Centuries of “Concrete”-Solid Discoveries of the Humankind: From Building the Roman Empire Towards Contemporary Buildings MIND(s that filled) THE GAP(s) [X]
Have you ever questioned what lies at the basis of the so-called highly-developed cities, at the foundation of the tallest buildings worldwide or how the infrastructure came to life? The answer is directed towards… concrete. It built the modern world step by step. The rock-solid history of the material we all know today was embodied in mystery since it is not known where it started or who exactly came up with the brilliant idea behind it. Various empires presided over an immense contribution towards finding the perfect recipe for building the concrete structures which remain a complex enigma for the architects or engineers today. The grey building slabs are considered to be a source of inspiration for many of the bricklayers in history that contributed with numerous attempts to discover the utopian recipes that the Romans for the specific built landscapes that characterized their empire. Currently, almost everything around us that is “tangible” and “real”, from the sidewalks to the bridges, are reliant on concrete. But very few of us acknowledge that. We might take it for granted, but this mixture comprises much of the constructed environment of modern civilization.
From cement to… the leading-edge concrete
It is important to remember that cement can be easily confused with concrete – the former is an important ingredient in the latter. Mixing clay and limestone resulted in cement. Irrespective of the emergence of cement as an indispensable component, it has to be further combined with gravel, water and sand for the concrete to be made.
First and foremost, limestone is considered to be the earliest known component of a structure, identified 12.000 years ago in GöbekliTepe Temple. The transition of mankind to sedentarism is not only characterized by the shift from nomadic pastoralism to agriculture, but also by a desire to build upwards in permanent settlements. Interestingly enough, the various civilizations never stopped looking for the ideal building material.
Archaeologists state that there are examples of processed building materials before the Roman Empire’s use of concrete. For instance, the building blocks of the pyramids were shaped in a mould that is similar to the ones used today. When it comes to the advancements brought by the Greek civilization, the use of an artificial material for building is mentioned in the time of Minoans on Crete. Clay and “pozzolana” volcanic ash were used in the mixture. The volcanic ash is dated from 79 AD when the Vesuvius erupted in the Roman city, Pompei. The same ash contributed to the creation of the Roman concrete, considered one of the greatest inventions of the mankind and one of the most durable innovations that could not be fully replicated.
The breakthrough eventually led to the apogee of Roman projects
There is little to no doubt that there is a strong correlation between concrete and Rome as the very term “concrete” comes from Latin, namely “concretus”, that is symbolized by the phrase “to grow together”. Ancient Romans came up with a brilliant idea to develop cement by mixing water, limestone, pozzolana volcanic ash, sand and rocks. It was used for both common projects and for the most outstanding Roman projects, such as domes, arches vaults and roads. The Great Fire of Rome in the year 64 AD spared the concrete buildings and infrastructure while laying waste to ten districts of the city.
What might have been the best way to test its full resilience capacity than by building a port at the Mediterranean Sea? One of the characteristics that makes the Roman material so monumental is its strength and ability of enduring the challenges of nature, from earthquakes to intense flooding. In the year 23 BC, King Herod of Judea had an aspiration to improve the economy. Concrete was put to the test in the construction of a harbour. 2,000 years later, the port is considered to be the second largest ancient one after the one of Alexandria and is still largely undamaged.
In the shadow of the “ruins” left-standing
Advancing in time, Emperor Vespasian poured his ambition into building the world’s largest theatre, the so-called Colosseum, built 1,940 years ago. It is the perfect proof of the building material’s endurance, considered an outstanding testament to the Empire’s might.
There are other examples as well. While other masterpieces crumbled, the Pantheon’s structure remains untouched by the relentless passage of time. After more than 1800 years, the magnum opus remains sturdier than ever.
The secrets of manufacturing concrete vanished over a millennium ago once the Western Empire fell (476 AD) and took the concrete recipe with it into history.
The only surviving text from that time remained the “Vitruvius on Architecture” that was deciphered by Giovanni Giocondo. The strongly-desired material was rediscovered in the Renaissance period. Giocondo conceptualised the initial attempt of the Pont Notre-Dame bridge, a construction that was demolished 250 years after its completion.
Going for the extra mile
Over the years, people wanted to build roads, buildings and they needed good materials that would last over a long period of time. The discovery of the concrete recipe by the Romans was a first step towards what would make people’s work easier. That initial recipe is now lost.
In the 18th century, John Smeaton, an engineer responsible for the design of bridges and lighthouses, rediscovered how to prepare cement in general. The Industrial Revolution followed, with a growing need for infrastructure and an ambition for scale. In Britain, especially, there was an urgent need to build lighthouses to guide in the ever-growing number of ships facilitating international trade. It was Smeaton’s chance to lay the foundation for the strongest one worldwide.
The engineer utilized new methods to defeat the issues of placement and stormy climate, so he investigated how to make an efficient mortar that could resist the sea and how to build up a type of quick-drying concrete. John Smeaton did not have the chance profit and revel in the impact of his innovation, passing away in October 1792.
Remarkable historical episodes
Going further, in the next century, Joseph Aspdin invented what is called “Portland cement” by burning finely ground clay and limestone. It is said that he was not the true inventor of cement, because it was not produced at a sufficiently high temperature to ensure this material’s full reliability, but his son, William, discovered a mix which was better than the rest and twice as strong as “Roman cement”.
Unfortunately, William was not able to make a profit from such a good invention, because he did not find the right investors. In the third factory, with investment money secured, he embezzled money by buying an equipment at a much cheaper price and keeping the rest for himself. He was caught and fired, but he invested in another factory, the fourth, which was his last failed attempt. Many people tried to find his recipe during this time, but William confused them by presenting a fake process of mixing different chemicals.
Thomas Alva Edison is another key contributor to the concrete’s success. He is known by most people for the development of the long-lasting light bulb, but he started the first cement business, Edison Portland Cement Company, in Stewartsville, New Jersey. He used the fine sand particles which were a waste by-product of his ore milling company, for building material. Edison thought that concrete production would be profitable, having a wide range of applications, but, at the beginning of the 20th century, its production was still limited. It has grown by leaps and bounds since then, but never to the extent he imagined, as he pictured a future with concrete houses, concrete pianos, concrete furniture and even refrigerators.
Edison made a plan for the construction of concrete houses, which he chose to donate to eligible manufacturers instead of asking for money in return, creating publicity simultaneously. Consequently, philanthropist Henry Phipps Jr. saw these houses as the answer for New York’s housing shortage and he invested $1 million into this project. Phipps wanted to build a whole city, using the concrete casting method, for humble families, but Edison could not support such a challenging project.
The company had another chance when it signed an important contract for the construction of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York. It was built in 1922 and renovated in 1973, the walls being left untouched because the concrete of Edison has stood the test of time. This stadium was the most important project for Edison Portland Cement Company, which went bankrupt during the Great Depression.
The light at the end of the… construction
Concrete is a key input in construction today, being the most widely used material in the world. Four billion tonnes of cement are produced every year, mostly to be used in concrete. At the same time, when producing cement, there are CO2 emissions which are a large proportion of the world’s emissions, about 8% according to Chatham House.
The production of cement is still increasing, being indispensable in developing markets. China is the key driver of this market in the latest years, but as urbanization is constantly growing in countries like Indonesia and India, the demand for cement will boost globally. Some people estimate a rise in demand of three or four times by 2050, mostly coming from developing countries in Asia.
Old buildings must be replaced and new infrastructure is required when thinking about extending access to energy and clean water. By 2030, $90 trillion will be invested in infrastructure, according to the The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, and more than a half of it will go to the underdeveloped nations.
Today, in the production of concrete, Portland cement is the most used, because it is cheap, easy to use, versatile and accessible in terms of raw materials.
As indicated by some sources, concrete is the second most utilized substance in the world after water, 10 billion tons of it being used every year.
During this rapid growth period, activists representing the industry attempted to hide that the new concrete had certain weaknesses. It is presently thought that advanced concrete, in contrast to its Roman antecedent, slowly breaks down over the years, in addition to its climate impact.
Afterthought for the reader
The history behind this revolutionary material gets to the core idea of how things can change in a split second and how you should not give up on the search for the recipe for “success”. We often overlook revolutionary changes and look on them as almost predestined to have occurred. It took our ancestors centuries of incremental improvements, punctuated by paradigm-shifting advances, to get to where we are. We may look forward to bigger cities, avant-garde infrastructure, exquisite buildings and other developments to support our societies. But there are consequences to this build environment that must be taken seriously, because they are, often, permanent.
As a kind advice for the reader, we offer an invitation towards a change of perspective after leaving behind the quarantine and resuming our personal drives and ambitions: “Your dreams are like the cement. If you water it with actions, it becomes a hard-concrete mass. But if you leave it exposed, the air will easily spread it away!” (Israelmore Ayivor).
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