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Fun with metal

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 Steel isn’t exactly new on the home décor scene, but it’s safe to say it’s never been more fun. We take a look at some interesting ways – and new-found purposes – involving metal. By Samantha Cummings.


Margaret Joplin designed this salvaged steel ‘weave’ for a client’s yard. Photo courtesy of Margaret Joplin

1. The landscape architect

It takes one step into the office courtyard of landscape architect Margaret Joplin for a creative mind to run wild.

Founder and owner of Design Collaborations, Margaret has made her office space a home to dozens of steel, stainless steel, and aluminum scraps that are given a second chance, each telling an individual story of a past life.

Margaret Joplin's Design Collaborations studio. Photo by Samantha Cummings.

Margaret Joplin’s Design Collaborations studio. Photo by Samantha Cummings.

The first home to these metal scraps is often at a steel fabrication plant. Once a desired cut is made into the sheet of steel, the leftover scrap metal is known as the ‘drop.’ These drops are exactly what Margaret wants, and some local fabricators are more than willing fulfill that need.

A dropping that features the outlines of what was used to hold down the steel spikes responsible for popping your tires if you disobeyed the, “Warning. Do not back up! Severe tire damage,” sign.

The ‘severe tire damage’ dropping. Photo courtesy of Margaret Joplin

“They call me up and say, ‘Hey, come take a look at this stuff. Come pick out what you want,’” says Margaret. “They kind of get a feel of what I like.”

For instance, one dropping features the outlines of what was used to hold down the steel spikes responsible for popping your tires if you disobey those signs warning of severe tire damage if you back up your car.

Now, the steel sheet with triangle-like cutouts has the potential to be used as a door, a table, a gate, a trellis, screening or an art piece for your wall. “It’s all about what somebody wants,” says Margaret.

Half of the fun is trying to guess what each sheet of steel was used to make. “Sometimes you think, ‘What the heck were they making? Like, I have no idea. With all these little doo-dads,” wonders Margaret.

Some sheets of steel display a beautiful symmetry across the entire plane. But on others, you can tell the fabricator instructed their employee to, “Just fit as many of these things on as you can.”

More use of salvaged drops in the yard of one of Margaret Joplin's clients. Photo courtesy of Margaret Joplin

More use of salvaged drops in the yard of one of Margaret Joplin’s clients. Photo courtesy of Margaret Joplin

Margaret’s collection includes the droppings of mailbox flags, trapezoidal guardrails used at Dove Mountain, various letters used to make a sign, and even the top of a water tank.

At the end of the day, says Margaret, it’s all about the hunt. “And that’s what makes it so interesting – you never know what you’re going to get.” She welcomes any passersby of her Design Collaborations Studio, at 403 N. 6th Ave. #157, to search through her metal scraps and conduct a hunt of their own.

  2. The architect

Mary Hardin has been teaching at the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture since 1997. Her favorite class to teach, called ‘Design Build Studio,’ requires students to both design and build a small house from the ground up.

Two years ago, Mary decided it was time to build a house of her own. The architect hired to help her, Jason Gallo, was one of her former students, who happened to take that very ‘Design Build Studio’ course more than ten years ago. Together they would build the first modern residence in the Tucson planned community known as the Mercado District.

Home in the Mercado District. Photo by Liam Frederick.

Mary Hardin’s home in the Mercado District. Photo by Liam Frederick.

When the house appears on the AIA Southern Arizona/Modernism Week home tour in a few weeks, Jason’s use of steel is bound to catch a few eyes.

The overall design was inspired by one piece: a brise-soleil. Historically, a brise-soleil – French for ‘sun breaker’ – is a horizontal projection that extends from the sun-side façade of a building. It prevents facades with a large amount of glass from overheating during the summer. Because she wanted windows but not the relentless Arizona sun, Mary was a perfect brise-soleil candidate.

Home in the Mercado District. Photo by Liam Frederick.

The brise-soleil allows sunlight into the living room during winter months. Photo by Liam Frederick.

Jason designed a vertical brise-soleil, standing 9’-4’’ by 9’-4”, which provided Mary with the view she wanted, prevented overheating, and simultaneously served as the main architectural element. The structure is made up by 16” steel squares, each with a depth of 8”.

“I think that was actually the beginning thread,” says Jason. “We figured out we could make it out of steel and then when she wanted other pieces, I thought instead of having lots of different steel elements, have one that has a very similar vocabulary so that you aren’t bombarded with a lot of different designs in one house.”

After passing by the brise-soleil, guests are welcomed by a steel gate, which mimics that square design. Next came a steel exterior staircase, which Jason recalls being the biggest project of all.

Home in the Mercado District. Photo by Liam Frederick.

The interior of Mary Hardin’s home, with a view to the steel staircase. Photo by Liam Frederick.

“I didn’t want it to be solid,” says Mary. “I wanted a way to see through it. So he figured out a way to fold the steel so it could be these separate pieces that you could see through the sides and underneath.”

Jason had to also come up with a way to make the staircase architecturally pleasing, yet safe. “This one has slots cut out of it to let the water drain, but then I didn’t want it to be slippery, so I added a steel piece which is raised for traction,” he says.

Make your way up the staircase and you are led to a third steel design: the patio guardrail. One side overlooks the home’s courtyard, and from the other, you have front row seats to the Day of the Dead Parade and 4th of July fireworks.

Home in the Mercado District. Photo by Liam Frederick.

The steel patio guardrail of Mary Hardin’s home. Photo by Liam Frederick.

The last and final piece of Mary’s steel collection is a back gate. This still features a square design, but instead of being transparent, a solid steel sheet was placed on the back to give a “real beefy” look, says Mary, adding: “It was such a fun process.”

3. The homeowner

As part of the team at solar firm Technicians for Sustainability, Tim Hagyard is usually working on ways to ensure that Southern Arizona’s natural resources are used efficiently. But, for the past year and a half, Tim has been working on a different set of problems: fixing up rental property to sell, with his brother and mother.

A steel drop re-used by Tim Hagyard. Photo courtesy of Tim Hagyard.

A steel drop re-used by Tim Hagyard. Photo courtesy of Tim Hagyard.

Just like Margaret Joplin, Tim turned to steel drops to solve a number of privacy and aesthetic issues on his property. He started his steel search on Craigslist and was eventually let to a four-wheel-drive shop that was trying to sell the steel remnants used to laser cut various parts.

“I went and bought ten sheets of it and I wasn’t sure if I was going to use it all. I think they were $25 a sheet, so I figured I would use them up some how.” By the end of his project, Tim only had two left.


The steel door screen that blocks onlooking street view. Photo by Tim Hagyard.

The other eight were used to create additional privacy by screening the front door from street view and the carport from onlooking neighbors, among other things. “I wanted to screen the door off from the street looking in, because that house is on a cul-de-sac,” says Tim. “And I planted a bougainvillea there, so I could give it a structure to grow up over time.”

For both screens, in front of the door and on the side of the carport, Tim had to weld a frame onto the sheets of metal, and cement each post into the ground.


Salvaged steel drops enhance the yard at Tim Hagyard’s former home. Photo by Tim Hagyard.

In the backyard, instead of replacing an old and unappealing fence, he decided to place the steel sheets in front of the eyesore, ultimately creating an architectural piece that also doubles as a trellis.

Next, Tim found a way to unify a 3 ft. wall and an adjacent 6 ft. gate fit in. The unusually short wall was given some height by having a portion of the steel sheet cemented on top.


A steel countertop inside Tim’s former home completes the steel theme. Photo by Tim Hagyard.

And lastly, Tim brought the theme of steel from outside in – with a steel bar counter. All it took was purchasing a 3 ft by8 ft. sheet of steel, cutting his desired shape, and building it a support structure.

It looks like Tim wasn’t the only one who loved this steel-themed fixer-upper; the house sold three months ago.

* For full details of the AIA/Modernism Week home tour on Sunday October 6, keep checking AIA Southern Arizona’s website, and the next issue of 3 Story Magazine.

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