History of Building and Construction

It can be easy to walk past impressive buildings and think nothing much more than: ‘that’s pretty cool’. In reality, the building and construction industry has come a long way and many of the major developments aren’t visible from the outside.

Not only are buildings visually different, but the materials and methods of building - including the safety of workers, have changed drastically too. We take a look at the history and evolution of building and construction from early man until the current day.

Early Man

For many centuries most parts of the world had limited tools and methods for building. Buildings were generally limited to huts, shelters and tents built from wood, mud bricks and stone.

In some parts of the world, however, developments were more advanced. The Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks used methods that continue to influence modern construction. Historians are still baffled over the building of the Pyramids, while the Acropolis and surrounding constructions in Athens were impressive feats for the day.

In England, is one of the best examples of early construction is Stonehenge. While not much still stands today, historians believe it originally had wooden planks across the stones to form a shelter. The geometric elements evident at Stonehenge indicated that relatively sophisticated surveying methods may have been used even back then. (Keys, 2008)

Technology was very limited. If large stones needed to be moved, such as in the case of the pyramids, hundreds of slaves would use ropes and sleighs to move them. Some of the stones weighed over 80 tons. The use of ramps has also been considered by historians. (Brier, 2007)

Medieval Ages (5-15th Century)

The Medieval Ages covers a long period of time, which can be broken up into smaller periods, including the Gothic Period. However, there were still distinct building patterns throughout the entire period. Many late Medieval buildings still stand today, testament to the relative quality of their construction.

While previously few buildings were much taller than the height of a person, the Medieval Ages saw a rise in multi-storey buildings and some of the spectacular and complex cathedrals that still stand today, including Notre Dame and Milan cathedrals. Churches, castles and cathedrals were some of the key defining changes during this period.

The most common material used in buildings, particularly up until 1,000 AD was timber, and roofs were mostly thatched. Later on in the period bricks became increasingly popular in many parts of Europe, in particular Italy and Scandinavia.

Building materials and design stayed relatively similar for several hundred years until the Gothic Period, which saw dramatic advances particularly in the area of design. Key design elements included vaults, flying buttresses and the easily-recognisable gothic arches. It was during the gothic period that many of the large, well-known cathedrals were built.

There weren't many rules when it came to building in the Medieval Era. Few books were written and failures were very common. In many cases it was a game of trial and error.

Renaissance Period (14-17th Century)

The Renaissance period of building was largely centred in Italy, with many of the best examples being in Venice. One of the key changes from the Medieval Ages was the increased focus on design. Previously, the same people who designed a building would have built it. The Renaissance Period could be said to be the birth of the architect - a person who solely focused on the design of a building. Skilled craftsmen would then execute those designs and construction overall was better thought-out and scientific in nature.

Technologically, a huge development was the use of conversion. Conversion technology allowed for water mills to saw timber and turn them into planks, which formed an important part of buildings at that time. Bricks and iron also become much more commonly used. The iron helped make buildings sturdier and offered a greater variety of options than before.

While thatched roofs symbolised the Medieval era, terracotta tiled roofs were typical of the Renaissance period. Stone was still used, but it was generally reserved for prestigious buildings - such as churches and government buildings - due to its higher price.

In 1570, Italian architect Andrea Palladio published a book in Venice called: ‘The Four Books of Architecture’, which sold across Europe and was largely responsible for the spreading of the Renaissance style of building. (Craven, 2014)

17th-18th Century

Some of the biggest breakthroughs in modern construction were made during the 17th and 18th centuries. Not only was glass first manufactured, but many of the engineering methods and standards still used today were developed. Buildings became more of a science than an art.

Iron played an important part during this time, with the metal used to strengthen many iconic buildings including St Paul’s Cathedral and Hampton Court Palace in London.
The actual techniques didn't see much change, with pulleys still being the most commonly used method of lifting and moving.

Industrial Era (1760 - 1840)

The Industrial Revolution was just that - it revolutionised almost every aspect of life. In terms of building it brought with it the manufacture of steel and the building of railroads, canals and roads. Glass was no longer a luxury and modern plumbing was first introduced.

In the past, fires were a huge safety risk in the building and construction industry. Homes were largely made of wood and were highly prone to fires. During the Industrial era, a stronger focus was put on safety, and fire safety in particular. It was in the 19th century that building codes were first introduced.

The tools used in construction became machines that were many times more powerful than what was previously available. Factories allowed for materials to be produced much faster and as a result, construction was accelerated and modern-day cities were born.

Elevators were invented in the late 1800’s, but were not largely used until a decade later. However, they did help facilitate the building of the world’s first skyscraper - the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, Illinois. (History Channel, 2014)

1900 - Post World War II

With the turn of the 20th century came many of the skylines that we still see today.

Buildings above six stories were rare prior to the 20th century, largely due to the lack of elevators and the problem of water pressure on higher levels. Despite the two world wars, major developments in construction continued. Buildings kept getting taller and taller, with people competing for the ‘world’s tallest’ title. New York’s Empire State Building, which remained the tallest building in the world for nearly 40 years, was built in the 1930’s.

The safety of workers was still an issue in the first half of the 20th century, however. While trade unions existed and safety laws were in place, they were not close to what we have today.

Current day

In almost every city in the world there is evidence of several centuries of building history, particularly in Europe. Now that we have a larger range of materials and technology than ever before, but also the equipment that significantly improves safety, architects and designers are focusing more heavily on building eco-friendly, sustainable buildings. The use of advanced technology in areas of natural disasters, such as on fault lines, is also increasingly prominent.

Work safety laws are more prominent than ever and are strictly enforced in most developed countries.

In just a few hundred years the landscape of the cities and towns we live in has changed dramatically. It will be fascinating to see what comes next!

Author Bio: 
Tim Phillips has explored various aspects of work, including job safety, how to get a job and the successful marketing strategies for small businesses. In his free time however, he enjoys the beautiful outdoors of Australia.
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