How Does One Define Scaffolding?

Scaffolding or ‘formwork’ is one of those construction elements which one sees often in our daily lives but quickly disregards. This is mostly because scaffolding, when used in building and repair or restoration work, is a non-permanent but necessary blot on the external ‘landscape’ of the building itself. Scaffolding may be defined as a temporary framework, which may be fixed or mobile, to support the original structure, as well as elevate and protect the workmen involved in the construction, repair, renovation, painting or cleaning of a building or other structure. Scaffolding usually consists of a temporary system of poles and horizontal elevated platforms which span the exterior sides of a building, and is the framework upon which the builders, repairers or restorers move in order to carry out their work. It is also an integral part of any construction process which is more than one-storey high. Scaffolding is the external skeleton within which the vertical supports of bridges, buildings, tunnels and other construction projects are created, and which is removed once the building work is complete. This pretty much defines what scaffolding is used for and why it is an integral element in the construction process.

How Does One Define Scaffolding?

Scaffold evolution is ongoing

Scaffolding has undergone a number of changes over the years, in keeping with safety considerations and the need for speed when assembling and dismantling the structures, as well as more economical use of manpower during assembly and removal. Scaffolding has continued its necessary evolution over time through the use of improved assembly methods such as Metri-Form formwork, Self-Lock towers and Kwik-Stage systems. When you consider that early forms of scaffolding used to consist of branches and rope, it definitely has come a long way.

An abbreviated history of scaffolding

It might be interesting to look into the general historical background of scaffolding. A form of scaffolding has been used since prehistoric times, as evidence of holes used for staging have been found in the walls of Palaeolithic caves in Lascaux, south-western France. These caves are famous for the size (the largest painting of a bull is 5.2 metres in length), sophistication, quality and antiquity of their wall paintings, and it is clear that some sort of scaffolding or staging was required some 20 000 years ago in order for the previous occupants to reach the ceilings and upper sections of the cave walls.

Monks were once trained as scaffolders

According to strong documentary evidence, the Egyptian Pharaohs used wooden scaffolding for buildings associated with the pyramids. During Medieval times, it appears that specialised bands of monks were trained as scaffolders to construct abbeys and churches. A more recent photograph from the 20th century exists which shows scaffolder monks building Buckfast Abbey in Devon, England.

Old construction methods still exist

The use of metal tubing in scaffolding was introduced in Britain during the early 1900’s. Prior to this, sturdy wooden branches or lengths of bamboo served as scaffolding materials. Up until that point, scaffold materials were tied together with ropes made from hemp (‘hemping’) which, interestingly enough, is still the preferred method of assembly throughout Spain, Italy and countries in the East.

Introduction of metal tubing

When metal tubing was introduced in the early 1900’s, it became clear that a different and more standardised and secure method of assembly was required, as the metal tubing had a tendency to slip when tied only with ropes. This led to the patented ‘Rapid Scaffixers’ being invented by two British brothers, which ultimately resulted in the brothers being granted a contract in 1913 that involved the remodelling of Buckingham Palace. The ‘Improved Universal Coupler’ subsequently invented by Daniel Palmer-Jones in 1919 became a standard pattern which is still presently used. During the 1920’s, uniformity of the metal poles led to the consequent standardisation of other components, allowing for increased safety and stability. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that accidents involving scaffold collapses still occurred, which is why there are continual improvements being made in scaffold materials and construction, with the introduction of additional safety measures such as scaffold netting, safety mesh, toe-boards and overhead protective structures.

The 2010 World Cup Rejuvenation

Scaffolding was an essential part of the rejuvenation of many of South Africa’s central business districts in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup which was hosted by South Africa. Sadly, many of these areas had suffered from neglect and improper maintenance and needed to be brought back to a functioning and pleasingly aesthetic level in time for the event. In advance of the anticipated tourist explosion, many new buildings and infrastructures were constructed as well as sports stadiums in those major cities hosting the games. The only underground train in South Africa, the Gautrain, began construction in 2008 as an 80-kilometre long rapid rail link between South Africa’s commercial and administrative centres, linking Johannesburg and Pretoria and O R Thambo International Airport. Scaffolding was vital during the construction of this tunnel, as well as for all the other renovation and construction work required to bring South Africa’s image up to an acceptable standard in the years and months prior to the 2010 World Cup games.

Scaffolding is definitely here to stay

It is clear that no building, renovation, or restoration work can be carried out without the use of scaffolding. Present-day scaffolding is quick to assemble and dismantle and uses less manpower, making it economical and efficient. Whilst serving its purpose perfectly adequately, there is no doubt that this is yet another invention which will continue to evolve to keep up with constantly challenging demands in building styles. It has come a long way since the first simple forms of elevated platforms were erected, and I have no doubt that it still has a long way to go as it continues to meet the demands expected of it. For more information, please look at our Scaffolding Services articles.


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