Historic Building Materials and Methods

While many of today’s building materials and methods may seem new, their origins are often older than we think: From Roman concrete to ancient Egyptian plywood, human history is rich with fascinating examples of innovative building materials and construction techniques, many of which continue to inspire modern advancements in materials science and engineering.

Curiously, despite being markedly simpler than most modern building materials, many historic building materials are extremely durable—sometimes more so than their modern counterparts. In many cases, historic buildings have withstood the test of time to last centuries to millennia.

Before we can consider the materials themselves, however, we’ll first need to understand why— and where—certain materials came to be.

Building Local: Regional Influences on Construction Techniques

old wooden construction with fence

Despite their ancient origins, many modern building materials—at least as we know them—are still a far cry from anything our ancestors knew. Before the 20th century, most people were limited to what was either on hand or available nearby. This limitation partially influenced many of the regional building styles and preferences still employed today, such as the timber construction common throughout heavily forested North America.

While European settlers were not strangers to using timber for construction, North American colonies gave them unprecedented access to swarths of old-growth timber—certainly more than they ever had in Western Europe. As a result, timber was the most viable building material not only for homes and buildings but also for furniture, ships, and other things.

Other parts of the world yield their specific regional building materials, and a quick look at the surrounding landscape is often enough to see why a certain region might prefer a certain material: In towns along the dry, rocky coast of the Mediterranean, for example, the vast majority of buildings use the surrounding stone and clay as building materials rather than the few trees suitable for lumber.

Early humans were even more limited, especially in the thousands of years predating the construction of permanent shelters. In most regions throughout the world, early humans were largely nomadic and took shelter either in natural features such as caves or, in later years, portable shelters usually made from animal hide and branches.

Though modern society no longer faces these limitations, their influence remains: Even in North America, for example, more homes are built from wood than anywhere else in the world.

Building Materials and Methods Throughout Time

gray concrete stairs

Building materials have undergone dramatic evolutions throughout human history: Where our earliest ancestors were once limited to natural materials such as tree branches and animal hides, their descendants would go on to make gradual improvements over successive generations.

However, these improvements often came slowly, with many materials being used the same way for several generations, if not longer. Most of the building materials we know today—at least in the forms we know them—weren’t available until the 19th and 20th centuries!

As a result, many of the building materials and methods we’ll explore are much “closer to nature” than those we’re used to today. However, the materials themselves—along with the building methods that made them practical—are more fascinating than many might think.

Wood: Sticks to Lumber

Plentiful, easy to work with, and extremely durable, wood has been used for shelter, tools, and fuel since the dawn of man—and it continues to get plenty of use to this day.

Despite its prevalence throughout human history, however, wood has undergone some of the greatest evolution of any other building material. Where our earliest ancestors might have used tree branches and sticks to fashion simple shelters, we now benefit from a wide variety of wood-based construction materials, including milled lumber, plywood, and countless methods for joinery and carpentry.

Some of the earliest permanent—or, more accurately, semi-permanent—wood shelters were those constructed throughout forested regions around the dawn of civilization. While once largely nomadic, humans started to build these permanent settlements with the onset of agriculture and trade, often using wood as a primary construction material.

Many of these early wood structures resembled the tipis and log cabins we continue to associate with natural or traditional building materials. Viking longhouses, for example, utilized timber framing filled with a mixture of mud and moss for insulation—though they certainly weren’t the first.

Timber framing is largely responsible for the spread of wood construction throughout the world, providing structures with then-newfound levels of versatility and strength. Some of the earliest timber frame structures date to the Neolithic era, with most examples utilizing some sort of insulative “filling” between the frames, such as mud.

With the right carpentry, timber also presented several other advantages. Many traditional Japanese buildings, for example, utilized timber framing connected with complex joinery. By factoring in the grain of the wood and its changes between the seasons, Japanese carpenters were able to build frames that automatically adjusted with seasonal changes. Combined with natural earthquake resistance, many traditional Japanese wood structures have been standing for centuries.

Earth: Mud and Cob

In regions where wood wasn’t widely available, mud, clay, and cob—a durable mixture of clay and straw—were the most viable alternatives. However, these materials weren’t just alternatives to wood; in many respects, they were superior.

Where timber-framed structures were often difficult to insulate and ran the risk of catching fire, mud- and clay-based buildings were naturally insulative and fire-resistant. Plus, the material was much easier to get; those in clay-rich regions had all the material they needed—literally!—under their feet.

These benefits made clay and mud some of the most popular building materials in both the ancient world and recent history. One of the most striking examples is the city of Shibam Hadramawt in Yemen, where multi-story mudbrick “skyscrapers” have stood for centuries.

Stone and Masonry

In addition to wood and mud, stones were another important construction material. However, stone was more than just a building material for early humans: For a long time, it was also an essential tool.

Before the development of metal-tipped tools and weapons, sharpened stones were used for various tasks. Flint, for example, became ideal for knives and arrows due to the naturally razor-sharp shards it formed when chipped. Similarly, larger stones could be chipped and sharpened to prepare axes and other sharp objects.

These stone tools were largely responsible for allowing humans to build structures out of wood and mud. With axes, for example, it was possible to fell trees and cut them to size. These capabilities only increased with the advent of metal tools, which also helped make stones themselves into a suitable building material.

Stone structures are among the most historically impressive in the world—and some of the longest-lasting. From the limestone Acropolis of Ancient Greece to the towering Great Pyramids of Giza, stone is responsible for some of history’s most significant structures.

Concrete

Pantheon's large circular dome unique in Roman architecture

Combining the flexibility of mud and clay with the strength and durability of stone, concrete may seem like a relatively new invention—even though its origins are rooted over two thousand years ago.

The Ancient Romans were among the most notable early users of concrete. Discovering that the addition of volcanic ash helped concrete set underwater, the Romans used concrete for a wide variety of construction projects: From aqueducts to Rome’s Colosseum, concrete was largely responsible for many of Ancient Rome’s most significant buildings.

Among the most impressive Roman concrete structures is the Pantheon. Complete in 128 CE, the Pantheon remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world—even after almost two thousand years! This impressive longevity has made Roman concrete the inspiration for many modern blends of concrete, with the particular formula for Roman concrete having been largely lost to history.

Today, concrete continues to benefit structures with its durability, strength, and flexibility. Where structures previously required intricate construction techniques to achieve dramatic and novel shapes, concrete can be cast and molded into nearly any form. As a result, concrete remains as popular as it was in Ancient Rome, with the vast majority of new construction using it for everything from foundations to superstructures.

Building Materials Today: Which Is Best?

While many historic building materials and methods are certainly impressive, we’ve come a long way since the times of our ancestors. However, while many modern materials are vastly different from their historic predecessors, concrete has remained one of the most cost-effective construction materials throughout its multi-millennia lifespan

While you might not be building the next Pantheon, concrete can still provide your driveways and patios with the same durability. For more information on our concrete construction services, contact our team at 713-254-1703.

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