn himself was an innovator and inventor. With the rise of factory architecture and the rapid rate of growth in the industrial sector, research for new solutions for production space was required. The traditional factory plans “proved inadequate in providing the flexibility and safety needed for the new management of labor” (Albert Kahn: Architect of Ford (1993), p. 31). The research included experimentation with innovations in construction techniques and structural concepts.

In the early 1900s, assembly plants were typically made of wood and masonry. They had small windows and supporting columns that limited daylight and ventilation. The workspaces created by these structures were often dark, gritty, cramped, and dangerous because the oil-soaked wood floors posed a fire hazard. The lack of natural light over a wide footprint meant that production had to be conducted on multiple floors. This made the assembly lines inefficient because the multiple floors would cause interruptions in the assembly process. The photo below shows a typical section through the old factory building before Kahn. The factory life in the early 1900s was not an adequate working environment and issues with health were very high.


Photo of a typical factory building in the early 1900’s. Photo from lecture by Jonathan Massey.

Ford also understood these working conditions and the importance of making better working environments. “One point that is absolutely essential to high capacity, as well as to humane production, is a clean, well-lighted and well-ventilated factory. Our machines are placed very close together – every foot of floor space in the factory carries, of course, the same overhead charge…. We measure on each job the exact amount of room that a man needs; he must not be cramped – that would be waste. But if he and his machine occupy more space than is required, that is also waste. This brings our machines closer together than I probably any other factory in the world….” (Albert Kahn: Architect of Ford (1993), p.43). Similarly to Ford, Kahn wanted solve these workspace problems with his new innovations in factory design. He took into account how the workers did their jobs so he could make the assembly process more efficient. “Nine-tenths of my success has come because I listened to what people said they wanted and gave it to them,” Kahn said. His innovations included natural sky lighting, natural ventilation, and prefabricated steel structures which he called the “Kahn System of Reinforced Concrete.”


Albert Kahn’s brother, Julius

In 1905, Kahn hired his brother Julius, a structural engineer with a degree from University of Michigan, to develop their version of reinforced concrete. Albert and Julius found that reinforced concrete could solve many of the problems within the factory. Concrete was fireproof and allowed for wider spans between columns which allowed the installation of skylights that improved lighting and ventilation. This also allowed them to open up the wall space and install larger window openings for natural day lighting. Another benefit of the steel-reinforced concrete structure was that these pieces could be prefabricated and assembled at the factory site much faster than wood, concrete, or brick structures. This is similar to Ford’s assembly-line principles of making universal parts to allow for faster assembly of vehicles. Kahn’s pre-fabricated concrete introduced the idea of a ready-made plant which allowed the manufacturers to start production sooner and recoup their investment faster. “That was an absolute revolution, and it was one the rest of the world was very slow to pick up on… His architecture and Ford’s invention of the assembly line went hand in hand,” said Grant Hildebrand, author of “Designing for Industry: The Architecture of Albert Kahn.” Kahn believed in business principles when he was practicing architecture. He synthesized a way of conceiving design work that was closer to the mindset of industrialists than to the intellectual labors of architects. Kahn often said, “Architecture is 90% business and 10% art” (Industrial Architecture of Albert Kahn, Inc., pg. 21), and his invention of the universal pre-fabricated structure emphasized this way of thinking.

“And then there came a turn in the use of reinforced concrete which meant much in the future of my career. My brother Julius, a graduate engineer, who had spent several years in Japan, returned to join me. He quickly saw the weak spots in the empirical system of reinforcement being used and promptly designed a form of reinforcement along scientific principles. We made tests which were conclusive, confirming his theories…the so-called ‘Kahn’ system quickly became established and popular throughout the country…” (Weekly Bulletin of the Michigan Society of Architects: Industrial Architecture (1938), p.6). Albert Kahn and his brother Julius revolutionized factory architecture through their new invention of reinforced concrete. I like to call it “Kahn-crete.”

The Kahn System was first used in the Engineering Building at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, completed in 1903. Its first nationally known success story came when Henry B. Joy asked Albert Kahn to design a new plant in Detroit. While the first nine buildings were constructed using contemporary models of the American factory, building number ten was built using reinforced concrete. This replaced the traditional structural materials of iron, stone, and brick. There were two requirements for which the use of reinforced concrete was optimal: to guarantee the structure’s stability and to protect the structure from the frequent risk of fire.  But, what really demonstrated the advantages of a reinforced concrete over any other building material was its capacity to allow for very large, covered spaces, and free the floor plan so that columns weren’t inhibiting space. “The Packard Building no. 10 thus introduced a new definition of factory space. Architectural design was no longer merely the study of a shell to dress the underlying structure or the production function, but was the creation of a building which expressed the complete harmony of these two elements” (Albert Kahn: Architect of Ford (1993), p. 33). Though there was no real aesthetic design in the exterior of Kahn’s factory architecture, his architecture had important implications for the fast growing American automobile industry: the adoption of reinforced concrete structures and the flexibility of internal space for the experimentation of organizing the production process. Albert and Julius Kahn had aimed for the establishment of a laboratory for the research of new construction techniques and new systems for the management of labor; they were less concerned with the aesthetics of the exterior. The construction of Packard Building no. 10 set an early precedent for the modern movement to follow. “The Packard Building no. 10 anticipated that which would be applied in the Ford Motor Company plant in Highland Park (1909), where from one floor to the next, the vertical production flow would develop into the famous assembly line” (Albert Kahn: Architect of Ford (1993), p.38).


This photo shows the openness of the floor in the Engineering Library because of the Kahn System. Photo from lecture by Jonathan Massey.

Reinforced concrete is exactly what the name implies. It is concrete in which steel has been imbedded to give additional strength and elasticity. Plain concrete, when used in the form of pillars and posts, is capable of carrying heavy direct loads through its great compressive strength. But when it is subjected to tensile strengths, it is weak. In order to overcome this weakness, reinforcing steel is used to give proper tensile strength and elasticity. The concrete in the top of the beam takes care of the compression. So, a properly reinforced concrete beam has the strength of stone in resisting compression united with the tension resisting properties of steel.

It was originally thought that merely embedding steel bars into the bottom of a concrete beam was sufficient enough to take the loads of a building. While enough steel placed in the bottom of a beam could resist the desired amount of tension, it must be remembered that it is necessary to get the stress into the steel from the concrete. The problem with a straight bar is that the bar would slip and therefore the concrete would fail. Another way of reinforcing concrete was using loose vertical stirrups to resist the stresses coming from the connection to the columns all the way to the middle of the beam. When those beams were tested to destruction however, it was found that the main bar of steel slipped and that the beam failed by shearing along a horizontal plane connecting the steel with the concrete. Through these failures of testing reinforcing, a positive connection must be made between the main steel bar and the members taking the web stresses. This is what led Albert and Julius to invent the Kahn Trussed Bar. In this bar, the members in the vertical plane transmit stress from the body of the beam directly to the main steel bar. When this beam was tested to destruction, they fail by pulling the steel in two at the center, showing that there is absolutely no unknown weakness in the beam and that the full proportion of the strength of all the materials is developed.


Section through the Kahn Bar. Photo from Kahn System Standards.


Photo showing that the Kahn System is better than other systems of reinforcing. Photo from Kahn System Standards.

Throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, there were two basic configurations of construction that were executed for reinforced concrete factory buildings. The first was the beam and girder method, which was almost a direct imitation to traditional timber-framed construction methods. It relied on a system of columns, cross beams, girders, and slab floors. The other method was the flat-slab method which offered a simpler form. It eliminated beams and girders and replaced them with flared-top columns and slab floors with more substantial reinforcing. The lack of beams and girders left more head space and allowed light to enter the workspace more freely. Flat-slab construction also required less wood for formwork, which made it less expensive than beam-and-girder structures. By 1920, flat-slab construction became the preferred method for reinforced concrete industrial buildings (Reinforced Concrete, p.134).

The Kahn Trussed Bar is made up of a special grade of medium open-hearth steel with an elastic limit up to 42,000 pounds and an ultimate tensile strength of 70,000 pounds per square inch (Kahn System Standards: A Handbook on Reinforced Concrete, p.6). The cross section has two horizontal flanges or wings projecting at opposite sides. These flanges are sheared up at intervals to form the rigidly connected diagonals, making a unit of main bar and shear members. The amazing strength of this system allowed Kahn to design his factory architecture as wide floor space with lots of window space. This kind of construction was ideal because the machinery was so heavy and required a lot of space for manufacturing.

Testing of the Kahn System in Concrete. Photo from Kahn System Standards.

Testing of the Kahn System in Concrete. Photo from Kahn System Standard

Photo showing the laying of the Kahn Bars before testing.

Photo showing the laying of the Kahn Bars before testing.


Typical section through a building showing the Kahn System. Photo from Kahn System Standards.

During the twentieth century, Albert Kahn was not the only architect utilizing reinforced concrete. The architecture companies of Purcell and Elmslie; Pond and Pond; and Schmidt, Garden, and Martin also used reinforced concrete in their architecture. The difference between their reinforced concrete and Kahn’s system was economic and structurally based. Most architects using reinforced concrete built their structures differently from Kahn. They used the reinforcing method perfected by Ernest Ransome, who based his method off of a version of Francois Hennebique’s reinforced concrete. This method used a twisted square iron rod and placed it at the bottom of the concrete beams. Reinforcing the concrete in this way had a few problems. The first was that it used a lot of reinforcing bars to keep the beam from bending and breaking. This is because the straight rod would slip out of the concrete system so there needed to be a substantial amount of reinforcing. Secondly, the fact that the reinforcing bars would slip out meant that they weren’t good enough structurally to hold together factory buildings. There would be more columns in the workspace than in a factory building designed by Kahn. Kahn’s system used a truss-like reinforcing, which strengthened the reinforcing by acting like a truss. Because of this form, there was no need for a lot of reinforcing material and the bars would not slip because the diagonally placed pieces would hold it in place. It also allowed Kahn to span large distances and place fewer columns to expand the workspace for larger machinery.




Construction of the Syracuse Stadium. Photo from Syracuse University Stadium.


Construction of Syracuse Stadium. Photo from Syracuse University Stadium.

Detroit is not the only city that has Kahn System buildings. In 1905, Syracuse University received a generous donation of $600,000 from John D Archbold; the vice president of Standard Oil and Syracuse University’s president of the Board of Trustees from 1892-1916. The money was used to fund the university’s first stadium; a concrete stadium using Kahn’s System of Reinforced Concrete. This stadium, when completed, would be the third concrete stadium in the United States. Archbold Stadium, named after its donor, was designed by two Syracuse University professors, named Earl Hallenbeck and Frederick Revels, and completed in 1907. The stadium was a massive oval shape, 670 feet long and 475 feet wide. It was designed to resemble the Roman Coliseum with its towers and archways, all made of concrete. It was also designed to seat 20,000 people and up to 40,000 people at its maximum capacity. It used 20,000 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 500 tons of reinforcing steel. In regard to the design of the concrete work, the whole structure was carried on piers which were placed five in a row. These footings, created without reinforcing, are meant to carry a load varying from one to four tons per square foot. The columns, in general, were a rectangular shape, 12 inch by 30 inch, reinforced with four Kahn bars at each corner weighing 2.7 pounds per foot. The rectangular shape was used to resist any sliding tendencies that the ground might have. The main reinforcing of the concrete was Kahn consisted of Kahn bars with stirrups varying in length from 6 inches to 30 inches. In addition to the Kahn steel, Clinton wire cloth was placed on all the exposed concrete to prevent cracking. One of the most serious problems with using concrete construction was the cracking from weathering and bending. Usually, contraction joint are created to prevent the cracking but in the Syracuse stadium, a significant amount of reinforcing was used to prevent the cracking. Since Albert Kahn’s reinforcing system was cheap, quickly manufactured, and could span large distances, Revels and Hallenbeck decided to use his system and the construction of the stadium relied heavily on the Kahn System; even the benches were reinforced with Kahn bars! If they had used any other system, it would have been more expensive and would not be as structurally sound. What is amazing about this structure is that it was only 100 feet longer and 20 feet thinner than what has replaced the stadium today; the Carrier Dome (Syracuse University Stadium Built by Consolidated Engineering & Construction Company).


Photo of the Brown-Lipe Building. Courtesy of Rick Destito.

In the early 1900s, Alexander Brown and Willard Lipe, owners of the Brown-Lipe Gear Company, commissioned Kahn to design a new factory building in the city of Syracuse, NY. Brown and Lipe began their industry in the Near Westside of Syracuse, originally having their building named the “Lipe Shop.” When the company boomed economically, they moved their business into the Kahn-designed building. The site of this building became known as “The Cradle of Invention” because 360 patents came out of the building (Click for source). Kahn introduced his different types of innovation within the building and it became the first reinforced concrete building in Syracuse. Charles K. Hyde, an industrial archeologist in Michigan who has written extensively about Kahn and his work said, “Kahn was a real humanist… when such industrial titans as Henry Ford asked him to design their factories, Kahn used large windows and natural ventilation to make sure those buildings would never resemble dark and stinking industrial sweatshops.” This explains the five floors that are dominated by windows to allow in a flood of natural lighting. On the inside of the building is a freight elevator that is still usable today. This was helpful in transferring materials to different floors and outside the building. At the time of the old Brown-Lipe gear building, the Near West Side was home to many Syracuse industries. The building was used as a place for inventers to create their next big inventions. This makes it interesting that Kahn built the building because he was an inventor himself. It was a prime location for companies to sell their creations. Just a block north of the Brown-Lipe Building was the Erie Canal. This made it easy to ship their inventions across the state of New York. Also, the railroad was just a few blocks west of the building. At the time of industrial United States, this was as prime of a location as one could get. As time passed, however, the companies either went out of business, due to the depression and lack of manufacturing, or moved away. The Brown-Lipe building fell upon hard times and the building was sold to General Motors in 1923. General Motors used the building to build gears for automobiles until they closed the plant in 1993. Since then, the building has gone through different owners including hardware stores and a spice manufacturing company. One of the owners, worried about falling glass as an insurance hazard, replaced all the windows with a cinderblock fill. A vision for light and access from a great architect was rejected in favor of a grim concrete façade.

section perspective

Sectional Perspective of how the “Kahncrete” fits within the Brown-Lipe Building. Modeled in Rhino and rendered using Vray by Joshua Rubbelke.

The building is now owned by a man named Rick Distito. His plans are to restore the Near West Side to its former glory by revitalizing the newly named “Gear Factory” and bringing artists and musicians back to the city of Syracuse. He also plans on bringing back the windows that were taken out of the building. He believes that Kahn’s vision that sunlight was a boon to industrial machinists and laborers could also be true for artists and musicians. Walking through the old building, one can see exposed beams revealing the reinforced concrete used by Kahn in his projects. This sparked an interest in learning how Kahn’s System was implemented within the Gear Factory. For students, taking a tour of the building and seeing the structure is a great opportunity for learning. It is a great chance to see what the old factory buildings could become when they are no longer in use.




Rendering of the new Gear Factory Building. Photo courtesy of Rick Destito.

When one first looks at the Gear Factory, one would think that the building is fairly simple with its repeating floor plan over the course of 5 floors. This is true aesthetically if one is just looking at the aspects of the exterior. The building was meant to be purely functional and allow the most space possible for large machinery while also being able to hold the machinery on each floor. If one looks closely at the structure within the building, one would see that the building is actually a complex network of steel reinforcing structure meshed within a simple concrete structure. The different forms of reinforcing allowed for different types of structural properties. The truss-like reinforcing allowed for the wide spanning over floor areas. The downward reinforcing allowed the columns to retain their compressive structure and not buckle under the weight of the machinery. Smaller versions of the truss-like reinforcing were used as joists within the concrete. The beauty of Albert Kahn’s buildings lies within the concrete; it is the conglomeration of structure inside the building that makes it beautiful.


Photo of a Kahn Bar at the Gear Factory. Photo taken by Joshua Rubbelke.

Kahn took the atmosphere of the Gear Factory building into account when designing it. The large amounts of windows for day lighting and the ventilation system that took fresh air into the bottom and flushed out the bad air through vents in the top really show his respect for the average factory worker. One could compare Kahn’s respect for the workers with Frank Lloyd Wright’s respect for the workers in his Larkin Administration Building. Wright designed the building as an administrative building for the Larkin Soap Company in 1906, the same time that Kahn was building the Brown-Lipe Gear Factory. The building was used to sort the mail-orders of the Larkin products; soap, powders, handkerchiefs, and other household premium goods. Wright used day lighting to provide light into the work spaces which, like Kahn’s ideas, made the space an enjoyable and bright space. A newly invented air purifying system helped clean the murky air within the building by taking in the outside air, purifying it in the basement, releasing it through the floors, and taking the bad air and flushing out through the top of the building. This way of air purification was very similar to Kahn’s but Wright used a mechanized system making people mistake it for air conditioning. The structure was a skyscraper-like structure that combined brick and steel to allow for long spans creating large spaces, like the atrium. Since Wright had experience in the office of Adler and Sullivan, he was very familiar with this type of structure. He also had comfort zones for the staff. One of these comfort zones included a conservatory for relaxation and reflection. It was a great way for a staff member to escape from work without having to leave the building. With the average worker in mind, the design decisions of Albert Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright became innovative and a model for factory and administrative architecture.

The innovative architect Albert Kahn was able to revolutionize factory architecture through his inventions and innovations in construction. As a humanist, Kahn cared about the factory life and providing safety and a good working environment to the employees. Because of this, he experimented with materials finding that reinforced concrete was able to solve most of the problems with the existing factory life. He was able to create an environment that increased worker production by 90% because of his innovations. Overall, without the innovations of Albert Kahn, factory life would not have evolved as much as it did and the concerns about a friendly work environment would not have been met.


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V.H. Hosking, Automotive Industries: Ninety Percent Business, Ten Percent Art, August 20, 1938


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