’s Joe Bradbury gives an overview of the evolution of construction through the ages; discussing humanity’s relationship to it, how it has shaped the modern world and how it might be in the future.

The evolution of building is inseparable from the evolution of man. One thing history and archaeology have proved undoubtedly is this; construction is a very old human activity. The need for a controlled environment to mitigate the effects of climate is a basic part of survival. So initially, construction was void of aesthetic purpose, instead being purely functional. Constructed shelters were one means by which human beings were able to adapt themselves to a wide variety of climates and become a global species.

Human shelters were initially relatively basic and may have only been used for a few days or months. But through time, these flimsy, temporary designs strengthened, developing into forms as complex as the igloo. As humans transitioned away from being nomadic and began to settle in one spot for extended periods of time (due largely to the development of agriculture), more robust creations gradually began to form. The first shelters were homes, but as time and skill progressed, distinct structures began being constructed for other purposes, including for food storage and ceremonial use.

A variety of trends have characterised the history of construction. One is the growing robustness of the materials used. Early building supplies like leaves, branches, and animal hides were perishable. Later, harder natural materials like clay, stone, and wood were utilised until finally, man-made materials like brick, concrete, metals, and plastics. Another is the pursuit of ever-higher and wider buildings, which was made feasible by the development of stronger materials as well as by the developing knowledge of how materials behave in order to decide where best to utilise them. The degree to which buildings’ interior environments are controlled—including air temperature, light and sound levels, humidity, odours, air speed, and other elements that affect people’s comfort—has recently undergone a third significant trend. The evolution of the energy available for the construction process, starting with human muscle power and progressing to the potent machinery used today, has propelled construction into the world we know today. For better for worse, we have tailored an enormous part of the environment we find ourselves in each day. Construction is everywhere.

Construction couldn’t be further from its simple roots. The whole process now is infinitely complex. A variety of building systems and products are available, most of which are targeted towards certain markets or types of buildings. Building design is now a highly organised process that involves a variety of stakeholders, including design professionals who identify user needs and create a building that satisfies those needs, people who adopt and enforce safety standards and research institutions that investigate intricately the properties and performance of materials. The manufacturing of building systems and products, the craftsmen who assemble them on the construction site, the contractors who hire and oversee the work of the craftsmen, and consultants with expertise in areas like construction management, quality assurance, and insurance make up the highly organised construction process of the present age.

Revolutions spark evolutions

Today’s construction industry contributes significantly to industrial culture, demonstrating its adaptability and complexity as well as its mastery of natural forces, which can result in a built environment with a wide range of diversity to meet the many sophisticated demands of society.

A fourth industrial revolution is currently underway, and anyone alive today has front row tickets; we’re right on the cusp of it! In contemporary history, the Industrial Revolution can be characterised as the transition from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one that is dominated by industry and machine manufacture. The 18th century saw the start of this process in Britain, which then spread to other regions of the globe.

The period from the middle of the 18th century until about 1830, (which modern historians refer to as the first Industrial Revolution) was largely limited to Britain. From the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th, Britain, continental Europe, North America, and Japan all experienced the second Industrial Revolution. With the emergence of electronics, telecommunications, and computers, the third revolution extended even wider. These new innovations fundamentally altered our civilization by making space exploration, digital research, and biotechnology possible.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is currently well under way, is the convergence of numerous technological advancements in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, quantum computing, etc.

Technology accelerates change

The phrase itself is a perfect description of how the lines separating the biological, digital, and physical worlds are constantly blurring. As digitalization and technology advance, so does our growing dependence on them; as a result, many goods and services we use in modern life are swiftly turning into necessities. Without GPS, virtual reality, BIM, robotics, and social media, where would we be today? Are we dependent on it? Will it be the catalyst for our success or downfall? Time will tell.

Where next?

Even a cursory look through trade publications will reveal how hotly contested the future of the construction sector is. Will it occur off-site? Will they be intelligent homes? What kind of dwelling will it be? What about modularity? Will it be enduring? We pose a lot of thoughtful questions and offer a lot of well-informed answers, but doing so is essentially like looking into a crystal ball.

We can all agree that it is impossible to remain the same in a world that is changing. It is well acknowledged that the construction industry has historically been hesitant to change. In fact, despite its enormous potential, offsite as an example has not yet been embraced to anywhere close to the levels it should be in order to meet modern demand and really address the present housing crisis.

Environmental motivations begin to take priority

Another thing that is taking the reins of how and why we build things now… the damages we are inflicting upon our environment are now coming back around as problems that we are having to engineer solutions to in order to overcome. This shapes the built environment massively and will only do so with increasing voracity as we move into the future.

The UK construction sector alone currently accounts for 32% of all landfill waste, 45% of all UK carbon emissions, and more incidents of water contamination than any other sector. Globally, the building industry is responsible for roughly 45–50% of the world’s energy use, close to 50% of its water use, and roughly 60% of its raw material usage.

We need to do something about that, and this too dictates trends.

In summary

It seems that construction and mankind are inseparable. We’ve grown up together, through the infancy of our early days as hunter gatherers to adolescence where we find ourselves now, making clumsy mistakes that have cost us dearly. As we transition into adulthood as a species and begin to take responsibility, the way we construct and build improves and continues to improve exponentially. We’re thinking differently now, and I’m excited to see where the evolution of built environment takes us. Perhaps into a brave new world?

Things seem to be changing so quickly now that the debate on whether or not change is a good thing is becoming irrelevant. Instead we are left with no choice but to adapt. But as an industry, we’re good at that. We’ve been changing since day one.


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