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The History of Building Materials

A shelter is a fundamental need of all people. Historically, contractors have improved and adapted construction methods to fit a wide range of environments, resources, and skill sets. Prior to the industrial revolution, construction techniques were limited to wood and stone materials. While a great amount was accomplished with these techniques, the buildings were limited in height and size.

Wood

In northern Europe and eastern Asia, Buildings made of wood are most common. Due to its abundance, these societies favored timber framing techniques, such as “post-and-beam” construction, and “half-timbered” construction; this is when the structural frame of load-bearing timber is left exposed on the exterior. Heavy-frame construction uses timber coming directly from logs and trees.

Pre-cut dimensional lumber came to prominence during the Southern Song dynasty of China, and reemerged later in North America. This allowed for light-framing construction techniques such as balloon and platform framing. These techniques use minimal structural materials, and allow builders to enclose a large area at minimal cost while permitting a wide array of architectural styles.

The greatest threat to wooden construction is moisture buildup within the frame. While under compression or tension, wood can deform and warp. This is a serious concern for the structural integrity and safety of the structure. This moisture creates a breeding ground for bacteria and mold, which can add additional threats to the safety of those residing within the building.

Masonry

Near the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, Stone building materials are prevalent. This geography has contributed to the popularization of stone, brick, cement, and stucco-based architecture. Concrete usage dates as far back as the Roman Empire but has undergone significant improvements to reach today’s standard of reinforced concrete. This steel-concrete combination is used in bridges, buildings, and many other forms of modern infrastructure.

Northern Italy stood as a meeting ground of architectural styles. With copious access to stone and wood, a hybrid construction technique came to be with stone foundations and walls, but wooden floors. For the time, this technique was effective for building structures to able to support significant weight at greater heights. Similarly, brick production increased significantly at this time.

Metals

During the late 18th century, the cost of iron production greatly decreased, allowing for increased iron engineering. Early examples of cast iron engineering include columns and beams to carry brick vaults for floors. By the mid-19th century, steel was being mass produced. This new building material had high tensile strength at a low cost, allowing for unprecedented feats of engineering not limited to the production of I-beams.

This week we have briefly summarized the historical changes to building materials. Advancements have come with their own sets of opportunities and threats. When old construction techniques are applied to new building materials, unforeseen and potentially dangerous mistakes are often made. Buildings often do not perform as anticipated and construction or design deficiencies can lead to failure of building components, systems, or intended use. Next week we will elaborate on how a lack of proper insulation caused these changes in building material to be exceptionally dangerous.

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