Ancient Building Secrets: Sometimes, the answers to our quest for a stronger future are hidden in the past. Scientists and builders are amazed by the durability of old buildings. Modern buildings typically have a lifespan of 50 to 100 years, which is unfortunate. These Roman, Mayan, and Chinese architectural wonders have endured for millennia.
Academics study how ancient materials endure over time and if we can apply their secrets to enhance modern building materials. This “reverse engineering” method has led to findings of unusual substances used in old building materials. Some old recipes include unlikely ingredients like tree bark, volcanic ash, rice, beer, and even pee. However, they work.
One reason for this study is the need for eco-friendly building methods. Approximately 1/3 of global CO2 emissions come from buildings, with cement production accounting for around 7%. As the world addresses climate change risks, there is a need for durable and eco-friendly building materials.
Researchers have been influenced by the Romans, who used concrete around 200 BCE. These structures still stand today. The concrete was made from burned limestone, volcanic sand, gravel, and water. In many ways, it looked like concrete. The Romans’ knowledge of self-healing materials set them apart. Although we don’t fully understand the self-healing process, it relies on lime particles dispersed within the material. Water could enter holes and activate lime pockets, initiating chemical processes that repair the damage.
Another idea suggests that the Romans’ use of volcanic materials enhanced the durability of their concrete. The volcanic rocks sealed fissures formed by eruptions. Researchers are amazed by the long-lasting nature of Roman concrete.
The Mayans of Honduras are an interesting case study, too. Their lime buildings and sculptures have endured in a hot, humid climate for over a millennium. Researchers found that adding extracts from chukum and jiote trees to the lime mix may extend their lifespan. When the tree “juice” was added to the clay, it strengthened it against physical and chemical damage. Living bits in tree juice altered plaster molecules, granting seashell and sea urchin spine strength.
Studies have found that natural materials like fruit extracts, milk, cheese curd, beer, dung, and urine were used in old building projects. Some improvements may have occurred accidentally, while others were intentionally chosen to enhance specific properties based on location and construction.
Indian builders adapted building materials to combat moisture in humid regions, shield against salt damage along the coast, and minimize earthquake risks through innovative techniques such as using “floating bricks” made from rice husks.
Despite being unable to replicate the old recipes, modern builders seek to utilize the distinct characteristics of these ancient building materials. Scientists are developing “self-healing” concrete resembling Roman buildings. Scientists are collaborating with the Army Corps of Engineers to create concrete structures that resist seawater damage and safeguard against rising sea levels, similar to Roman ports.
The goal is to extend the lifespan of modern materials, not match the longevity of ancient structures. This could reduce the need to demolish, repair, and construct buildings. This would be a safer and more eco-friendly way to build our future. As we uncover ancestors’ information, we discover ways to improve our world.