Building material facts

Building material is any material which is used for a construction purpose. Many naturally occurring substances, such as clay, sand, wood and rocks, even twigs and leaves have been used to construct buildings. Apart from naturally occurring materials, many man-made products are in use, some more and some less synthetic.

Bricks are man-made, and so is plaster, concrete, stucco and many other materials. However, they are usually made out of natural materials, bricks being a good example. They is based on clay. Steel is based on natural types of iron.

One example of a man-made imitation is scagliola, which can imitate more expensive natural materials such as marble.

Naturally occurring substances

Brush

View of a group of Mohaves in a brush hut, one man very emaciated, entitled, by Wittick, Ben, 1845-1903
A group of Mohaves in a brush hut

Brush structures are built entirely from plant parts and were used in primitive cultures such as Native Americans, pygmy peoples in Africa These are built mostly with branches, twigs and leaves, and bark, similar to a beaver's lodge. These were variously named wikiups, lean-tos, and so forth.

An extension on the brush building idea is the wattle and daub process in which clay soils or dung, usually cow, are used to fill in and cover a woven brush structure. This gives the structure more thermal mass and strength. Wattle and daub is one of the oldest building techniques. Many older timber frame buildings incorporate wattle and daub as non load bearing walls between the timber frames.

Ice and snow

Snow and occasionally ice, were used by the Inuit peoples for igloos and snow is used to build a shelter called a quinzhee. Ice has also been used for ice hotels as a tourist attraction in northern climates.

Mud and clay

SkogarMuseumOutside
Sod buildings in Iceland

Clay based buildings usually come in two distinct types. One being when the walls are made directly with the mud mixture, and the other being walls built by stacking air-dried building blocks called mud bricks.

Other uses of clay in building is combined with straws to create light clay, wattle and daub, and mud plaster.

Wet-laid clay walls

Wet-laid, or damp, walls are made by using the mud or clay mixture directly without forming blocks and drying them first. The amount of and type of each material in the mixture used leads to different styles of buildings. The deciding factor is usually connected with the quality of the soil being used. Larger amounts of clay are usually employed in building with cob, while low-clay soil is usually associated with sod house or sod roof construction. The other main ingredients include more or less sand/gravel and straw/grasses. Rammed earth is both an old and newer take on creating walls, once made by compacting clay soils between planks by hand; nowadays forms and mechanical pneumatic compressors are used.

Soil, and especially clay, provides good thermal mass; it is very good at keeping temperatures at a constant level. Homes built with earth tend to be naturally cool in the summer heat and warm in cold weather. Clay holds heat or cold, releasing it over a period of time like stone. Earthen walls change temperature slowly, so artificially raising or lowering the temperature can use more resources than in say a wood built house, but the heat/coolness stays longer.

People building with mostly dirt and clay, such as cob, sod, and adobe, created homes that have been built for centuries in western and northern Europe, Asia, as well as the rest of the world, and continue to be built, though on a smaller scale. Some of these buildings have remained habitable for hundreds of years.

Structural clay blocks and bricks

Mud-bricks, also known by their Spanish name adobe are ancient building materials with evidence dating back thousands of years BC. Compressed earth blocks are a more modern type of brick used for building more frequently in industrialized society since the building blocks can be manufactured off site in a centralized location at a brickworks and transported to multiple building locations. These blocks can also be monetized more easily and sold.

Structural mud bricks are almost always made using clay, often clay soil and a binder are the only ingredients used, but other ingredients can include sand, lime, concrete, stone and other binders. The formed or compressed block is then air dried and can be laid dry or with a mortar or clay slip.

Sand

Sand is used with cement, and sometimes lime, to make mortar for masonry work and plaster. Sand is also used as a part of the concrete mix. An important low-cost building material in countries with high sand content soils is the Sandcrete block, which is weaker but cheaper than fired clay bricks.

Stone or rock

Rock structures have existed for as long as history can recall. It is the longest lasting building material available, and is usually readily available. There are many types of rock throughout the world, all with differing attributes that make them better or worse for particular uses. Rock is a very dense material so it gives a lot of protection too; its main drawback as a material is its weight and awkwardness. Its energy density is also considered a big drawback, as stone is hard to keep warm without using large amounts of heating resources.

Dry-stone walls have been built for as long as humans have put one stone on top of another. Eventually, different forms of mortar were used to hold the stones together, cement being the most commonplace now.

The granite-strewn uplands of Dartmoor National Park, United Kingdom, for example, provided ample resources for early settlers. Circular huts were constructed from loose granite rocks throughout the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, and the remains of an estimated 5,000 can still be seen today. Granite continued to be used throughout the Medieval period (see Dartmoor longhouse) and into modern times. Slate is another stone type, commonly used as roofing material in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world where it is found.

Stone buildings can be seen in most major cities; some civilizations built entirely with stone such as the Egyptian and Aztec pyramids and the structures of the Inca civilization.

Thatch

Toda Hut
Toda tribe hut

Thatch is one of the oldest of building materials known; grass is a good insulator and easily harvested. Many African tribes have lived in homes made completely of grasses and sand year-round. In Europe, thatch roofs on homes were once prevalent but the material fell out of favor as industrialization and improved transport increased the availability of other materials. Today, though, the practice is undergoing a revival. In the Netherlands, for instance, many new buildings have thatched roofs with special ridge tiles on top.

Wood and timber

Wood-framed house
A wood-framed house under construction in Texas, United States
Gliwice-radiostacja
The Gliwice Radio Tower (the second tallest wooden structure in the world) in Poland (2012).

Wood has been used as a building material for thousands of years in its natural state. Today, engineered wood is becoming very common in industrialized countries.

Wood is a product of trees, and sometimes other fibrous plants, used for construction purposes when cut or pressed into lumber and timber, such as boards, planks and similar materials. It is a generic building material and is used in building just about any type of structure in most climates. Wood can be very flexible under loads, keeping strength while bending, and is incredibly strong when compressed vertically. There are many differing qualities to the different types of wood, even among same tree species. This means specific species are better suited for various uses than others. And growing conditions are important for deciding quality.

"Timber" is the term used for construction purposes except the term "lumber" is used in the United States. Raw wood (a log, trunk, bole) becomes timber when the wood has been "converted" (sawn, hewn, split) in the forms of minimally-processed logs stacked on top of each other, timber frame construction, and light-frame construction. The main problems with timber structures are fire risk and moisture-related problems.

In modern times softwood is used as a lower-value bulk material, whereas hardwood is usually used for finishings and furniture. Historically timber frame structures were built with oak in western Europe, recently douglas fir has become the most popular wood for most types of structural building.

Many families or communities, in rural areas, have a personal woodlot from which the family or community will grow and harvest trees to build with or sell. These lots are tended to like a garden. This was much more prevalent in pre-industrial times, when laws existed as to the amount of wood one could cut at any one time to ensure there would be a supply of timber for the future, but is still a viable form of agriculture.

Man-made substances

Fired bricks and clay blocks

Stapel bakstenen - Pile of bricks 2005 Fruggo
A pile of fired bricks.
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Clay blocks (sometimes called clay block brick) being laid with an adhesive rather than mortar

Bricks are made in a similar way to mud-bricks except without the fibrous binder such as straw and are fired ("burned" in a brick clamp or kiln) after they have air-dried to permanently harden them. Kiln fired clay bricks are a ceramic material. Fired bricks can be solid or have hollow cavities to aid in drying and make them lighter and easier to transport. The individual bricks are placed upon each other in courses using mortar. Successive courses being used to build up walls, arches, and other architectural elements. Fired brick walls are usually substantially thinner than cob/adobe while keeping the same vertical strength. They require more energy to create but are easier to transport and store, and are lighter than stone blocks. Romans extensively used fired brick of a shape and type now called Roman bricks. Building with brick gained much popularity in the mid-18th century and 19th centuries. This was due to lower costs with increases in brick manufacturing and fire-safety in the ever crowding cities.

The cinder block supplemented or replaced fired bricks in the late 20th century often being used for the inner parts of masonry walls and by themselves.

Structural clay tiles (clay blocks) are clay or terracotta and typically are perforated with holes.

Cement composites

Cement bonded composites are made of hydrated cement paste that binds wood, particles, or fibers to make pre-cast building components. Various fiberous materials, including paper, fiberglass, and carbon-fiber have been used as binders.

Wood and natural fibers are composed of various soluble organic compounds like carbohydrates, glycosides and phenolics. These compounds are known to retard cement setting. Therefore, before using a wood in making cement bonded composites, its compatibility with cement is assessed.

Wood-cement compatibility is the ratio of a parameter related to the property of a wood-cement composite to that of a neat cement paste. The compatibility is often expressed as a percentage value. To determine wood-cement compatibility, methods based on different properties are used, such as, hydration characteristics, strength, interfacial bond and morphology. Various methods are used by researchers such as the measurement of hydration characteristics of a cement-aggregate mix; the comparison of the mechanical properties of cement-aggregate mixes and the visual assessment of microstructural properties of the wood-cement mixes. It has been found that the hydration test by measuring the change in hydration temperature with time is the most convenient method. Recently, Karade et al. have reviewed these methods of compatibility assessment and suggested a method based on the ‘maturity concept’ i.e. taking in consideration both time and temperature of cement hydration reaction.

Bricks were laid in lime mortar from the time of the Romans until supplanted by Portland cement mortar in the early 20th century. Cement blocks also sometimes are filled with grout or covered with a parge coat.

Concrete

FalkirkWheelSide 2004 SeanMcClean
Falkirk Wheel

Concrete is a composite building material made from the combination of aggregate and a binder such as cement. The most common form of concrete is Portland cement concrete, which consists of mineral aggregate (generally gravel and sand), portland cement and water.

After mixing, the cement hydrates and eventually hardens into a stone-like material. When used in the generic sense, this is the material referred to by the term "concrete".

For a concrete construction of any size, as concrete has a rather low tensile strength, it is generally strengthened using steel rods or bars (known as rebars). This strengthened concrete is then referred to as reinforced concrete. In order to minimise any air bubbles, that would weaken the structure, a vibrator is used to eliminate any air that has been entrained when the liquid concrete mix is poured around the ironwork. Concrete has been the predominant building material in the modern age due to its longevity, formability, and ease of transport. Recent advancements, such as insulating concrete forms, combine the concrete forming and other construction steps (installation of insulation). All materials must be taken in required proportions as described in standards.

Fabric

The tent is the home of choice among nomadic groups all over the world. Two well-known types include the conical teepee and the circular yurt. The tent has been revived as a major construction technique with the development of tensile architecture and synthetic fabrics. Modern buildings can be made of flexible material such as fabric membranes, and supported by a system of steel cables, rigid or internal, or by air pressure.

Foam

Celotex thermax foamed plastic sheets
Foamed plastic sheet to be used as backing for firestop mortar at CIBC bank in Toronto.

Recently, synthetic polystyrene or polyurethane foam has been used in combination with structural materials, such as concrete. It is lightweight, easily shaped, and an excellent insulator. Foam is usually used as part of a structural insulated panel, wherein the foam is sandwiched between wood or cement or insulating concrete forms.

Glass

Glassmaking is considered an art form as well as an industrial process or material.

Clear windows have been used since the invention of glass to cover small openings in a building. Glass panes provided humans with the ability to both let light into rooms while at the same time keeping inclement weather outside.

Glass is generally made from mixtures of sand and silicates, in a very hot fire stove called a kiln, and is very brittle. Additives are often included the mixture used to produce glass with shades of colors or various characteristics (such as bulletproof glass or lightbulbs.

The use of glass in architectural buildings has become very popular in the modern culture. Glass "curtain walls" can be used to cover the entire facade of a building, or it can be used to span over a wide roof structure in a "space frame". These uses though require some sort of frame to hold sections of glass together, as glass by itself is too brittle and would require an overly large kiln to be used to span such large areas by itself.

Glass bricks were invented in the early 20th century.

Gypcrete

Gypcrete is a mixture of gypsum plaster and fibreglass rovings. Although plaster and fibres fiborous plaster have been used for many years, especially for ceilings, it was not until the early 1990s that serious studies of the strength and qualities of a walling system Rapidwall, using a mixture of gypsum plaster and 300mm plus fibreglass rovings, were investigated. It was discovered, through testing at the University of Adelaide, that these walls had significant, load bearing, shear and lateral resistance together with earthquake-resistance, fire-resistance, and thermal properties. With an abundance of gypsum (naturally occurring and by-product chemical FGD and phospho gypsums) available worldwide, gypcrete-based building products, which are fully recyclable, offer significant environmental benefits.

Metal

Metal is used as structural framework for larger buildings such as skyscrapers, or as an external surface covering. There are many types of metals used for building. Metal figures quite prominently in prefabricated structures such as the Quonset hut, and can be seen used in most cosmopolitan cities. It requires a great deal of human labor to produce metal, especially in the large amounts needed for the building industries. Corrosion is metal's prime enemy when it comes to longevity.

  • Steel is a metal alloy whose major component is iron, and is the usual choice for metal structural building materials. It is strong, flexible, and if refined well and/or treated lasts a long time.
  • The lower density and better corrosion resistance of aluminium alloys and tin sometimes overcome their greater cost.
20130816 Belfry of St Laurentius Ahrweiler
Copper belfry of St. Laurentius church, Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler
  • Copper is a valued building material because of its advantageous properties. These include corrosion resistance, durability, low thermal movement, light weight, radio frequency shielding, lightning protection, sustainability, recyclability, and a wide range of finishes. Copper is incorporated into roofing, flashing, gutters, downspouts, domes, spires, vaults, wall cladding, building expansion joints, and indoor design elements.
  • Other metals used include chrome, gold, silver, and titanium. Titanium can be used for structural purposes, but it is much more expensive than steel. Chrome, gold, and silver are used as decoration, because these materials are expensive and lack structural qualities such as tensile strength or hardness.

Plastics

Piping floor penetrations nortown casitas
Plastic pipes penetrating a concrete floor in a Canadian highrise apartment building

The term "plastics" covers a range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic condensation or polymerization products that can be molded or extruded into objects, films, or fibers. Their name is derived from the fact that in their semi-liquid state they are malleable, or have the property of plasticity. Plastics vary immensely in heat tolerance, hardness, and resiliency. Combined with this adaptability, the general uniformity of composition and lightness of plastics ensures their use in almost all industrial applications today. High performance plastics such as ETFE have become an ideal building material due to its high abrasion resistance and chemical inertness. Notable buildings that feature it include: the Beijing National Aquatics Center and the Eden Project biomes.

Papers and membranes

Building papers and membranes are used for many reasons in construction. One of the oldest building papers is red rosin paper which was known to be in use before 1850 and was used as an underlayment in exterior walls, roofs, and floors and for protecting a jobsite during construction. Tar paper was invented late in the 19th century and was used for similar purposes as rosin paper and for gravel roofs. Tar paper has largely fallen out of use supplanted by asphalt felt paper. Felt paper has been supplanted in some uses by synthetic underlayments, particularly in roofing by synthetic underlayments and siding by housewraps.

There are a wide variety of damp proofing and waterproofing membranes used for roofing, basement waterproofing, and geomembranes.

Ceramics

Fired clay bricks have been used since the time of the Romans. Special tiles are used for roofing, siding, flooring, ceilings, pipes, flue liners, and more.


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