Walls Still Growing Up
by Sean M. O’Brien, P.E.
Thousands of years ago, a primitive mortar helped transform a pile of stones into an enclosure of habitable space. Since then, a complex interweaving of technical and social change has continually redefined the way we build, culminating in the modern practice of architecture and building design.
The development of lime-burning kilns in Mesopotamia around 2450 BCE provided a great leap forward in building technology. Lime mortar was far stronger and more durable than its mud-and-straw-based predecessors. This meant buildings could be made larger, stronger, and more intricate.
In some parts of the world, buildings constructed of solid, load-bearing masonry were a dominant form of structure for over 4,000 years. These buildings relied on the strength of the masonry to carry the weight of the structure and resist external forces.
Heat and moisture were controlled by slow absorption and redistribution through the thick masonry walls, which typically had a high storage capacity for both. It is useful to think of solid masonry walls as buffers rather than barriers, because by modern standards they are neither waterproof nor insulating.
The evolution of solid masonry construction was based on experience more than rational design. Designers learned from their mistakes and improved their buildings accordingly. While rudimentary by modern standards, this trial-and-error process provided designers over time with an accumulating wealth of guidelines that could be used to construct safe and durable buildings. >>>
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Athenian Treasury, 510 BCE, Delphi, Greece, an ancient example of load-bearing masonry construction.
Photo: Jane Greenwood/ Artifice Images
Slow absorption and release of rainwater (and heat) allow solid masonry walls to control the elements.
Image: Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc.
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