How are Ceramics Used in Construction?

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Ceramic manufacture and application are one of the oldest human technologies, dating back as far as 29,000 BC (Vandiver et al., 1989). Ceramic materials including brick, porcelain, and cement have been used to construct buildings for millennia, and are still some of the most widely used construction materials today.

Properties of Ceramics

Ceramics are inorganic and non-metallic materials, often porous, and crystalline in structure. Non-crystalline materials that share the other properties of ceramics are classed as glass, although when they take on the crystalline structure due to heat treatment they are referred to as glass-ceramics.

Ceramic materials’ mechanical properties are of particular importance in construction applications. These include their hardness and compression strength, ability to withstand chemical erosion and resistance to extremely high temperatures. Ceramic materials are also brittle and weak in shearing and tension, however, and these mechanical properties must be considered in the selection of ceramic materials for construction.

Ceramics in Construction

Ceramic materials have been used in buildings since at least 3000 BC when fired bricks were used to build cities in the early Indus Valley civilization (Khan and Lemmen, 2015). Modern use of ceramics in construction includes, as well as traditional building products, “smart” ceramics which incorporate solar cells or other internet-connected devices and environmentally-friendly construction using recycled ceramic products.

Bricks

Bricks overtook cut stone as the predominant building material in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, when mass production became possible. They can be manufactured by extrusion, molding or dry-pressing. Extrusion involves forcing the raw material (usually clay) through a steel die. Molded bricks are pressed from clay in a brick mold and dry-pressed bricks use a thicker clay in a similar process.

As well as making up the walls, floors and sometimes even roofs of many traditional and modern buildings, bricks can be manufactured for specialist building applications utilizing their ceramic properties. Engineering bricks are especially strong, have low water porosity, and high acid resistance, and are used in building foundations and damp courses.

Cement, Mortar, and Concrete

Tying bricks into walls is typically done with cement-based mortar, which is also composed of ceramic material. Concrete, which is a combination of aggregate, water and cement, is a pourable construction material favored by Roman and modernist architects alike. The Pantheon in Rome, constructed in 128 AD, famously uses cement for its almost 2000-year-old domed roof. Cement is used in many large modern buildings for its versatility of shape and high compression strength. It is often reinforced with steel bars set inside the concrete mold, and in this form is widely used in building foundations and floors.

Specialist concretes include pervious or porous concrete, used to mitigate ecological damage caused by paving, nano concrete which contains nanoscale cement particles and is used for highly decorative plates or foamed to create lightweight concrete, microbial concrete which adds bacteria to the mix to increase compression strength, and polymer concrete which has higher tensile strength and less porosity through the addition of polymers.

Ceramics in Building Interiors

From the clay pots and mosaic tiles of ancient civilizations to the porcelain kitchen and bathroom fittings and polished countertop surfaces of sleek modern designs, ceramic materials have been widely used in building interiors.

The next generation of construction ceramics for interior applications will increasingly leverage “smart” connected technology to connect these materials to the Internet of Things (IoT). Tiles incorporating wireless charging, thermal, atmospheric and piezoelectric pressure sensors, lighting and heating could all be managed by a central home system controlled through an app on the occupants’ smartphones.

Ceramics in Green Construction

As one of the most widely used and versatile building materials, ceramics must continue to be developed to minimize buildings’ impact on the environment. One start-up in the Netherlands is doing just that. StoneCycling, founded by friends Tom van Soest and Ward Massa, grinds up industrial waste constructed with ceramic materials and recycles it into so-called WasteBasedBricks. These eco-friendly bricks use only three-quarters of the energy of traditional brick manufacture and can match industry requirements for strength and durability.

Sources

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Ben Pilkington, MSt.

Written by

Ben Pilkington, MSt.

Ben Pilkington is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader with a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Oxford. He is committed to clear and engaging written communication and enjoys telling complex, technical stories in a relevant and understandable way.

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