concrete architecture's building block.

Concrete, in its many forms, has been used for many years to create monumental architecture. We explain this multi-functional materials importance.

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the origins of concrete.

If you only associate concrete with a post-war Britain, it’s time to bust some myths. You might be surprised to hear that one of the most commonly used man-made materials on today’s planet actually dates back to a form of limestone created in 3000 BC. From house-building to the rail industry, it’s the Egyptians we have to thank for this world-changing STEM discovery.

So concrete is far from being limited to dreary mass house builds of the sixties. Look at the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to the Colosseum in Rome,  the awe-inspiring Pyramids of Giza and London’s iconic Shard building. The Sydney Opera House, famous for its distinctive roof, is one of the most famous modern examples of concrete. Did you know that architect, Jørn Utzon, had his vision brought to life courtesy of 2,194 pre-cast concrete roof sections?

Architects, surveyors and planners are also under increasing pressure to consider the environmental impact when creating new structures, both from an aesthetics and sustainability perspective. Contrary to popular belief, you only need to look at the Villa Saitan to understand how modern day builds can use concrete in a creative way that doesn’t negatively impact on the landscape. This concrete housing complex in Kyoto, Japan, imitates the natural flow of a tree. The beautiful Clover House in Ecuador, constructed from reinforced concrete, is designed especially for conditions in the Andes Mountains.

Concrete is a fundamental component of modern architecture and construction due to its versatility, strength, and low cost to produce. Its importance and adaptability shouldn’t be overlooked. Without it, the 150,000 jobs said to be added to the UK’s construction industry over the next five years couldn’t exist.

what is concrete...

and what makes it so important?

Concrete is a fundamental construction material used across construction sites around the world. Groundworkers, site engineers and quality engineers all understand it’s importance due to several characteristics.

Concrete is a malleable, durable, strong and inexpensive material which is a composite of sand, pebbles, gravel and shale, cement (lime, clay, and water). Once mixed, it forms a semi-fluid slurry before undergoing a chemical reaction which transforms the composite into something very tough and stone-like with versatile properties which we recognise as concrete. Unlike other building materials, concrete can potentially last for hundreds and even thousands of years, maybe longer, as we’ve witnessed with the Pantheon of Rome.

a brief history of concrete.

The biggest leap forwards for concrete happened around the Industrial Revolution when John Smeaton created hydraulic cement – a form that could harden without it having to be dry – and from there the cement explosion began. Lighthouses, bridges, and sea walls were developed, and even a breach in the Thames Tunnel was fixed in 1828. Shortly after, the first concrete house was built in 1835. Then, perhaps most revolutionary of all, concrete was used to build London’s complex sewage system in 1870, which replaced the nasty habit of throwing human waste into the streets and the River Thames, and ultimately saving thousands of lives from cholera, typhoid and other diseases transmitted through contact with raw sewage. 670,000 cubic metres of concrete were used in the construction of the sewers, which were later strengthened with Portland cement, still the most commonly used cement today, 150 years later. Today, concrete is being used in the ongoing £5bn London ‘super sewer’, currently being documented by the BBC and has created 4,000 jobs in the industry.

Shortly after affordable housing developments began to rise up and across the 20th Century concrete was used in some of the most impressive and iconic structures in the world including the Hoover Dam, the distinctive roof of the Sydney Opera House and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. There have also been some extraordinary feats of modern engineering managed with the material; the Gotthard Base Tunnel, for instance, is the world’s longest and deepest traffic tunnel which runs through the Alps in Switzerland with a length of 57.09 km. It was devised in order to protect the natural beauty of the Swiss Alps while creating jobs and enabling transport to continue.  

It’s not just limited to house building and roads. In the UK, where rail transport and infrastructure is such a high priority, concrete is no longer a best-kept secret. rail operator Network Rail replaces 200,000 wooden railway sleepers with concrete ones every year.

Concrete is the most useful, versatile and affordable building substance architects have to work with – and it seems like it’s here to stay. The construction industry and architecture have already achieved so much with the building material, imagine what the future holds for construction and workers. What is sure, is the future of concrete belongs to those who can resolve the sustainability issues of one of its main ingredients, cement. This STEM discovery has been hugely influential in shaping our modern lives, creating millions of jobs and transforming the construction industry into what it is today.

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