Then - and now

Building materials have been used throughout human history, and archaeology demonstrates that they were also used to some extent in the prehistoric period.

The earliest humans may have lived in caves, but eventually they learned on to use natural substances they found around them to build simple dwellings. Mud and clay were among the first building materials used. The adhesive quality of clay made it easy to work with and form into shapes. Straw , hay, sticks or other organic fibers were used to help in holding the mud together. Dung was added to this mixture to form adobe. Sometimes the earth was compacted or “rammed” together to form walls, dikes and other structures.

Logs, sticks, thatch, brush and wood were also used for early construction purposes. Near the Arctic, the Inuit used ice to build igloo homes. And uncut rocks and large stones were often used. There are many ancient examples of “cyclopean” architecture consisting of large uncut rocks piled together or stuck together with some form of adhesive. Megalithic structures consisting of massive unfinished stones are found throughout the world.

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More recently, human civilization has devised more advanced composite building materials like concrete and cement. Concrete is generally made of sand or gravel mixed with cement and water. When the mixture dries, it becomes hard like stone. While the mixture is still moist it can easily be poured into moulds and thus formed into different shapes. Because concrete is not very flexible, it is often reinforced with steel or other metal.

New technology has also made building with metal more practical than in previous human history. Most high rise buildings and skyscrapers are built with steel or other metal frames. While steel traditionally was the favored metal for such construction, new alloys are now sometimes preferred as they are less susceptible to corrosion.

Plastics are another widely used modern building material. Formed of polymers, plastics are easily molded while in the liquid state. Compared to metal and many other materials, plastic is very light in weight and relatively low in cost. Plastic is often used to make pipes and to decorate the interior of buildings.

Many modern buildings use glass, not only for windows, but often as the primary exterior building material. Glass skyscrapers and other structures have become quite popular due to their aesthetic appeal. Glass buildings require a frame to hold sections of glass, because the material is not sturdy enough by itself. One of the advantages of glass is that it can allow individuals to see what is happening in other rooms. Transparent glass also allows outside light to shine into the building.

Technology continues to create new building materials with exceptional properties. For example, Sea-cretion is a construction material made from minerals found in seawater. Composite materials are made by combining different types of building materials together.

Most modern aircraft are built of advanced composite materials. These materials combine organic and inorganic components. One material acts as a type of “adhesive” that binds the other components together. The “hard” components are usually glass, carbon or boron fiber. Composites are known for combining light weight with strength and durability. Cement composites bind together wood or similar materials like paper, fiberglass and natural fibers in a cement paste. These composites can be placed into molds to create pre-shaped building components.

Interestingly with the increasing interest in green technology, many builders are moving back to older building materials in an effort to increase sustainability. Thus, one can now find modern homes or other structures built of mud and straw, or other archaic materials, in green living communities.

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