A Brief History of Building Materials

A Brief History of Building Materials

Whether your project is on a large or small scale, the materials you use are going to be instrumental to its success.

Construction and the development of building materials have been key components of human evolution and growth.

The first building materials can be dated back as far as 400 BC and still have use in modern construction.

Buildings and human-made structures have existed since pre-history, thus the history of the materials they are made from is a long one. Here was take a look at a brief history of building materials and consider what the future might hold.

Stone, Mud and Clay

In the earliest stages of humanity, construction was very small scale. Natural shelters like caves and other natural rock formations were made use of, but custom shelters were all being made during the Stone Age.

Across the world, mud and clay were used to make simple shelters. Easily forageable resources like leaves, branches, straw and animal hides or bones were also incorporated.

Clay and mud were ideal early building materials because they can be easily harvested and moulded by hand.

These materials were used to build shelters with the basic intention of providing dwellers with protection from the elements and possible hostile animals.

Other structures made with these materials would be equally basic. A ‘bridge’ may have simply been a tree or log pushed over a stream.


With more advancement and increasing knowledge, wood also became a viable building option. As humans made better tools to cut wood and learnt more efficient woodworking methods, wood became an incredibly useful building material.

Timber was used by the Ancient Greeks to build permanent and elaborate structures like temples and places of worship.

Ancient Chinese temples were also built out of wood. Nanchen Temple is the oldest surviving wooden building in the world and is thought to have been constructed in 782 AD.

Historically, wood has also been used as a construction material for temporary military buildings or barriers due to its abundant and immediately serviceable nature.

Due to its abundance, wood has long been a popular construction resource in North America and parts of Europe. Timber is still frequently used in the frames of North American homes today.

wooden house frame


The Romans are famous for their utilisation of concrete; many of their structures have survived. Early Roman concrete was very cheap and easy to make as it was produced from only rubble and water. Concrete’s cheap and durable nature makes it a versatile building material that is still used to this day.

In 1849 the mix of water, cement and aggregates was first combined with steel to create reinforced concrete. Reinforced concrete has been used in foundations, bridges and highways since its conception.

Concrete pillars in a structure


The industrial revolution paved the way for invention, innovation and large-scale construction. By the nineteenth century, steel was being mass-produced and was being used for beams and in reinforced concrete.

At this point, glass for buildings also went into mass production and became available to those who couldn’t previously afford the luxury.

The early twentieth century saw the innovation of the high-rise building; steel became an invaluable building material in these massive projects.

Steel is, of course, still used in construction today. It is favoured for its high strength and customisable nature. It is also preferred because it is non-combustible and can be recycled.

a steel and glass skyscraper


In more recent years, plastics and polymers have become an increasingly utilised building material.

Polymers can be easily moulded and are very lightweight. This material is also cheaper than metal, making it a preferable component in some projects.

The Future

As a society, we are becoming more environmentally conscious; the construction industry is no different.

Looking forward, we should endeavour to use materials that maintain structural strength while also considering their environmental impact.

Sustainable development is something at the forefront of construction innovation. Focusing on ecology protection, energy conservation, and environmentally conscious building materials will be vital when thinking about the future.

As with many other industries, continual research is being undertaken in order to make building materials and construction practices more efficient and sustainable.

two buildings with plants growing from them

If your building project needs support, Martin Perry Associates can help. With an abundance of experience as structural engineers in Cornwall, we provide a range of services and packages to help you through the construction process.

If you are considering your building options, please get in touch for more information.

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