The History of Construction | The First Industrial Age

December 10, 2020

In this 4 part series, we have reviewed the construction methods of the Stone Age and advancements made by the Romans. In this edition, we will be taking a look at how the Industrial Revolution changed the way we produce building materials. As well, we will explore how the emergence of building sciences led to the beginning of engineering standards across the industrialized world. 

Iron and Brick Production

The first Industrial Revolution took place in the late 18th century in Britain and North America. This revolution yielded major developments in many industries – especially construction. The large-scale production of iron was one of the earliest examples of the influence of industrialization. It became popular for new buildings to include iron construction elements, as iron was quick to produce.

One of the first industrial age iron structures was a bridge built by Abraham Darby III in England around 1778. This iron bridge over the River Severn was 100 feet long and difficult to construct. The bridge involved two very large pieces of iron, resulting in a lot of extra time and manpower to install. It was soon discovered that iron should be handled in smaller portions when it came to the building. Many building materials, components, and tools were made of iron, rather than whole complete structures.

One of the main benefits the British saw in iron building was its incombustibility. Fires were a common issue in this era in many buildings, as the homes were previously made of timber and other flammable materials. Building with iron became popular and set a standard for building construction for the future.

In the 19th century, the industrial production of brick emerged with the invention of pressed bricks. Pressed bricks could be mass-produced, rather than being moulded by hand as was common practice in the 3,000 years prior. Much like iron, industrialization significantly reduced the cost of producing bricks. As a result, bricks became one of the most popular building materials of the age.

Standard-Dimension Timber

In early North America, timber production was industrialized for construction around 1820. There were large forests of softwood fir and pine trees that could be processed through steam and watermills. This was the first instance of standard-dimension timbers being made and sold.

This, along with the inexpensive machine-made nails in the 1830s, resulted in a major construction innovation: the balloon frame. As North America was being developed, timber frames were a quick, flexible, and inexpensive option to meet the rising demand of colonization. The simple balloon frame required very few tools and skills to build, which is why it is still a very popular method of building today.

The Development of Building Sciences

A massive discovery for construction in the industrial age was the development of building science. It started with the elastic theory of structures in the early 1800’s Major development first began with the English scientist Thomas Young’s modern definition of the modulus of elasticity in 1807. Young’s theory describes the elastic properties of a solid undergoing tension in one direction. For example, a metal rod returns to its original length after being stretched lengthwise. Because of this newfound science, mathematics could be used to determine the performance of the building.

With the increased popularity of construction science, the specialization of construction engineering emerged. With all of the discoveries being made in building science and the development of building standards, engineers and architects now had to work together to build structures. In the late 1800s to the early 1900s, government regulations for those practicing engineering first came into place. This included the steady development of building codes and requirements, much like we see today.

Plumbing and Sewage Systems

Plumbing and sewage systems advanced quickly in the industrial age. Iron played a large role in this, with most plumbing being made of iron. An essential component of plumbing was the development of public water distribution systems. The first large-scale example of this was the waterwheels installed by Louis XIV, on the Marne River in France. Gravity-powered underground drainage systems were installed along with water distribution networks in most of the industrial world during the 19th century. Permanent plumbing was found in most buildings, replacing the chamber pots and portable toilets which were common at the time. Along with indoor plumbing, treatment plants were slowly developed by the 1860s. It took a little bit of trial and error, though. 

Plumbing Problems

The new plumbing and sewage systems introduced new challenges. There was increasing demand for what we know today as a bathroom, although the logistics had not yet been developed fully. With the systems still not perfected in the 1800s, there were frequent reports of exploding lavatories. Bathrooms became a place of danger, and would even spontaneously combust from time to time.

This resulted in many deaths, but the issue was later resolved with improved sewage irrigation systems. With indoor plumbing using imperfect methods to manage human waste, the flammable gases produced by the sewage – like methane – were lingering and abundant. Given enough gases and the open flame of a candle (still a common light source at that time), you could easily set fire to your bathroom or even cause an explosion. The improvements made to waste systems quickly, and thankfully, fixed this issue.

We saw many advancements in society during the first industrial age, particularly in construction. The quick and cheap production of iron and brick changed the way we constructed buildings. With the advancements in timber production in North America, we saw the first instances of the balloon frame. Many of these developments laid the foundation for what construction is today.

In our next and final part of The History of Construction series, we review the second industrial age, and how it got us closer to building the way we do today.

Author: Stephani Hnetinka

Stephani is a Marketing Assistant who has been working with Modu-Loc Fence Rentals since 2018. She enjoys writing about construction, and loves anything and everything to do with temporary fencing solutions.

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