May 9, 2016

Ancient structural engineering is sometimes underestimated.

In an age of rapid expansion and mass produced, affordable housing, we should be looking to our structural engineering predecessors, the trailblazers of sustainability, whose engineering achievements gave us structural design that has stood the test of time.

Structures were once built to serve a multitude of purposes; to survive extreme local climates and to stand the test of time. Professor of Architecture John Ochsendorf states that, whilst it seems a strange concept to revert back in time for inspiration and guidance, native builders have been responsive to their local climate for thousands of years, as well as being skilled at creating structures with longevity. Structural Engineer Steve Burrows explains that these structures were not a great experiment, but the application of science.

Here is our top pick of structural design that has stood the test of time:


The Ancient Egyptians were the pioneers of the trial and error method. In building the very first pyramids they became aware that by cutting stones inaccurately, they allowed moisture to get into the joints and in very cold temperatures, as a result of the water freezing and then expanding, the joint would be pushed apart. So they modified their methods and used a stone like granite, which does not allow water to penetrate it, as well as making the joints tighter so that the moisture would not erode the building, thus making it more durable.

Despite their prowess, the largest pyramid ever built, and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, still took 20 years of intensive slave labour to build. It is still largely in tact and despite advancements in current technology, scientists are still struggling to replicate it. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)


The Inca Bridges were once built to accommodate armies and communities and to transport goods across a growing empire in the Andes Mountains. The bridge is built using essentially biodegradable raw material ‘ichu’, a grass grown in the Andes, which is then braided to make the rope. Each year in June, the local communities keep tradition and skills alive by repairing the bridge.

Being repaired each year means that this technically is not a structure that was built to stand the test of time, but Ochesndorf ‘views this as a shining example of how intertwined people and the things they build can really be. If a community is invested in a structure so fully that they’re excited about maintaining it, the structure is a vital part of that community’. (Image courtesy of Mental Floss)


New Grange, a feature of Irish folklore, was built in the Neolithic period over 5,000 years ago, making it older than the Eqyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge. It is an Irish passage tomb which is a kidney shaped large mound, estimated to weigh approximately 200,000tons. The roof was constructed by overlapping large rocks and finally, a capstone over the top; it is still waterproof 5,000 years later. It is made up of granite boulders and sculpted kerbstones which are considered some of Europe’s finest specimens of neolithic art.

Because of the Newgrange positioning at the top of a hill, archaeologists suggest that the team responsible for its construction would have been highly organised for that period of history, moving and lifting the very large, stone slabs to the top of the hill. In addition, grooves found in the stone roof, as well as the burnt soil and sea sand used to fill gaps between stones, suggests that the construction team were aware of the effects of weathering and the need to redirect water from the passage to keep it waterproof. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)


This landmark of Istanbul, which can be seen from the rooftops of the city, is one of the greatest examples of Byzantine architecture. It boasts a large dome roof and two smaller dome roofs. Despite its dome shaped roof, the shape of the building itself is actually rectangular, so the dome is carried on four pendentives, a common feature of Byzantine architecture.

The larger dome roof deemed unsuccessful when the first attempt collapsed due to the piers that were used to support the weight collapsed. “The dome rests not on a drum but on pendentives, spherical triangles that arise from four huge piers that carry the weight of the cupola. The pendentives made it possible to place the dome over a square compartment,” writes researcher Victoria Hammond.

The Hagia Sophia is a perfect example of a muti-use building, adapting to new purpose and functionality having once been a cathedral, being converted into a mosque and now a very popular tourist attraction. Because of the these changes in purpose, the building aesthetics and design has had to adapt and change over time too. Four minarets that stand at 200ft tall, were added and mosaics were at one point covered with paint. The iconic style of the Hagia Sophia would later influence the architectural style of other mosques of the Ottoman Empire. (Image courtesy of Andrew E Larson/Flickr)


The Great Wall of China is not only a symbol of China’s strength, it was a representation of its control over the people, by maintaining order and keeping foreign influence out. It is now recognised as one of the most impressive structures in the world, spanning 5,500 miles and the largest man-made defense project ever built.

It is made up of 3 main components; passes, signal towers and walls. ‘Walls were made of tamped earth sandwiched between wooden boards, adobe bricks, a brick and stone mixture, rocks, or pilings and planks. Some sections made use of existing river dikes; others used rugged mountain terrain such as cliffs and gorges to take the place of man-made walls.’ (

The wall itself was successful for its purpose of defense, and only failed when there was rebellion from within. Whilst parts of the wall have now deteriorated through neglect, it is still hailed as being the only man-made structure visible from the orbit. (Image courtesy of Azhan/Wikipedia)


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