Building for the future with lessons from the past

Posted on 04 Dec 2018 and read 345 times
Building for the future with lessons from the pastIt’s a sad fact of life that, in time, structure and buildings collapse.

Even the most grand and revered structures have fallen to natural disasters of human destruction — of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, five have been lost to the world.

Earthquakes shook and crumbled the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

Fire destroyed the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, and the Temple of Artemis was destroyed and rebuilt up until its final ruin in 401 AD.

The sixth Wonder has either fallen to time or never existed at all to start with, with the question surrounding the Hanging Gardens of Babylon still very much in the air today.

That leaves only one structure left standing; the oldest and the sole survivor of the Seven Wonders, the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Though we have lost the other Wonders and their potential lessons and wisdom along with them, we can still learn so much from the pyramids, and indeed, have done so.

We have advanced in leaps and bounds in engineering and construction, with an array of tools and software at our fingertips, such as structure design software.

What have we learnt from the past to help pave the way to the future?

Modern tools with an ancient origin

There has been many theories surrounding the Ancient Egyptians and their use of lathes. We’ve come a long way from their lathe that required two people to operate — now, we use the trusty CNC lathes to carry out myriad tasks such as facing, threading, drilling, and taper turning.

It is claimed that our ancient predecessors used their lathes for carving and cutting wood, but there’s some who wonder if they also used lathes for carving stonework.

Surveying tools that would find their place still in the modern day were also relied upon.

Artefacts have shown the use of a plumb level, also known as a plumb bob, in Ancient Egypt.

A plumb bob is a simple, yet effective tool made from a pointed weight suspended by a cord, and these tools supported the engineers in their staggeringly accurate achievements in levelling and degree-accurate positioning of the pyramids.

Plumb bobs allow for measuring an accurate vertical line for surveying and building, but some suggest the Egyptians used plumb bobs for a lot more; alongside sighting and levelling tools, they used plumb bobs to aid with astronomy and navigation too.

Their accuracy is still relied upon today; for example, plumb bobs are used to make sure Salisbury Cathedral is not beginning to lean.

Crafting walls

The walls of the pyramids contain materials we still use today, and for good reason. For instance, the slow-setting gypsum mortar was used to lubricate, move, and set the stones in place.

Gypsum mortar, made from plaster and sand is still relied on today to create structures in drier parts of the world.

Of course, the stones need to be moved before they can be set. The question of how the workers managed to haul the huge stones required to create the pyramids has tantalised historians for years.

Some theories posit that the expert canal-crafters manipulated the River Nile, redirecting it so that stones could be ferried over the water closer to the construction site.

Once there, many point towards the invention of ramps and levers to help manoeuvre stones into place, just as we do today. Have we been unknowingly continuing on a tried-and-tested practice in construction that dates back to the time of the pharaohs?

The ramp-theory was questioned by Peter James in his interview with the BBC on the pyramids.

Another practice had instead been adopted by builders from that age.

James claims the pyramids are too tall and would make ramps too steep to move stone.

He theorises that, just as construction workers would build a stone wall today, the Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids from the inside and worked outwards.

Continuing lessons

Have we learnt everything there is to know from the pyramids in terms of construction and engineering?
Design Intelligence suggests we can still learn from the architects of the past.

In particular, they outline the need for modern structures to follow the path of the Great Pyramid of Giza and start to focus more on longevity as a means to practice true sustainability.

With a lifespan of thousands of years, the pyramids have lost comparatively little in the grand scheme of things.

Though they no longer have their hand-polished white limestone outer façade, the material having long since been stripped away for other work or dissolved to expose the inner material seen today, the structure has remained relatively intact. And they have done so with very little maintenance.

Through a combination of aligned expectations, a low centre of gravity, and environmental factor awareness, the longevity of the pyramids has been secured.

Where some structures rely on the future promise of maintenance in the event of environmental or external factors impacting the structure to stay standing, the pyramids did quite the opposite — they were built to last. Design Intelligence also notes a key factor in this robust quality of the pyramids.

The materials used in its construction were cut before they arrived at the site; the site was a place of assembly, and not a place of cutting materials.

This meant improvements to speed as well as quality, and everyone could focus on one job each, rather than multiple tasks.

What if we built with a view for the structures to serve well after we’re gone?

Simply put, if we “pay” a certain amount of carbon emissions each time we build a structure, we can lower the overall carbon impact of creating a building by having it last and be repurposed for hundreds or thousands of years — instead of paying that carbon cost multiple times to replace the structure over the years.

The pyramids are often presented as a mystery, but in truth, we can and have learnt so much from an engineering and construction perspective.

The Ancient Egyptians developed incredible engineering and construction feats over centuries that arguable outdo our own creations today in terms of strength.

Instead of looking to the future to innovate the construction industry, perhaps we should look to history.


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