History Lessons

When it comes to staying power, modern building materials are sorely lacking.  There are a number of reasons for this:  high labor cost, low labor skill, cheaper products designed mainly for quick and easy to install, short-term focuses of developers, value engineering, lazy architects, a cultural fixation on the new and a simultaneous acceptance in disposing rather than fixing, etc… basically, we are not thinking long-term. However, for those who tire of assuming new buildings will be dead and gone before they are, there have been some real efforts in searching the past for a philosopher’s stone to build with.

The first is the ongoing research of MIT’s building materials lab into Rafael Guastavino Sr., a master architectural craftsman whose structural tile material system is holding up many of the most important buildings built in America during the early 1900s America, including Grand Central Terminal, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Boston Public Library, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Nebraska State Capitol.  A Spanish immigrant, he devised a system of building that formed thin clay tiles into vaults. The tiles interlock in herringbone type patterns, and several layers stack to become a few inches thick.  Immensely strong, light weight, fireproof, decorative and relatively economical, it was widely used until the technology became lost.  I think the push of Modern design away from historically influenced styles didn’t do much to prevent this loss, at which point cultural momentum took over. Personally, despite the slight  Medieval feel of the vaulting, I think the tiles are an excellent example of form and function in harmony.  But it was neither glass nor metal or clearly new technology, so I doubt Mies and Corb approved.  Luckily, history swung back like a pendulum, and now we get to love historic buildings that are super strong yet decorative again.

I first learned about Gustavino’s system  in a Structures class at Northeastern taught by Peter Wiederspan (who also introduced me to Carlos Scarpa; another story entirely).  It caught my interest, although his name stuck in my head as “Gustaveli”. Boston is a rich source of reminders though, starting with the Boston Public Library.  Later, while in co-op at NU’s Space Planning and Design, I got to explore a building that had just been acquired in a long-term lease called, 140 The Fenway.  Two wealthy dentists with a passion for children’s dentistry commissioned the older half of the building, as the home for the Forsyth Institute in 1910. Recently they relocated to Cambridge, and the Museum of Fine Arts acquired the building, but then leased it to NU as a new lab building. Gustavino vaulting is used throughout the building lower levels as the main structural support. Detailed mosaics of children’s fairy tales round out the use of tiles. It’s worth walking past at night when the lights are on to view the walls. More recently I was in the Brookline High School Unified Arts Building for my woodworking class, and was incredibly excited to see that it has structural tile vaulting (and really pretty stairs).  I don’t know much about its history yet, but it’s on my to-do list.  The images I took there are below.

Recently there has been a surge of interest, culminating in the exhibition Palaces For The People: Gustavino and America’s Great Public Spaces, which was first at the Boston Public Library and is now at the National Building Museum in DC.  The research at MIT has progressed to the point where they can actually build a model of it and stand a bunch of people on top of it.  Hopefully we can find ways to start training people in the technique and open a new world of building materials options.

The second historical mystery scientist and engineers have cracked is Roman Concrete.  This might sound ridiculous; we have concrete and cement everywhere.  But consider, how likely is it that any of our concrete buildings could last several millennia? Unless you make it more than half steel by using rebar, and even then the average longevity is only 100 years. And when it comes to building in the ocean, we are even further behind.  How can Roman era harbors still be surviving when we can barely keep the water out of New Orleans?  The Romans were masters of engineering, that’s how. Plus they had a large and active volcano.

We’ve known generally what the Roman’s made their concrete from and how, but the exact chemical mixture had never been duplicated.  That is what scientists Berkley Lab have successfully decoded. There are a few major differences.  Portland cement is held together by a compound of calcium, silicates, and hydrates, while the Roman recipe replaces aluminum for some of the silicon.  This addition of aluminum leads to the second difference, which is that the C-S-A-H amalgam forms a strong crystalline lattice.  Theoretically, Portland Cement’s C-S-H compound should do this, but it doesn’t actually form this ideal structure. Finally, the scientists found a number of other minerals (not listed in the article) that provide benefits.  This last is sort of vaguely explained, but the article suggests that “ …the minerals’ potential applications for high-performance concretes, including the encapsulation of hazardous wastes.”  So I’m assuming it’s because someone is hoping to make a ton of money off it soon.  I hope they do, and that it goes into mass production.

Taken from http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2013/06/04/roman-concrete/

Drill core of volcanic ash-hydrated lime mortar from the ancient port of Baiae in Pozzuloi Bay. Yellowish inclusions are pumice, dark stony fragments are lava, gray areas consist of other volcanic crystalline materials, and white spots are lime. Inset is a scanning electron microscope image of the special Al-tobermorite crystals that are key to the superior quality of Roman seawater concrete. Source: http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2013/06/04/roman-concrete/

With these improvements, the mixed success of more environmentally friendly versions of concrete could be reversed.  The addition of aluminum-rich pozzolan ash will make it stronger. It has sources worldwide, thus reducing the need to source the environmentally expensive Portland cement to areas where it is scarce. The ancient version also uses less lime, and a 66% or greater reduction in the temperature needed for production, which means less fuel consumed in the process and a corresponding decrease in carbon emissions.  All this is a huge reduction in the embodied energy* of concrete, with an real improvement on the quality.

I imagine a future of cities with soaring domes and vaulting, that are tall and sustainable and last nearly forever.  So basically the future looks a lot like Rome to me.  But with hovercars and stuff.

*A calculation of the energy used in the life of a building material.  It’s sort of a pseudo-science right now, and is another excellent example of why architects should not do math.  The theory is sound enough.


1. http://www.nbm.org/exhibitions-collections/exhibitions/palaces-for-the-people.html

2. http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2013/06/04/roman-concrete/

3. http://gizmodo.com/scientists-have-found-the-ancient-secret-of-indestructi-513592527

4. Paying attention in class


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