The Evolution of Construction Innovation Throughout History
Inventions have been a part of the fabric of humankind throughout history. In construction, the evolution of innovation since the Stoneage has shaped our cities and communities as we know it.
Today, February 11 is National Inventors’ Day. The day was first established by President Ronald Reagan’s Proclamation 5013 on February 11, 1983, to recognize one of the most prolific inventors in human history, Thomas Edison. In his speech, Reagan stated that the proclamation was:
“In recognition of the enormous contribution inventors make to the nation and the world.”
To celebrate National Inventors’ Day and to recognize the many contributions of builders throughout history, let’s take a look at the evolution of the industry and the top construction inventions that have transformed our modern world.
The Stages of Invention in the Construction Industry
Construction, of some form, has always been a critical part of life in human society. Even in our earliest days, people needed shelter, and they had to use tools to survive. As people evolved, they developed new tools and skills and leveraged the knowledge from previous generations to improve.
In early history, construction was likely less about building civilization and more about finding food and shelter. But, humans quickly evolved to adapt to their surroundings, and building became central to improving the lives of collective communities.
Let’s take a look at the type of construction inventions that developed throughout the eras:
- Stone Age: During this time frame of early man, tools were most often formed from stone – as the name implies. During prehistoric times, people lived in nomadic groups, though there is evidence that they built permanent housing and developed communities toward the end of the Ice Age.
- Neolithic Age: This is also known as the New Stone Age. The era gets its name because there is evidence that the people still used stone tools but also used metal in some forms. There were significant advancements in agriculture and farming during this time. People invented new tools to help them grow crops, moving from hunter-gatherers to farmers.
- Bronze Age: The Bronze Age is named because bronze first began to be used to replace stone tools and weapons. This time frame is also impressive because they invented the wheel, which revolutionized the ability to build and move things.
- The Egyptians: Early Egypt is widely regarded for mobilizing our first builders. Though other societies did have structures, it’s mind-boggling still today to try to understand how Egyptians were able to build immense and precise structures with limited tools. In terms of construction inventions, heavy machinery and tools were often simple. Large stones were moved through levers, ropes, wheels, and teams of men. The physical feat coupled with the absolute precision of structure building is still a marvel.
- Greek and Roman: Greek and Roman innovations in construction are still in use today. Roman construction took a lot of inspiration from the Greeks when it came to established construction methods. They use columns and identical design techniques in their structures. Romans also started using concrete, rather than all marble or stone. They also devised the first sewer system in civilization, igniting the careers of all future plumbers.
- The Industrial Revolution: This age is primarily known for the proliferation of factories and mass production. The Industrial Revolution also changed the shape of communities, cities, and construction in general. With the advent of mass production and new technologies, construction methods advanced to build new roads, types of transportation, and building processes aided by better tools.
Construction Inventions in Disciplines
It’s evident when you look at the history of architecture that construction inventions have played a large role in the advancement of the field. Let’s take a look at how inventions have impacted three major construction disciplines:
- Structural: There were many innovations in structural construction and engineering throughout the ages. Modern mathematics and engineering sciences were more fully developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, which makes the precision of structures, such as those in Ancient Egypt, so amazing. The earliest known science and math exposition was by Aristotle in 350 BC. The structural frame became the standard in the late 18th century and using scale models as a means to design became commonplace in the 1930s (though scale models were used in ancient times less frequently).
- Foundations: The Roman engineer, Vitruvius (80 BC—15 BC), developed a manual on building with several pages devoted to the construction of foundations for temples. Foundation is essential in building structures, and early models used sand, soil, and earth to accomplish this. Most home foundations are laid with concrete, though architects and engineers have come up with innovative ways to build in their environments. For instance, Chicago’s first skyscrapers were a feat in engineering based on their foundation work. Chicago has a swampy natural landscape, and the clay soil doesn’t support heavy buildings. The early architects devised innovative ways to construct foundations that worked with the environment and stood the test of time.
- Building Services: Building services were minimal in early history. Heating consisted mainly of fireplaces, which were eventually replaced by boilers and furnaces. This also meant the addition of ductwork to move heat to various rooms. Solar energy was first used in Ancient Greece, and many structures, such as mills, used water power. The addition of electricity to building structures became a commonality in the 1800s. By the middle of the 20th century, refrigeration and air conditioning were also common in most buildings. Today, building services are a large part of the construction picture. Skilled trades include electric, HVAC, and plumbing, and most structures will need all of these services to function adequately in today’s society.
The Evolution of Tools
Building materials like concrete, plywood, and steel have all evolved over history. But more dramatically has been the advancement of tools used to bring structures to life. As mentioned above, early tools were often crafted from stone and later from metal. Today, modern construction tools are incredibly advanced and bring new efficiency and precision to the industry.
Here we’ll include a look at some of the top construction inventions for tools that had the most significant impact on building innovation.
- The Brick: You might not think of this as a tool, but it is one of the earliest known building materials. The first brick dates back to 7000 BC. Bricks were made of clay and straw in Ancient Egypt. In 3500 BC, Romans were using fired bricks, and they devised kilns that could be moved from place to place to produce bricks for different structures in their empire. China was also using fired bricks for flooring in 4400 BC. Firing the bricks made the material far more durable.
- The Hammer: Probably one of the best-known construction tools is the hammer. This tool is also one of the oldest and most useful. The earliest hammers were seen over 3 million years ago, and they were used to break things and shape other stones. The claw hammer as we know it was designed in the 16th century, though an early predecessor dates back to the Roman Empire. Their take on the claw end of the hammer was developed in order to save nails, which were costly. Today’s hammer is mostly the same in design as its predecessors.
- Cranes: Today’s construction could not function without the various types of cranes used to move heavy materials. They’ve evolved quite a bit, but early civilizations also used types of cranes to accomplish these feats. Cranes are usually machines that are equipped with ropes or chains that can be used to lift and lower materials. They used the first crane in Ancient Mesopotamia to lift water. Construction cranes were also used in Ancient Greece, though they were powered by animals and people, rather than machinery. The Industrial Revolution allowed for the invention of cranes which could work by machine power, rather than human or animal.
- Blueprints: In modern times, and before the explosion of technology solutions to manage documentation, blueprints and design drawings have been the foundation of construction plans. Before blueprints evolved into their modern form, drawings from the medieval times appear to be their earliest formations. The Plan of St. Gall is one of the oldest known surviving architectural plans. Until the mid 19th century, architects relied on skilled drafters to faithfully copy their drawings for distribution. However, enter the era of specialized architectural tools and drafters were then able to produce drawings more accurately and more productively. Blueprints obtained their trademark blue in 1842 when John Herschel discovered the cyanotype process. Builders, in addition to artists and scientists, quickly adopted this new way to reproduce notes, efficiently and at a lower cost than previous methods available.
Inventions in Construction Software
In historical context, the invention of technology to aid in every aspect of the construction is significant. In addition to replacing the need for physical blueprints, software solutions have revolutionized the industry, allowing for better collaboration between teams, increased productivity, and better efficiency.
Here are top construction inventions for software:
- Design Collaboration Software: In 2002, Autodesk, well known for its innovation of the AutoCAD software, released a white paper called “Building Information Modeling”. This white paper sparked the BIM and design collaboration software movement. Collaboration software allows for a better way to keep all the project stakeholders updated and on the same page. Today, it’s easier to keep up with the latest revisions to plans and spec sheets, changes in deliverables, and scheduling for the various trades involved in projects.
- Preconstruction Software: This software allows projects to be mapped out prior to the start of construction, a planning method that ensures successful completion on a timely basis. The software has made jobs easier for project managers and general contractors, such as organizing and qualifying subcontractors, managing invitations to bid and proposals, and maintaining communication.
- Field Productivity Software: Before software innovations, most contractors dealt with paper blueprints, which were cumbersome. They also led to a great deal of miscommunication because it was easy to miss revisions, which were noted by date. With field productivity software, contractors and subcontractors can manage every revision of specs and drawings, collaborate, organize documentation, and share things like site photos and notes. This software is also used today on mobile devices, making it far easier for professionals who spend a great deal of their time on the jobsite, rather than in an office.
- Project Management Software: This software is designed to integrate well with other software used in the industry. The cloud-based solutions allow for seamless communication between on-site project managers and their home office, so each person involved in the process has real-time updates on the project. This helps project managers keep track of all the moving parts of a jobsite while informing them adequately when plans need to be changed or decisions need to be made.
- Connected Construction Platforms: Connected construction platforms have been one of the most recent and cutting-edge construction inventions. Technology like Autodesk Construction Cloud™ provides all the tools to organize documentation and keep the main office and field offices connected, from design through operations.
What’s the Next Big Construction Invention?
In today’s construction industry, software innovations are a major force in keeping projects moving forward, improving productivity, increasing efficiency, and allowing for the most optimal communication methods between a large and varied team. Autodesk has been at the forefront of this revolution since the very beginning and has continued to grow their offerings with cloud-based connectivity that allows for better planning and communication, from preconstruction through deliverables.