We’re doing a deep dive into the history of construction to see where we can learn from our mistakes and create new ideas from old concepts. If you missed it, check out our first blog post from our History of Construction series. It covers the earliest examples of construction and how things were done in the Stone Age. In this edition of The History of Construction, we explore Roman construction achievements. Their innovations have a direct correlation to modern-day construction techniques.
The Romans paved the way for many advancements in construction. One of the most important Roman construction advancements is concrete construction. Concrete is used in most structures of the present. Although our modern materials and methods are different, we saw the first example of concrete construction in Roman times. This structure is known as the Temple of Sybil at Tivoli, which was built in the 1st century BCE. However, the whole structure itself is not made of concrete. The outside mostly consists of stone columns and lintels. The interior “sanctuary room” is built out of concrete. This was the first of its time.
If you don’t think that qualifies as the earliest example of concrete construction, consider this: the first complete large-scale example of the use of concrete in a building are the brick-faced concrete walls of the Praetorian Guard in Rome, built around 22 BCE. Although the building itself was simple, with very flat, square construction, it led to more advanced methods in concrete design. New shapes were appearing in construction, creating interesting structures like the octagonal domed fountain hall of Nero’s Golden House, built around 64 and 68 BCE. At 142 feet in diameter, the circular dome stood unmatched by any other structure until the early 19th century.
Other advancements Romans made in construction involved timber and metal. The truss was a Roman invention. Roman armies used bridges with trusses that allowed them to cross the Danube. The truss was also carried out using metal, with the first appearance of it in bronze at the Pantheon. These bronze trusses were later melted down and replaced with wood so that the bronze could be used for cannons in a war that took place in 1625.
Metals like bronze were used in fabricating Roman roof tiles. The Romans also introduced lead as a building material, using it for roof tiles as it was waterproof and could be used for low-pitched roofs. The most important use for lead was in the development of pipes to supply fresh water to buildings and remove waste. Fun fact: the term plumbing comes from the word plumbum, which means lead! However, there wasn’t yet any significant development in the wastewater system itself. Wastewater was discarded in a nearby river, with no treatment for the sewage. Despite this poor planning, this was still far more advanced than any other sewage system in the world at that time. In fact, their plumbing system was unmatched until the 19th century.
In most Roman buildings, a central open fire was the primary source of heat. Unfortunately, this led to a lot of problems with smoke. Obviously, the smoke negatively impacted the health of the inhabitants and the aesthetics of their buildings.
The Romans first made improvements with the invention of charcoal braziers, which reduced smoke a little. But we wouldn’t see any major improvement until the invention of hypocaust heating. Made around the 2nd century, hypocaust heating conducts heated air through flues in the floors and walls. It would radiate heat into the stone walls, heating the building without all of the smoke. This same method was used to heat water for the Roman baths.
The Romans made so many advancements in building techniques, that the disappearance of Roman power in Western Europe during the 5th century led to a decline in construction progress. Brickmaking became very rare, and concrete as a building material became almost nonexistent until the 19th century. Basically, building proficiency dropped to Iron Age levels, which mostly entailed log construction, packed clay walls, and mud bricks.
Unfortunately, sometimes things get worse before they get better. In our next blog post about the history of construction, we dive into the industrial revolution and highlight some questionable practices that were common at that time.
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