A Brief History of Construction Materials

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“There exists a dynamic exchange between the life of matter and the matter of our lives.”

-Reiser and Umemeto

Each material has its own unique way of acting and reacting with its environment. As designers we are responsible for creating the appropriate expression for each condition. Whether this is executed through scale, patterns, joinery, or structural articulation depends on the nature of the material itself. However, the complexity and sheer volume of today’s innovative products can make it seem like we need to be scientists to understand the behavior of many contemporary materials. This entry is part one of a series on unraveling that myth. As a designer by day and aspiring materials scientist by night, I hope to give some insight into how new materials behave and inspire ideas about how we can express these behaviors through design. In lieu of the 45th anniversary of FRCH, I thought it would be appropriate to start by taking a look back at the history of traditional building materials, and what was primarily available to work with when the firm started in 1968.

Ancient civilizations built primarily with primitive ceramics, wood, and various textiles. While the possibilities and options of ceramics grew through the centuries, this palette remained relatively similar until the industrial revolution and the refinement of steel. Only within the last century were other metals such as aluminum  introduced to buildings, as well as polymers and many of the composite materials that we work with as a vital part of the construction industry today.

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Ceramics, specifically fired clay and stone, were the building blocks of many ancient civilizations. With the development of concrete and glass, the world of ceramics continues today to be a very important range of materials that we can choose to build with. Use of ceramics in traditional construction came with massive load bearing walls that were the primary structure as well as an environmental barrier. The type of layered construction that is typical in buildings today is a large departure from these traditional methods. In most cases stone, brick, and other ceramics are used as facing or veneer materials that give the appearance of traditional construction methods, but fit within our contemporary layered systems.

There are several metals that were used in ancient times alongside ceramics, dating back to the discovery of bronze in 3500BC, and the discovery of iron in 1500BC. However, the significant use of metals in the building industry started with the refinement of steel and the industrial revolution. In 1850, the Kelly and Bessemer processes were discovered as a way of removing impurities from steel. This new and improved material allowed designers to span great distances that they had never dreamed of with the limitations of ceramics.

Kelly And Bessemer Process

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During the 1800’s there were several industrial experiments and applications of natural polymers such as that of Charles Goodyear and his Goodyear tires. However, it was not until 1908 that the first truly synthetic polymer was developed; Bakelite. Through the early 1900’s several different polymers were developed such as Neoprene.  Many of them were used initially as materials in the field of industrial design. Slowly but surely, polymers began to infiltrate the construction industry through detailed products and finishes. Polymers, more than any other material class, have sprung from materials science research. The rapid development of polymers and their proliferation into almost every market describes “the sustained drive for new materials during the last 100 years and the indisputable evidence of the irreversible symbiosis between scientific research and the commercial enterprise.” (Fernandez, Material Architecture, Emergent Materials for Innovative Buildings and Ecological Construction. 23.)


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Polymers have been some of the first materials developed by scientific research to be widely adopted into mainstream culture, but they will not be the last. Smart materials and systems continue this trend of research driving the innovation and creation of new materials. However, these materials are not as straightforward to work with as our traditional building materials. Looking forward as designers we need a basic understanding of smart materials and systems, what they are, how they work, and how to utilize their properties and capabilities for each unique design challenge…..

To be continued.

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