Wednesday 15 May 2013

A (brief) timeline of building materials

Many of the world's most creative and innovative buildings rely on an established palette of materials to convey their message.  It seems that materials hold important values which register acknowledgement and acceptance within the collective public.  Meanwhile, innovation often takes place with structural or geometric developments in building form. 

We are now making a dent in the 21st Century and I thought it useful to put together a (brief) timeline of building materials.  Working with a number of sources (listed below) the results are very thought provoking.  In black are listed key innovations in building materials.  In blue are key innovations in other areas, which in time have an impact on the building industry with technology transfer.  There's a common belief that the building industry is slow to innovate compared to other industrial sectors (which was the subject of a previous blog).  This little investigation suggests some reasons for this, and raises some questions:

  • Innovations in building materials appear to advance as civilizations advance, not so much in their technology and knowledge, but in the requirements of their society and civilisation.  This might explain why advances in medicine, transport or mining evolve at different rates to building.   Bursts of innovation occur in the building industry when civilisations want to make statements about their importance.  For example, the Romans emphasised their grandness with temples and impressive feats of engineering.   Bursts of innovation also occur where changes on social and economic patterns dictate that new building types are required.  In the last 100 years, developments in business and commerce have led to the need for several new building types, (offices, high-rise etc.) requiring investment in technology and new materials to meet these demands. At various points in history the drive for development has been on different areas such as literacy, arithmetic, medicine, state authority, trade & transport, finance, mass production, war & defence, IT etc.  Within these cycles the building industry plays its role.
  • Throughout history innovations in engineering (structure and services) have been responsible for introducing new materials and technologies in to the building industry.  Noticeably bridge building has been able to be a lot more expressive with the display of innovation, than buildings where innovations are often hidden behind more familiar materials such as stone.
  • War time saw a great rise in the uptake of innovation and the adoption of new materials in building.  Cultural values associated with long standing and familiar materials were set aside because survival became a priority.

It may appear that the building industry is standing still while other industrial sectors are running away with innovation, but it might be argued that these other areas are only responding to a same set of criteria - meeting society's requirements, and that the building industry works on longer cycles of evolution.  The perception that buildings are permanent features in an otherwise fluid world and that the building industry is old and 'mature' does not help the case for expressive innovations in building materials.  But there is something bewildering about why we want to look backwards with architecture, when the rest of the world is looking forwards.  In the timeline this is illustrated in the mid 19th century:  In 1843 the first computer program was born, and it is the result of imaginings of the inventors back then, that we have our computer driven technological world today.  In 1845 portland cement was invented, as an efficient and economical way of replicating Portland Stone on buildings.  This is not an isolated example.  Many of the innovations in building materials listed involve developments to stone, brick and glass; materials which have been in existence for over 4000 years.  Also, many innovations in building materials, where used, are hidden in favour of materials with familiar historical reference.  Are we without the confidence to carve a brave new future?

The timeline also appears to show a cycle to the development on material innovations.  In the period approaching the industrial revolution there were a lot of discoveries in new and better performing materials.  During the industrial revolution there was an explosion of ingenuity, putting these materials to new applications to fuel the requirements of industry and society.  This appears true of other transformations of societies such as the Romans and Egyptians etc.  The timeline lists another phase of material discovery from the early 20th century, and there are a lot of materials to play with.  Will there be a technological revolution of the 21st century?  If so, it will probably be focused around logistics, energy, IT & communication, medicine, farming and space science.  Hopefully the building industry will have a part to play.  If building materials are to be forward-looking, maybe the evolving architecture of the space station is the symbol to enable this to happen?


400,000BC Earth and stone
First earth and stone built shelters

8,700BC Metalworking
Bronze and copper alloys for weapons, jewellery and kitchen utensils.

7,500BC Dugout Canoe
Hollowed out logs for fishing boats

7,500BC Dried brick
The first mud bricks.  (Handmade of course).

7,000BC Sledge
One of the first transportation methods 

7,000BC  Stone and concrete
First fortifications build.  Materials included stone concrete with reinforcement.

7,000BC The shoe
Native American developments for and human protection.

6,500BC Woven cloth
Native American developments for temporary shelter.

6,000BC Wattle and Daub
Building with wood and mud for the non-structural panles of timber buildings.

5,500BC Plaster
Developed by the Egyptians as a decorative finishing material.

5,000BC  Timber
Introduction of timber carpentry to supplement the use of stone.

4,000BC Metal rivet
Developed by the Egyptians for making spears and swords.  The technology transfers to the building industry (much) later. 

4,000BC Glue
Egyptian recipe of beeswax and saps starts the development of adhesives. 

3,500BC Wheel and axle
Developed from the Mesopotamian potter's wheel

3,500BC Plywood
Egyptian method for laminating timber not fully adopted in to the building industry until the First World War;  technology transfer from the aircraft industry.

3,500BC Lubricating grease
Oils and fats for the first wheeled vehicles.

3,000BC Moulding with metal
Initially used by the Egyptians for creating small metal items such as jewellery. 

2,800BC The first dam
Egyptian civil engineering across the Garawi Valley with a masonry shell filled with earth and rubble.  It didn't last long.  Damn

2,500BC The arched bridge
First corbeled arches in stone

2,500BC  Glass
The Egyptians provided the first examples with silica and calcium

2,500BC Welding
Fusing peces of metal together with heat first accomplished by the Anatolians.

2,500BC Wrought iron
Of the 'iron age' in western Europe

2,000BC Fired brick
First appeared in the Middle East.

1,600BC Rubber ball
Invented by the Ancient Mesoamericans 

1,500BC Steel
East Africans hardening iron with carbon in furnaces, for weaponry, and the first examples of man-made carbon nanotubes.

400BC Blast furnace
Developed in China for cast iron and bronze.

250BC Metal nail
Roman invention for timber construction.  Each nain forged individually.

100BC Blown glass
Developed in Syria.

100AD Clear Glass
Romans added manganese oxide to the Syrian glass mix of 100BC

100AD The dome
Roman engineering in stone.

100AD Suspension bridge
Chinese development with vines, ropes and chains.

1320 Production line
Developed in Venice to produce quality standardised goods, and arsenal.

1505 Glass mirror
Venetian innovation of glass.

1540 Sand casting
Italian metallurgist casting with molten metal.

1650 Vacuum pump
German scientific invention by Otto von Guericke.

1709 Coke based iron smelting
Transformed British industry, and a key part of industrialisation. Used in building as well as transport sectors.

1790 Nail making machine
Automated nail manufacture.  Machinery innovation to the building industry.

1792AD Gas lighting
Coal replaced as a source of light

1821 The truss bridge
Trussed steel members to make efficient long spans for the rail industry.

1823 Waterproof rain coat
The Macintosh

1835 Incandescent light bulb
The first electric light

1843 Computer programme

1845 Portland cement

1845 Rubber band and the pneumatic tyre

1846 Hydraulic crane

1851 Hydraulic jack

1852 Passenger elevator
Machinery enters buildings

1855 Bessemer process of steel production
Economic innovation for the industrial revolution

1860 Linoleum
Nineteenth century materials innovation in building materials.  Result of industrial requirements.

1867 Reinforced concrete
The revolutionary structural construction material.

1874 Automatic fire sprinkler
Services innovation within buildings.

1880 Ballcock
More services innovations within buildings.

1881 Septic tank
Yet more services innovations within buildings.

1881 The revolving door
Solving an issue of human logistics and air pressure gradients within the new building type of the office.

1882 The cantilever bridge
The Forth Bridge

1884 Steel girder skyscraper
The Home Insurance Company Building was the world's first skyscraper!

1884 Photovoltaic cell

1885 Electric arc welding

1888 AC electricity
Swiftly followed by the electric meter!

1891 Carborundum
Hard wearing abrasive material

1891 Escalator

1892 Electric arc furnace

1901 Assembly line

1902 Air conditioning

1909 Bakelite
The basis of today's phenolic resin FRP.  

1910 Synthetic rubber

1910 Rayon

1910 Aluminium foil

1913 Stainless steel

1915 Heat proof glass

1926 PVC
Perhaps the most commonly used plastic...

1930 Polystyrene
Or it could be this one.

1930 Neoprene

1931 Blind rivet

1931 Aerogel
Increasingly common in buildings over the past 10 years.

1934 Perspex
Glass alternative

1935 Nylon

1936 Epoxy resin

1938 Teflon

1938 Fibreglass

1940 Silicone rubber

1942 Super glue

1947 Acrylic paint
Initially an artistic medium.

1952 Fiber optics

1954 Geodesic dome
Buckminster Fuller's Architectural type.

1954 Automatic doors

1954 Polupropylene

1955 Velcro

1957 Bubble wrap

1958 Magnetic swipe card

1959 Pilkington float glass

1961 Industrial robot

1962 Hip replacement

1963 Artificial heart

1963 Computer aided design (CAD)

1964 Astroturf

1965 Kevlar

1971 Vacuum forming

1971 The space station
A new building type?

1973 The plastic bottle (PET)

1976 Gore Tex
Weatherproof material

1977 Conductive polymers

1981 Artificial skin

1986 High temperature super conductor

1992 Electroactive polymer
Artificial muscle

2001 Self cleaning windows

2001 Self healing materials

2002 Optical camouflage
The invisibility cloak


1001 Inventions that Changed the World Jack Challoner and Trevor Baylis 2009 (main reference)
1000 Inventions & Discoveries Roger Bridgman (Similar to the first book but apparently with one less invention.  I haven't worked out which one)
Innovations in Building Materials Marian Bowley 1960 (Her books contain many answers)
10 innovative materials to look out for in 2012
10 building materials of the future
Materials for Architectural Design Victoria Ballard Bell 2006
Material Connexion
Wikipedia & good old Google


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