Case Study: Follansbee
Follansbee's flagship roofing product, TCS II®, was stainless steel coated with a patented protective alloy of zinc, tin, and other trace metals called ZT® Alloy. TCS II was so impervious to corrosion that it was the preferred material for oceanside roofs. In fact, where most roofing material couldn't withstand more than 2,500 hours of ASTM Salt Spray testing before showing red rust, TCS II roofing exceeded 35,000 hours before testing became pointless and was shut down.
That great benefit, however, was also a drawback. A coating that won't chemically interact with pollutants or salt will stay shiny and spangled for months or even years before developing its beautiful soft gray patina. Architects and owners did not like having to wait for this patina to develop on the upscale homes and commercial buildings where it was regularly specified. They wanted the material to have a soft gray look direct from the factory.
Roofers tried to improve the aesthetic through their own innovation. Reports of roofing crews urinating on their finished work became a regular occurrence as the rumor spread that doing so was effective. But it wasn’t and, understandably, homeowners really didn’t take to the idea.
In recent years, Follansbee had begun to coat their alloyed steel coils with a very thin layer of frosted latex that knocked down the glare and later degraded in the elements at about the same rate the desired gray patina emerged. It wasn't a great solution – and actually drew attention to the shortcoming – but it was something that architects could lean on in order to overcome their aesthetic objections. Only exposure to oxygen, over many months, could soften the shine.
Early in the relationship with Follansbee, LarsonO'Brien was intrigued with the challenge presented by the impervious ZT Alloy. Follansbee gave the agency a lot of material to experiment with and we tried everything from Oxyclean to wine, but it would not stain, tarnish, or react. The alloy's inventor explained to us that it wasn't reasonable to expect that an alloy invented specifically to resist the harshest corrosion could be made to corrode. It was like the old story about scientists never being able to create an acid that would eat through anything – because there would be no container to keep it in.
The logic was incontrovertible, so we knew that we had to take another approach, one that wasn't chemical, because there was never going to be a straightforward metallurgical solution.
Several years into our relationship with Follansbee, we began talking with Contrarian Metal Resources, a company specializing in exotic metals.
During a regular working session with Contrarian, the owners mentioned that they had just acquired a set of large, extremely expensive and precise rolling dies capable of impressing a variety of finishes onto a steel coil. They were looking for a way to market the rolling service as a specialty. To get a better idea of what they could do, Contrarian gave us sample swatches that ranged from a brilliant mirror finish to a coarse, almost abrasive, brushed surface.
While thumbing through the swatches, it hit us. The Follansbee spangle wasn't a chemistry problem, it was an optical problem – and optics are essentially mechanical. We could imagine sandblasting or running a coarse sandpaper over the surface of TCS II to instantly make it soft and non-reflective. However, these techniques would also reduce the cathodic protection provided by ZT Alloy. Instead, we theorized that by placing the proper emboss pattern in TCS II using Contrarian rollers, we could break up the reflection and scatter light well enough to reduce its shine – without disrupting the ZT Alloy protective coating.
The potential solution was shared with Follansbee, who immediately shipped a coil to Contrarian for testing. The coil came back looking like it had weathered for a year – soft and gray. No latex coating would be required and the cost for rolling was no more expensive than the latex it replaced. The flagship Follansbee brand, TCS II, the roofing material that Frank Lloyd Wright praised in a letter to the company for its refusal to corrode, was changed forever.