Centuries-Old Monolithic Construction Is On the Rise

June 19, 2018 Jean Thilmany

Monolithic construction is becoming more common in the United States, but not how you might think. Buildings constructed this way aren’t huge monoliths towering over city blocks. Rather, they’re office towers, apartment buildings, houses, churches, and really any type of structure constructed from a single material—usually poured concrete.

 

While the method is again gaining ground in the United States after brief flurries of interest over the years, it’s already fairly common in the United Kingdom and other countries due to efficiencies in cost and building time.

The design method makes construction simple and straightforward and uses fewer building materials than standard techniques, says Jannis Wernery, a scientist in the building energy materials and components department at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology.

 

How are monolithic buildings constructed?

To construct a monolithic building, pre-engineered formwork is first put in place along with the electrical, plumbing, sanitation, and other services. Then, the entire structure is cast in concrete. Slab and beam are poured together in such as way as to ensure fixity at the joint, so that entire unit acts as a single body. Meanwhile, the formwork offers proper alignment and smooth surfaces.

When a building is poured monolithically, both the plumbing and the electrical can be placed before the forms are set. This eliminates the need to frame the inside of the building to install plumbing and electrical.

Most of the key components of these structures—like the walls, columns, balconies, and openings are poured on site, just as with the slabs and beams, which eliminates the need and costs of bricks, plastering, and other building materials. Contractors can build monolithic walls and slabs in one operation on a daily cycle.

All of these factors mean construction can happen quickly.

And because the method is repeatable—it happens in the same fashion again and again until the building is complete— monolithic construction saves time and money. It combines the speed, quality, and accuracy of offsite-produced ready-mixed concrete and formwork with the flexibility and economy of cast in-situ construction.

 

Hollowed from rock

The earliest form of monolithic architecture most often cited are structures cut from rock, such as the monolithic churches built during the Medieval Zagwe dynasty, which ruled from about 900 to 1270 A.D. in what’s now northern Ethiopia. The churches are carved out from solid rock and often the base of the rock still acts as the base of the structure. In some form of these early structures, a building is cut from an outcropping of rocks.

Domes can also be examples of monolithic architecture, whether ancient domes or the modern-day dome made popular by Buckminster Fuller. The Monolithic Dome Institute in Italy, Texas, has constructed domed sports stadiums, retail stores, churches, and storage structures.

“The domes are constructed following a method that requires an inflatable Airform, steel-reinforced concrete, and polyurethane foam insulation. Each of these ingredients is used in a technologically specific way,” says David South, the institute’s founder.

“Monolithic Domes are gaining in popularity,” he says. “Even folks who say they don’t like their look, usually just because it’s so different, want a Monolithic Dome for its superb insulation and energy-efficiency, low maintenance, virtual indestructibility and its relatively simple construction process.”

Thomas Edison constructed the first monolithic concrete house in 1908 and patented the technology about 10 years later. Not until World War I, when the increased demand for housing reawakened interest in monolithic construction, did builders again attempt to construct monolithic concrete houses. After the war, though, interest lagged.

Now it’s on the rise again in the United States due to those lowered costs and simple construction method.

Other countries are also using the technique.

In India, the state-run construction Central Public Works Department has adopted monolithic construction technology for larger projects amid rising concerns over dust pollution, according to the Urban Development Ministry, which oversees the department.

The method is recognized for its “quick, quality, dust free construction” for large projects, according to the Ministry.

Also in India, the private construction technology firm, PG Setty, introduced monolithic construction into the government sector about three years ago for “mass housing projects for the slum dwellers and economically weaker section,” according to a statement from the firm. Using the monolithic technique, the company can build the shell of four houses in 48 hours with the help of formwork from the United States.

“Monolithic concrete construction and appropriate materials will lead to fast track, cost effective sustainable development in construction, ensuring quality, time, cost, and durability due to its homogeneity,” says a PG Setty statement.

“When a building is constructed from poured cement, simple things like insulation also needs to be considered,” Wernery says.

He and fellow scientists at his Swiss laboratory say they’ve developed a brick that adds significant levels of insulation without the bulk. The building industry has begun to incorporate internal-insulation walls and there are already several insulated bricks and panel systems available today that use materials like perlite, mineral wool, or polystyrene as insulators, Wernery says.

Going one better, scientists at his group have created bricks that insulate better than the bricks already available. They use a different insulating material than the rest: aerogel. A wall constructed from the aerobricks made from the material conduct heat up to eight times better than one made from standard clay and shale bricks, he says.

As the demand for buildings increases, so will the need for more efficient construction methods. Monolithic construction is one of these. What other methods come to mind? Comment below and let us know.

 

About the Author

Jean Thilmany

Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer in St. Paul. She writes about construction, engineering, and robotics issues and served was an editor at Mechanical Engineering Magazine for 15 years. Her work has appeared in a range of publications.

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