Construction Industry

Whitepaper: How has innovation in the construction industry caused change over time?

Innovation has been crucial to the evolution of the construction industry. From the earliest use of wood and woodworking, through to the development of lightweight materials and advanced construction methods used today, progress has been driven by original ideas. In this whitepaper we will be looking at the key stages in the development of the construction industry, including the use of materials such as cement and the game changing impact of power tools. We’ll take a brief look at the history of the construction industry and how it has been shaped and advanced by continuous innovation.

Innovation driven changes in the construction industry – a timeline

Although the earliest evidence of human construction probably goes back way beyond when records began, the New Stone Age (9000 BC to 5000 BC) is often identified as the official root of the sector. The need for shelter and warmth were the primary drivers during this time, as opposed to style or aesthetics, and early builders had to work with whatever materials they could find. That might be rock, wood roughly cut from trees or even the ribs of a dead mammoth. The main issue for early constructors was a lack of tools – there were very limited options with respect to tools to cut, shape, pound or lift and so construction methods were pretty basic and materials had to be built with as they were found. As a result, construction was limited to mud huts, dry stonewalls and some basic timber and log structures.

  1. 5,000 BC – 1200 BC. The Copper Age and The Bronze Age provided significant opportunity for innovation in construction. Metal could be used for tools that enabled early builders to start shaping materials, such as wood and stone, providing more opportunity to design buildings to suit need.
  2. 2650–2600 BC. In Ancient Egypt, records show the first ever architect and engineer was a man called Imhotep who paved the way for the construction innovators of the future. The Egyptians were some of the first to start taking construction in a new direction, building up instead of out – the Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest structure in the world for 3,800 years. They were also credited with a number of inventions that would be crucial to the industry in later years, such as the ramp, the rope truss, proportional scale drawings and a form of plaster of Paris.
  3. 1200 BC to 50 BC. It was during the Iron Age, after 300BC, that a key innovation in materials took place when carbon iron was added to bronze to produce steel. The strength and durability of steel made cutting tools even more effective.
  4. 650 BC. With new tools, the range of building materials that could be used in construction became broader. After 650 BC, for example, the Ancient Greeks began to construct their temples of stone instead of wood. Buildings were simple beam and column system and used fired clay for the roofing tiles.
  5. 753 BC to 1453 AD. The Roman Empire was one of the longest lasting civilisations, one of the most inventive and had a huge impact on the construction sector. Roman Cement was used for almost everything in construction and enabled the Romans to start building at a lower cost and using workforces that were largely unskilled. Romans were also some of the first to use metal (lead) to cover waste pipes, to organise trade guilds and are credited with the invention of the sawmill and the building arch, among many other things.
  6. The Middle Ages (5th – 15th centuries AD). During this time, bricks were the main building material for basic construction and thatched roofs were common. The 12th century saw Gothic architecture gain widespread popularity with its distinctive arches and flying buttresses.
  7. The Renaissance (14th and 17th centuries). Construction stepped up a gear in The Renaissance thanks to an abundance of materials as a result of production innovation. More sawmills meant more wood could be shaped and cut and brick makers paid by the brick went into overdrive. Classical style dominated, radically altering the nature of building design.
  8. 17th Science started to have an impact on construction from the 17th century onwards. Glass manufacturing was a major breakthrough during this time and iron engineering was also frequently used by the likes of Sir Christopher Wren.
  9. 18th century. It was in this century that architects and engineers first became professionals, providing the foundation of a key part of the industry today. A decrease in the cost of iron production allowed for impressive structures to be created, such as The Louvre, which had a wrought iron roof.
  10. 19th As the Industrial Revolution dawned, construction was kicked up a gear, both by new methods of transport such as rail and canal that allowed materials to be transported far and wide, and innovations in tools, such as the development of the circular saw. Steel was mass-produced for the first time, plumbing became a common feature of buildings and building codes were invented to cover issues such as fire safety.
  11. 20th A second Industrial Revolution sent construction up towards the heavens as cranes, lifts and new building techniques made skyscrapers possible. Power tools and machines made construction more efficient – and humans less essential to the process.
  12. 21st century. Today, the construction sector benefits from all the science, innovation and creativity that has gone before. Building techniques are more effective, materials are stronger, lighter and more durable, and more efficient tools have reduced construction times and the size of workforces. Sustainable and ecological construction is more of a priority than at any time over the past century and cutting edge aesthetics have enabled crossover between architecture, construction and art.

Key innovations in construction architecture: woodworking, cement and machines

There are many different elements that have contributed to the development of the construction sector over the years but three key innovations were particularly momentous.

1. The impact of wood working on the construction industry as we know it today

Wood has traditionally been one of the most widely available materials for construction. It was one of the earliest options and Neolithic builders, for example, preferred it as a building material of choice. It was the most versatile option around at the time and used for everything, from homes to bridges. Wooden logs placed across a stream during The New Stone Age were thought to be the earliest examples of bridge construction – later to be replaced by timber trackways. With the arrival of the Copper Age and the Bronze Age, tools were developed to give builders the opportunity to transform wood, as opposed to simply working with it in its natural form. And it was from this moment that wood really began to make a difference.

  • As a mode of transport construction. Some of the first wheels were made from wood and the earliest options for transporting heavy loads involved wooden rollers.
  • As a basic construction tool. Even in its most basic form – as a log or a trunk – wood changed the options for innovative builders who could see its usefulness. For example, wood was crucial to the construction of the pyramids. According to an account of pyramid construction by Herodotus in the 5th century BC, “This pyramid was made like stairs, which some call steps and others, tiers. When this, its first form, was completed, the workmen used short wooden logs as levers to raise the rest of the stones.”
  • As a basic construction material. Almost everywhere, construction started out with wood at its heart. For example, all the early ancient Greek temples were made of wood and it was also a crucial component for those building the Great Wall of China. Wood was used not only as a material in the wall itself but also to build the forts along it – post and lintel construction was the most widely employed method of woodworking when the famous wall was being built.
  • In advancing the construction of the most famous ancient civilisations. The Romans were some of the most innovative constructors and loved working with wood – they even invented the sawmill so that they could use it more innovatively and more widely. The Romans also used wood to create some of the earliest construction machines, such as the construction cranes that were essential in creating Roman buildings and roads.
  • As a roofing essential. Even though brick and stone became the more regular choice for buildings as the centuries progressed, timber was one of the most popular options for building frames right up until the first Industrial Revolution. Many still prefer it was a roofing material today.
  • As a more sustainable option. Wood was one of the earliest construction materials available and its use ensured that early buildings didn’t leave an ugly mark on surrounding landscapes when they were no longer required. Today, wood continues to demonstrate its versatility at the heart of the sustainable building revolution and in providing materials to build cheaper and more eco friendly housing options. It also remains popular as a choice for building frames, regardless of the more high tech innovations and options that are now available.

2. The impact of cement and concrete on the modern construction sector

Although the Romans are often credited with the invention of what would later become cement, the Egyptians may also have had their own version. Whoever first began creating and using concrete and cement was responsible for changing the way that the construction sector was able to respond to the challenges of living and the much greater need for different types of construction.

  • Concrete brought strength into construction. Over the centuries, construction with rock and stone has proven to be durable – but to work with it was especially difficult when there were few effective tools to use. With the invention of concrete a new material was available, one that brought almost unprecedented strength to construction, changing the range of options available and minimising risks, such as that of fire when using wood.
  • A much more versatile option. Prior to the invention of concrete and cement, construction was very much limited to what could be done by shaping existing materials, such as trees or stone blocks. Cement and concrete gave builders, engineers and architects more power to create from scratch thanks to the versatility of concrete and the way it could easily be manipulated to suit building design. The Romans, for example, used concrete extensively in buildings, not just for walls but also for arches, barrel vaults and domes.
  • Bringing down the cost of construction. Concrete made it easier to reduce the costs associated with all types of construction. For example, the famous Roman concrete was made from rubble and mortar, making it incredibly low cost to source. With cheaper building materials, the price of building reduced, making it possible to build more with fewer resources. It also gave flight to new ambitions to create buildings on a larger and more impressive scale.
  • An easy option for every skill set. The Romans were some of the first to discover the labour advantages of a substance like concrete, which could be handled by workers with very basic training. Instead of stonemasons or master wood workers, who were often unavailable and charged high fees, buildings could now be constructed by those who were less skilled. This helped to drive a vast increase in the volume of construction and meant that concrete was very widely used.
  • A new level of durability. Roman concrete buildings proved just how durable this newly invented material really was but it was when the Industrial Revolution first arrived that concrete durability reached new heights. Reinforced concrete was an evolution in the lifecycle of concrete whereby reinforcement, usually in the form of steel reinforcing bars, was embedded in concrete before it had set. This significantly strengthened concrete as a substance, regardless of corrosion or sustained stress. Reinforced concrete also has a high toleration of tensile strain and that, combined with its incredible strength, meant that architects and designers could do more and push creative boundaries further. The innovative design of the Philips Pavilion in Brussels used reinforced concrete, for example.

3. Machine and power tools and their impact on construction projects

Two of the main obstacles that construction projects often face are: budget constraints and timing issues. These problems have existed since construction first began and overcoming them has been crucial to the evolution of the delivery of construction projects. Machine and power tools have been crucial in moving the industry past long, slow completion timelines and large and expensive workforces, providing an alternative that has made more construction possible.

Why did machine and power tools change construction project delivery?

  • Power tools could double up on effort. Machines and power tools are incredibly efficient, much more so than humans with manual tools. So, the use of machine and power tools enabled significant reduction in construction project timescales, making more construction possible at a cheaper rate.
  • Overinflated workforces could be reduced. More tools mean less workers, which results in lower costs and a more efficient industry. Integrating power tools and machines into a project could significantly reduce the amount of human effort required to get to completion, lowering the numbers involved.
  • Health and safety standards were higher. Paradoxically, as the risks of more serious injury increased with the use of power tools and machines, so did the awareness of the need for health and safety. Although it took a while for some to catch up, as the potential for accidents and injuries became more obvious and more widespread, health and safety on site also became a priority.
  • Construction could be more ambitious. Machines and power tools are much more effective than manual labour, enabling more ambitious construction with more challenging materials to be realised. For example, with power tools, larger screws can be driven into tougher materials.
  • Building became more effective. Before the use of machines and power tools, disruption from construction could be significant and sustained. These new machines enabled projects to be streamlined and delivered to much shorter timetables with less impact on the surrounding environment and people.

How did machines and power tools comes about?

Although early example of a power-type tool exist (such as the lathe) these were hand powered and it wasn’t until the early Industrial Revolution that the origins of the machines and power tools we would recognise today began to appear. The earliest of these found their power source in water or steam, which often meant that they were completely stationary and tied to whatever was driving them. Portable power tools were only made possible with the arrival of electricity and the electric motor. After that point, instead of a water wheel or a steam engine to power machines and tools, an electric motor could do the work instead. The first power tool was invented in 1865 when a German engineering company – C&E Fein – had the brainwave of combining a manual drill and an electric motor.

Innovation in the construction sector has taken many forms over the years. From the early wood workers through to the German inventors of the first ever power tool, there are many different people and practices that have contributed to making construction what it is today.

At RG Group we are always looking at ways to make construction projects more successful and streamlined – contact us to find out more.

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