What is a Beam Column?

Heather Phillips

A beam column is a vertical member that supports the load — weight, wind force, and seismic force — on a beam above it. This is accomplished by transferring that load downward, through the built structure, to its foundation. Beam columns have been used in building construction since ancient times. Some famous early examples of this include the Roman Coliseum and the Greek Parthenon.

Modern skyscrapers could not be built without the use of a steel beam column system.
Modern skyscrapers could not be built without the use of a steel beam column system.

Modern skyscrapers would not be possible without the use of a steel beam column system. One of the first skyscrapers using this kind of construction was in the Woolworth Building, which was built in New York City in 1913. Typically, in skyscraper framing, steel I-beams rest on columns that are H-shaped. The longer flange sides of the H-shaped column are thicker than the middle web piece. This is so that it can better withstand compression forces.

Most modern buildings uses steel beams down to their foundations.
Most modern buildings uses steel beams down to their foundations.

These structural framing members can be made of many different materials. As in the Parthenon and Coliseum, many older supporting columns were made of stone. In addition, wood is also often utilized for this purpose in timber frame construction. Also, concrete beam column systems are often employed to make highway bridges and other buildings.

When these supporting members are made of steel, they can have a variety of different shapes. As well as the H-shaped beam column, round and square tubular sections of steel are also often utilized. Sometimes, these hollow columns are filled with concrete, which further reinforces them.

Beam column design is usually best performed by a structural engineer. Structural engineers use complex mathematical formulas to calculate the projected column load. This helps to ensure that there are enough beam columns in the framing to support the edifice and any forces, such as wind and earth movement, that may act upon it.

In most forms of this kind of construction, special beam column connections are usually employed. In steel framing, the column is frequently welded to a steel plate, and then bolted, or riveted, to the beam. Different shapes, such as fin or flexible end plates, are often utilized.

Failure of this type of construction can result in buckling of the column. Sometimes, this can happen if faulty materials are used, or if a miscalculation is made in the load bearing capacity, among other reasons. If load is sufficiently too high for the beam column framing structure, it can collapse. This is why having this type of construction properly engineered is important.

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Discussion Comments


I work in a bath fixture warehouse. Our storage shelves are basically nothing but beam to column connections (the shelves are the beams and the legs are the columns). I’m in charge of testing the load bearing capacity on all shelves and doing preventative maintenance on the connections.

One way I test the connection strength is called a cantilever test. One of my guys loads up the shelf unevenly, and I use a device to detect any shifts in the area where the shelf connects to the legs. I do this to look for flexibility under stress, because items in our warehouse vary greatly in weight.

Uneven distribution of heavy materials causes far more stress to the beam connections than an evenly distributed load does, so it’s my job to make sure the fixtures can handle that stress.

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