Whether people were building for shelter or racing to have the tallest building in a city, construction building materials have been around for a very long time. So how have construction materials evolved, and where are they trending to?


The History of Building Materials


To provide a little context for the history of building materials, it is important to explain the timelines discussed below. The Prehistoric Ages consist of three eras spanning millions of years, ultimately bringing us to around the year 800 CE. The eras briefly discussed from the Prehistoric Age are the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. We will then fast-forward through the Middle and Current Eras, or 800 CE to present day.


Building Materials of the Prehistoric Ages


Materials believed to have been utilized in shelter construction have been found dating all the way back to 12,000 BCE. Primitive buildings were often constructed of animal hides to make tent style structures for shelter. This was a standard practice as the lifestyle of historic peoples was often nomadic in nature. Dwellings became more permanent with the agricultural revolution, and their construction became based on clay and stone packing, thus beginning the history of masonry construction. During the Stone Age timber construction also existed; however, it was less common due to a limitation on the tools available for harvesting trees.


Stone Age Construction


The Bronze Age that followed brought multiple advancements across many facets of building construction. The development of bronze, and later iron, allowed for the creation of more rigid tools. With the development of wood working tools such as axes and saws, timber construction became a far more accessible material for construction. During the Bronze Age we saw structural square posts, wood planks, and even wood shingles. Other notable advancements during this time included sun dried bricks and fired bricks, as well as cut-stone construction.


Nearing the end of the Bronze Age and the start of the Iron Age, one of the most significant advancements of the prehistoric ages happens – the development of mortar and cement. This occurred in the region of Rome between the 2nd and 3rd century BCE. The ash-based material came from grinding slag called pozzolana. The Iron Age is also when we saw the emergence of iron materials for use in tools and weapons.


Middle and Current Era Advancements


It goes without saying that we live in one of the most rapidly changing, fast-paced times in human history. The Middle Ages saw advancements in technology and the ability to harness construction materials in better ways and on larger scales. For construction as we know it, we need to make a quick stop to talk about the advancements in the Second Industrial Revolution, which took place in the mid-nineteenth century, and continued until World War I. During this time, we saw the development of so many things that we take for granted every day – the telephone, the automobile, and last but certainly not least, lightbulbs.


There were several noteworthy advancements of the IndustrialFirst skyscraper - Home Insurance Bldg, Chicago Revolution that pivoted and launched the construction industry to become the industry that we know today. Here are just three examples:

  • Steel
    Steel replaced iron as a dominant material during this time frame. It was cheaper and more efficient to produce, and it led the market in multiple arenas of the revolution. Steel was used in railroad expansion, the automobile industry, and most importantly in our case – it was used for construction. The first skyscraper was built in 1885 with revolutionary steel frame engineering. It was the Home Insurance Building in Chicago, and it stood an astonishing 138 feet tall.
  • Asphalt
    In 1870, Belgian chemist Edmund J. DeSmedt laid the first true asphalt pavement in the United States in Newark, NJ. He also paved the famous Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. in sheet asphalt.
  • Railroad Expansion
    As mentioned previously, the railroads expanded immensely during the Second Industrial Revolution. This expansion meant goods and services became tradable, sellable, and more essentially – mobile. The United States was no longer restricted with material sales being isolated to their areas of production. The logging and steel industries were able to ship to all parts of the country with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.


Keeping in mind the example of the first “skyscraper” in the United States, today the tallest building in Minneapolis, MN stands at 792 feet tall, and was completed in 1972. The IDS Center in downtown Minneapolis was built with composite materials, reinforced concrete, and structural steel. In less than 100 years buildings were built over five times taller than before, and that achievement was nearly a half century ago! 


IDS Center, Minneapolis, 1972



The Future of Building Materials


As you can see, many of the materials we use today have existed in one shape or another for hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of years. The construction materials we use today will continue to evolve and improve.


Sustainability is a major topic in construction, and we are starting to see the appearance of materials like permeable pavement, self-healing concrete, thermoplastic carbon fiber composite materials, air cleaning bricks, and even 3D printing of buildings.


One thing is certain, whether building materials remain the same or are completely substituted, sustainability will remain at the forefront of construction material development conversations.


About the Author


Shanna Heard, Sr. Project ManagerShanna Heard has been a project manager with Shingobee for three years. She has ten years of experience in various facets of the construction industry, with a background in underground, infrastructure, and utilities construction. She has managed several projects at Shingobee, including banks, convenience stores, restaurants, and retail.