Whether your project is on a large or small scale, the materials you use are going to be instrumental to its success. As structural engineers in Devon and Cornwall, we are always working with different materials and appreciate how their varying properties contribute to the style, function and longevity of a structure.

The first building materials date back to prehistory and are still used in modern construction, along with many other materials that have served us well over the course of human development.

How has our use of construction materials evolved over time, and what does the future hold?

The Timeline of Construction Materials

 

A brief history of building materials

Materials from Nature: Stone, Mud & Clay

In the earliest stages of humanity, construction was very small scale. Natural shelters like caves and other natural rock formations were utilised. In the Palaeolithic period (2.5 million years ago-10,000 BCE), humans lived in shelters like caves and other natural rock formations or created crude shelters with stone and animal skins.

During the broad period described as the Stone Age, mud and clay were also used to make simple shelters across the world. Easily forageable resources like leaves, branches, straw and animal bones were incorporated too.

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

The Neolithic Age (9000-5000 BCE), characterised by the adoption of agriculture, saw the rise of more permanent structures. Cob was another important material used in this time – it was made by combining clay-based soil with sand, straw and water, with the exact ingredients differing between different countries.

Other structures ‘built’ during this time would have been incredibly basic – a ‘bridge’ may have simply been a tree or log pushed over a stream.

Lumps of red clay

Bricks

The use of bricks in construction spans back thousands of years, with some of the first examples dating back to 7000 BCE in the ancient city of Jericho.

These first ‘bricks’ were made from mud that had been shaped and hardened in the sun, so historic examples are often found in hot climates. Different ancient civilisations used different materials and methods for making bricks.

Ancient Egyptian bricks contained a mix of clay or mud and straw, while the Romans preferred to use white or red clay.

Ancient Mesopotamia is credited with the earliest large-scale buildings, which were built with bricks made from air-dried mud-bricks and formed in wooden moulds.

bricks lined up

Wood

As humans made better tools to cut and shape wood and developed more efficient woodworking methods, wooden constructions became increasingly viable options.

Examples of Neolithic longhouses built around 5000 BCE are thought to be among the earliest free-standing shelters made with timber.

Timber was used by the Ancient Greeks to build permanent and elaborate structures like temples and places of worship before they later made these structures with more elaborate stone masonry.

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.

Thanks to this 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

Concrete

The first use of a concrete-like material in construction dates back to around 6500 BCE in Syria and Jordan.

Although they weren’t the first to use concrete, the Romans are famous for their utilisation of it as many of their structures have survived, displaying the incredible strength of their version of concrete.

By 200 BCE, the Romans had rolled out the use of concrete in most of their construction, with their mixture of volcanic ash, lime and seawater remaining a success. With the fall of the empire, this recipe was lost until its discovery rekindled an interest in the material in the Middle Ages.

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.

The advantages and disadvantages of concrete structures

Steel & The Age of The Skyscraper

The industrial revolution paved the way for invention, innovation and large-scale construction. By the nineteenth century, steel was being mass-produced and used to create beams and 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, along with other metals like aluminium. 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

Plastics

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 preferable for some projects.

Plastics were first developed in the mid to late 19th century, with continued development into the 20th century – it was not long after this that thermoplastics and polycarbonates started making their way into construction.

sheets of different coloured plastics

The Future of Building Materials & Sustainability

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.

More sustainable and environmentally-friendly building materials include:

  • Recycled metals
  • Recycled plastic
  • Reclaimed wood
  • Bamboo
  • Straw bales
  • Concrete alternatives like timbercrete and ferrock

Could this need for eco-conscious construction options spark a new era along the evolution of building materials?

energy efficient building materials

Modern structures use a range of materials, which you’ll know if you are embarking on a new project. Here at Martin Perry Associates, we have worked on a range of projects, helping bring our client’s visions to life.

To find out how we could help you, get in touch with our expert team of structural engineers and chartered surveyors.

contact our team today