Turning clay into structure: how ceramics are used in construction

Turning clay into structure: how ceramics are used in construction

Ceramic fragments and figures found at the Neolithic site of Mureybet in Syria’s Middle Euphrates Valley indicate that clay and firework dates back to the 7th millennium BCE. This means that the processing of ceramics is one of the oldest activities in human history. More than 9,000 years later, ceramics, and all its derivatives, have become one of the most widely used materials in construction, being used in different eras, from the structure to the finishes.

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Ceramic is the material that results from the association of clay, which can have different compositions with metallic and non-metallic materials from the ground, and from fire. In addition to its natural malleability when hydrated, when heated to high temperatures, clay gains mechanical strength and becomes a good thermal and acoustic insulation material, properties that are important for construction. With chemical similarities, the industry currently includes five types of ceramic-like materials: glass, advanced ceramics, abrasives, cements, and traditional ceramics.

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Maruhiro / Yusuke Seki. Image © Takumi Ota

Despite their chemical similarities, what we usually call ceramics are traditional ceramic materials, made from red or white clay fired at high temperatures. This traditional ceramic is the same one used to make objects and tools thousands of years ago. The use of ceramics as a building material dates back to the Assyrian and Chaldean civilizations, and many peoples from different parts of the world have vernacular techniques that involve the use of fired clay.

From the wide access to the raw material and the intense use by different societies, ceramic technology has been one of the most developed and used since the industrial revolution. With technological advances, traditional ceramics are now used in different ways in construction, always in the form of molded and fired pieces, to meet the needs according to their physical and chemical properties.

Structure

As an element that gives shape to the construction, ceramics can be used to make structural blocks that can be present both in the shallow foundation and in the superstructure, always combined with other materials such as steel and cement mortar. Ceramics can compose what we mean by structural masonry, since ceramic blocks have high resistance, being used to build ground floor and medium-sized buildings.

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Teletón / Gabinete de Arquitectura Children’s Rehabilitation Center. Image © Federico Cairoli

Sealing

With the advent of independent structures, such as reinforced concrete and metal structures, ceramics are also used as waterproofing and subdividing materials. Bricks, tiles and hollow elements are some examples of ceramics used as sealing elements.

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Monastery of Our Lady of Victoria / Local works. Image © Will Boase

Cladding

One of the most common uses of ceramics in construction is coating. Whether it is a floor or a wall, the ceramic covering fulfills technical and decorative functions, presenting a layer of enamel on its surface that provides protection and identity to the elements.

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Cafe Cenchi / Space Station. Image © Weiji Jin

Items

If, historically, ceramics began to form to create utilitarian objects and tools, today’s tableware is an offshoot of this practice. Cisterns, sinks, toilets, among others, are ceramic pieces that bear witness to the evolution of domestic architecture and construction techniques.

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“Elements” by Rem Koolhaas. Image © Nico Saieh

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