I was recently struck by how the masonry trade is an extreme blend of old and new technology. I’ve just returned from a Mission trip to Malawi, a small country in South East Africa. One activity for our group was to install a new sheet metal roof on a home in a poor village. Roofs in this village were primarily constructed by lashing sticks together into a crude frame and then covering the frame with bundles of grass to provide minimal shelter from sun and rain. The homes were primarily constructed with mud brick. These bricks are dug from the native soil on site and then baked in a wood fired oven, also on site, to remove some of the moisture. The end product is a brick that is only slightly stronger than a dirt clod. They are laid in running bond using mud as mortar. They dig a small hole on the site and periodically wet the hole to dig “mortar” for laying the brick. No cement or other additive is used.
On one hand it seems like a very crude construction method compared to my experience with masonry in the US. Dimensional tolerance? Unit compressive strength? Type S or Type N? f”n? On the other hand it illustrated the simple beauty of masonry and the ancient roots of the trade. These structures were surprisingly sound. They have high thermal mass, are termite proof, require no transportation of materials, are 100% recyclable, are locally mined and manufactured. In fact they surpass even our best efforts at being “green” and sustainable. One man can mine, manufacture, deliver and install all the necessary components to build these structures. Pretty remarkable if you think about it.
It was an experience for me that highlighted the mix of old and new technology in the masonry trade. Since it’s inception thousands of years ago, masonry has in many ways not changed. It is still practiced today in exactly the same form that it began so long ago. Even in it’s most basic form it is still a very effective means of providing shelter and security for people all over the world. On the other end of the spectrum is my day to day experience with masonry in the US. My time is spent using high end computer hardware, the latest in software developments, intricate algorithms and analytical methods to develop 3D models of masonry buildings to advance the art of BIM for masonry. While it’s exciting to bring the newest technology to the masonry industry, it was refreshing to see first hand how enduring, efficient, and essential masonry building methods are to people around the world.