Thursday, January 3, 2013

The lack of innovation in masonry

Masonry has existed as a form of construction for thousands of years.  Its lineage predates recorded history, and is steeped in tradition and long-established practice.  While other fields of human endeavor have undergone fundamental changes and have evolved over time, the basic practice of masonry has not really changed much over thousands of years.  A mason from 1,000 BC would recognize today’s masonry techniques as being very much akin to what was practiced over 3,000 years ago.

Why has masonry remained fundamentally unchanged for so long?  What factors have contributed to masonry remaining essentially static over such a long period of human history amidst dramatic changes and new developments in virtually all other fields of human creativity?
This is a curious question which is difficult to answer.  Others have addressed this question, and their findings are worth looking at.  An article from 1989 by Clayford T. Grimm asks this question, and is appropriately titled “Why are there so few innovations in masonry?”  Mr. Grimm posed this question to a steering committee for a workshop on masonry research sponsored by the National Science Foundation (USA).   Committee members included the Masonry Institute of America, the National Concrete Masonry Association, and Clemson University faculty members.  Their findings are noteworthy, and are listed as follows:

1.  U.S. tort law.

2.  The bureaucratic building code process.

3.  The unfunded process of writing consensus standards.

4.  Industry fragmentation.  “Economic pressures for fast construction time leave little time for the learning curve required by new ideas.  The construction industry mind-set supports the status quo.”

5.  Research fragmentation.  No government agency is funded to research masonry problems.  Given today’s fiscal challenges of government, there is not likely to be any such agency in the foreseeable future.

6.  Educators teach what they know and few of them know much about masonry.

7.  Designers are reluctant to use masonry structurally because of poor jobsite quality control.

8.  Academicians who dream up new names for old ideas and make a career out of it.

9.  Designers who don’t care about mason productivity.

10.  Lack of financial incentive.  “Why should a builder build a $50,000 house for a low-income family when for about the same effort he can build a $150,000 house and make a lot more money?”

[This article was originally published by The Masonry Society, and presented at a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation in Washington DC, August 28-30, 1988]
While the points made in the article as discussed above are important and noteworthy, it seems that there is still more to the question of why masonry remains essentially unchanged and is resistant to innovation.

One seemingly obvious factor points to the long history of masonry, across geography and among different societies, countries and cultures.  Because masonry has been practiced for so long, and has been developed as an art for so long, it has already been rather fully developed.  As such, there appears to be little room for improvement or innovation.  This may seem trivial or obvious, yet I believe it is worth stating.
The notion that masonry has been fully developed over several thousand years and cannot be substantially improved upon is strengthened by the contemporary practice of masonry research.  Contemporary masonry research is primarily involved with the analysis of Romanesque, gothic, medieval and other ancient masonry structures.  Most notable masonry engineers have spent their careers looking back at some of the great architecture of humanity’s past accomplishments to gain a more complete understanding of the engineering involved.  For example, Jacques Heyman has done extensive analysis of masonry architecture in several books such as The Stone Skeleton (Structural Engineering of Masonry Architecture)  Cambridge University Press, 1995.  Mr. Heyman has a long list of such publications, each of which looks at explaining the engineering involved in old masonry structures.  Current masonry engineering work has a real focus on the past.

Another factor in explaining the lack of innovation brought to masonry is the mistaken notion that old ideas re-discovered and re-introduced are in fact new.  One example of this is the thin-shelled catalan arches originally developed in Europe (especially Valencia, Spain) in the 14th century.  This type of masonry was re-introduced as a “new” type of construction in the US by Raphael Guastavino in the 19th century in the US.  More recently, similar work is being done by people at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; it is also being touted as “new” but it remains essentially unchanged since the 14th century.  MIT’s work on catalan arches is essentially derivative of much earlier work.  This phenomenon is close to #8 on the list which began this blog, as described by C.T. Grimm.
Finally, there is a curious and fascinating observation made by Frank J. Sulloway in his watershed book Born to Rebel  (Vintage Books, 1997; New York Times “notable book of the year”).  “Sulloway's most important finding is that eldest children identify with parents and authority, and support for the status quo, whereas younger children rebel against it. Drawing on the work of Darwin and the new science of evolutionary psychology, he transforms our understanding of personality development and its origins in the family.”  Sulloway describes how virtually all truly innovative ideas are the product of a last-born or later-born child, and explains this as a means to gain their parent’s attention.  It is essentially a Darwinian survival mechanism.  Conversely, first-borns are much more conservative and tend to end up in positions of power and authority.  These factors combine to create a scenario wherein a last-born innovator is presenting an innovative idea to a CEO or president or other authority who is typically a first-born conservative thinker.  While this idea may appear esoteric and irrelevant at first, I believe it has real merit.

Where do I see myself and my innovations in masonry?  I am a last-born child (youngest of four).   Are my ideas real innovations?  I believe they are; others do too.  I have had several US patents awarded for my ideas.  They were also identified as a “Cutting Edge Technology” by the American Concrete Institute.  Finally, there is no other masonry system like the one which I have developed.  How can this be?  I do not imagine myself some sort of unique genius.  I think I have been fortunate to have investigated ground which others have not.  Part of this is due to the fact that geodesic geometry was most recently developed by R. Buckminster Fuller (first developed by the ancient Greeks).  It was my good fortune that Fuller assigned great value to how much a building weighed (as I have discussed several times earlier on this blog).  This aspect of Fuller’s thinking was closely held by his followers, which meant that masonry was never considered as a suitable construction material; it was always thought to be too heavy.  His bias against massive material such as masonry left a niche for me to investigate and develop as I have.  My experience as a ceramic artist and mold maker provided me with the insight and awareness of mold releases, undercuts and interlocking features.  My education in geology and fault mechanisms opened my eyes to conjugate shearing.  Through focus and hard work I brought these things together in an innovative masonry design.
Is there room for real innovation in masonry today?  I think there is!  


  1. In my trips trough Mexico I am always fascinated by their use of masonry and although not necessarily innovative, they open my eyes to the use of masonry particularly the use of vaults, domes, and even concrete joists and rafters. The prevalence of termites means that even the lower cabinets in kitchens are masonry. Their skill and even seat of the pants know how never cease to amaze this gringo.

    1. Beautiful masonry throughout Mexico. Cheers Ches.

  2. Excellent points. I especially agree with 2,4 & 7 (which I would lump modern Architects and builders in along with the designers.)

    Ches...I have seen examples of "seat of the pants" engineering too and it's a beautiful thing.

  3. When are you bringing your product to market? I'd be more than happy to be your first customer.

  4. I'm working on it, will let you know; follow this blog. Hopefully within the year. Thanks very much for your interest.

  5. This somehow reminded me that the greatest innovators in dentistry were the Etruscans, who invented bridgework. Nothing happened after them (the practice actually de-evolved) until Charles Goodyear invented galvanized rubber in 1837, which was used for dentures. That's an enormous innovation gap in a field whose practices were far less successful (even barbaric) than masonry. Masonry works as is, so there's far less impetus for innovation.

    1. "Masonry works as is, so there's far less impetus for innovation." The focus of this blog from the beginning (see my first entry) has been doing more with manufactured concrete block.

      Currently, concrete block are used for building straight vertical walls and square corners. This design has been a real success story of the 20th century: it is ubiquitous, inexpensive and performs well enough.

      I propose to do roofs with block: it's a whole different use. Very high strength, fire proof, insect proof, inexpensive, suitable for hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and much more. While it appears that contemporary masonry works "as is" there is much more to come! This is the impetus for innovation.

      Walk into a cathedral and imagine how unimpressive it would be if the masonry were only used for vertical walls. This is the art I want to re-introduce to contemporary masonry. The arch.