Key Innovations in Building Construction

There have been many advances in building construction over the centuries, many include mechanical innovations and advances in building materials, but seven types of building construction can be discussed here.


1. The Arch

2. The Dome

3. The Vault

4. The Beam

5, The Column

6. The Buttress

7. The Frame


The Arch





The ancient Etruscans developed the first arches, this breakthrough allowed the erection of much larger masonry construction including aqueducts and bridges The Romans build monumental passageaways to and triumphal arches to celebrated military victories. The strongest arches are the parabolic and the catenary, introduced by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi in the nineteenth century. These arches are designed to carry all downward forces into the ground without using buttresses or side supports.


The Dome



Simple structures such as wigwams and igloos have existed since prehistoric times, but the dome as we know it today was developed during the Roman Empire.


Romes Pantheon (126 CE) is still the largest hemispherical, coffered, non reinforced concrete dome. There are many versions of the standard dome, corbel domes, onion domes, compound domes, an example of which is the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul (537)


The twentieth century has seen the development of thin prestressed reinforced concrete shells and the Eden Project in Cornwall is a good example of a modular geodesic dome.




The Vault




Simple vaults were used by the Sumerians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and the Egyptian civilizations.


The Romans managed to erect vaulted amphitheatres, basilicas and thermae without the support of buttresses.


Skilled medieval stonemasons developed complex and varied forms of intersecting vaults, and with the introduction of the Gothic pointed arch, vaults could be divided into four, six or more segments.


Fan vaults, a particular specialty of England became popular with a fine example in Kings College Chapel, Cambridge


Twentieth Century technology allowed reinforced concrete construction, advanced structural engineering and a better understanding of geometric shapes

Fantastic example of 20th Century vault architecture, Union Station, Washington in 1921

The Beam





One of the oldest and most basic structural elements known to Man, used to construct temporary dwellings or to cross streams by using a felled tree. The same function of a stick covering a shelter can be seen in the most complex buildings, a massive pre cast reinforced concrete girder supporting the roof of a modern building, both perform the same job of withstanding loads across a void, In architectural terms, these supports are usually the walls of a building or the columns in a steel timber or concrete frame.


Beams can be translated as other elements such as joists which span opposing walls to support floors of ceilings of a building, or lintels that support structure above a window or door.


The Column




This is a fundamental structural unit of architecture, columns free walls so they no longer need to be load bearing elements, they can be monolithic ( of one single material ) sectional ( stacked materials ).


Three elements make up the Column, capital which immediately supports the beam, slab or arch, shaft, the main body and the base which connects the column to the foundation.


In Classical architecture, the column is divided into orders and each three parts of the column is treated separately.


Columns can be seen 1/2 set into walls, called pilasters and on their own the can be used to commemorate persons or gods.


The Buttress



At a certain height, a wall can collapse under its own weight of from bearing the weight of a roof or arch. A buttress, attached to the wall deflects the vertical stressors on the wall, strenghening it. It first appeared as a continuous or stepped column.


A flying buttress ( above ), detached from the wall by an arch, was a key innovation that occurred at the end of the Romanesque and at the start of the Gothic periods, Flying buttresses can be highly decorative and daring especially when used in Gothic Cathedrals


The Frame


Multiple examples of buildings constructed using framed construction

Frames are more open, efficient load bearing structures composed of columns, beams, trusses girders and spandrels.


More traditional construction techniques use wooden frames before the advent of iron and steel.


High rise steel frames took off in New York, Chicago and London because of high land values.


The first skyscraper was the Home Insurance Company Building in Chicago with 10 floors. In the 20th Century, reinforced concrete was the main alternative to framed structures either poured on side or assembled from prefabricated elements.


There are a number of unusual steel framed buildings, the Olympic National Stadium in Beijing (2008) and the BMW World Building in Munich (2007)



© 2017 Alec Boreham