Sustainable Construction: What Did Mayans, Romans Know That We Don’t?

Ancient builders created many edifices that are standing today. Portions of Italy’s Appian Way (312 BC) road are still in use. Then, as now, concrete was a material widely used for built-to-last structures. Scientists are examining sustainable construction options and hoping to unlock the secrets of earlier civilizations’ construction materials.

Forbes says climate change, traffic, and heavier transportation vehicles are partial causes of roadway deterioration in our country. But you’ll see free-standing concrete structures in historical harbors that have been pounded by climate, wind, and seawater for over 2,000 years. Ancient cultures’ recipes for construction materials may have ingredients we can use for environmentally safer and more sustainable construction.

Scientists and Honduran masons analyzed materials used to build Copan’s Mayan temples and statues. The structures have survived over 1,000 years, despite the humidity and heat of Honduras. They found tree extracts mixed with lime contributed to an extremely durable concrete/plaster building material. “Scientists… saw Mayan plaster was able to mimic sturdy, natural structures like seashells and sea urchin spines and borrow some of their toughness.”

Modern concrete has a lifespan of 50-100 years. Using reverse engineering protocols, scientists analyzed ancient construction materials and learned the Romans’ concrete mixture was developed like ours but some of the ingredients seemingly gave it longer life: beer, rice, tree bark, urine, and volcanic ash. They suspected these add-ins bring “healing” properties to the mixture that mend cracks or even cause concrete to become stronger, not weaker, over time.

  • Massachusetts civil and environmental engineer Admir Masik published a study concluding chunks of burnt limestone in the concrete (which they thought was simply an example of bad mixing) interacted with volcanic sand and gravel to create a self-repairing chemical reaction that filled-in damaged sections.
  • Utah geologist Marie Jackson suspects volcanic materials are key. The naturally reactive material makes concrete so well-designed that it sustains itself.

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