Construction and building materials: an amazing, ever-evolving story

The history of architecture is also the history of building materials. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote: “The nature of the materials employed in construction is inherent to the true nature of every good building, that is, of the kind of construction we call Architecture.” He went on to say that a house “will glorify the material of which it is composed.” Studying ancient building materials enables us to understand how far our society has come, and how criteria for choosing these materials have changed over time. Nowadays, when we talk about modern construction materials, we talk about resistance to mechanical stress, thermal and acoustic insulation properties, breaking loads, resistance to ageing and so on, all the way to assessing building materials’ fire resistance, transmittance and other more or less fundamental details.

But where did all this development begin?

Types of ancient construction materials

In Antiquity, the only building materials available were what nature provided. When mankind first formed into tribes, people tended to build small villages of simple wooden huts roofed with animal pelts. Back in the Paleolithic period, these were elementary structures, offering minimal protection from the weather. During the Neolithic period, as climatic conditions worsened, man was forced to exploit the main building material around him – wood – in a variety of ways, using it to build more solid huts with real roofs, and structures raised on piles, of which traces have been found. It was only at the end of the Bronze Age, around the third millennium BC, that stone started to be seriously taken into consideration as a construction material: we know this from edifices such as Stonehenge, and of course the Pyramids, which were made out of extremely heavy blocks of granite.

Building materials from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance

The first place that bricks were used as a building material was in Mesopotamia, in the second millennium BC. From then on, building materials and their characteristics rapidly evolved. Worked stone began to be used in tandem with metal beams and staples. Increasingly-advanced construction techniques made it possible for stunning cities and magnificent temples to be built in Ancient Greece. Associating new technologies with classical building materials, stately villas and agora offered a blueprint for European and, more specifically, Mediterranean architecture.

The Romans took things a step further, introducing an essential new building material – concrete – that made major architectural advances possible. Alongside the introduction of concrete, the Romans put bricks at the centre of the art of masonry; stone was used no longer as an out-and-out building material, but as cladding. Bricks underwent their own evolution over the centuries, from first century BC raw bricks to the widespread use of baked bricks under Tiberius’ reign. Timber was still used, particularly as the main material for building the upper floors of insulae, buildings that stood four or five storeys high.

As we know, in the Middle Ages stone once again became the main construction material for the most important buildings, churches and castles. This period also saw the introduction of glass, a new material that, from then on, would be of key importance to buildings. The uptake of glass was accelerated by the expanding Republic of Venice.

The Renaissance heralded another change, as brick returned to oust stone. Brick remained the undisputed construction material for many centuries to come, leading to unique and truly ingenious works such as Florence Cathedral’s dome. During the Renaissance, plaster became widely used, both as an architectural element with a protective, bonding purpose, and as an aesthetic decoration for buildings.

From the Industrial Revolution to the Present Day

We have seen what building materials were used in Ancient Times and the Middle Ages. Another major watershed in this long history was the Industrial Revolution, a huge paradigm shift that took place between the late 18th century and the early 19th century. Alongside brick, metals became an important building material, most notably iron and steel, as did reinforced concrete. The earliest works in iron, for example the famous 1781 Iron Bridge over the River Severn in England, the first in the world to be built out of this material, were erected in the eighteenth century.

These major new developments in building materials made it possible to put up buildings that had previously been unthinkable. Consider that the first skyscrapers were built at the end of the 19th century. The first building worthy of this name was the Home Insurance Building, built in Chicago in 1885 and designed by William Le Baron Jenney. Standing 55 metres tall, it is considered to be the first modern skyscraper. Before long, the world marvelled at the Eiffel Tower, which was built in 1889 out of 18,000 pieces of iron and some five million bolts.

The adoption of structural skeletons paved the way for contemporary architecture, removing all previous limits. Just 130 years after the first skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa of Dubai skyscraper reached a height of 829 meters, while the Jeddah Tower is poised to break this incredible record with a total height of 1,008 meters.

Modern-day developments in building materials have raised additional questions. Increasingly, people are interested in environmentally-friendly building materials that guarantee high levels of sustainability, as well as self-supporting and earthquake-resistant structures. To achieve this, a number of innovative ideas have been put forward in recent years, such as osmotic cement, translucent concrete, and even cardboard for construction… The history of construction materials still seems to have many an exciting chapter left to write!