The Mechanics of High-Rise Structures

Written by Brian Enright

Large structures are amazing feats of architecture, physics, engineering, and mechanics. History remembers the first large structures: pyramids, towers, and cathedrals. But bridges, high rises, homes, and churches have all become grander as technology and materials allowed for larger and safer construction. Modern construction methods for building large-scale structures have only been available for the past two centuries. The existence of such large structures is a testament to the efforts of the people who created and built them.

The development of skyscrapers began as a response to cultural forces. Skyscrapers are usually found in urban areas where space is in high demand and expensive: Building upward was a good alternative to building outward. This was not practical, however, until two things happened; steel became widely available, and the elevator was invented. The race to build the tallest building was on! In 1885, the world's first skyscraper, named the Home Insurance Building, clocked in at ten stories high.

You can probably guess how the three main types of bridges are built by their names: beam, truss, and arch. Bridges are built to cross obstacles, such as water, and they also have to withstand nature. The beam, truss, and arch bridge types, erected using quality construction materials, are strong and durable. The ancient Romans were famous for their arched bridges, and amazingly, some of their bridges are still standing. The longest non-water bridge in the world is Bang Na Expressway, at 33.51 miles long. It was built from 1,800,000 cubic meters of concrete and has six traffic lanes. Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is the longest continuous bridge that crosses water. This was the first bridge constructed with concrete pressed piles, an innovative building technique at the time.

High rises are tall buildings that house people or businesses. In fact, the skyscraper is a really tall form of high rise. These buildings are higher than the maximum reach of firefighting equipment. Like the skyscraper, the high rise has become common in urban areas. High rises are very heavy, so their foundations must support that weight using lots of concrete and anchors into the ground. The structure's skeleton is usually made from steel and concrete in order to withstand winds and earthquakes.

The origins of the simple house date back to the Stone Age. Mud brick was used for those houses. The Romans documented that early home architecture used branches and mud. Structures became more complex as people learned new and better building methods. Current house styles are wildly different. Construction methods, materials, and styles vary by region and country. House construction methods depend on many factors but usually use materials that are the easiest to get in a location. Tradition, culture, and need can influence home design as well. For example, while the stucco house is common in the Southwest, brick houses are common in the Midwest. Prefabricated houses are also widely available.

Churches are the smaller cousins of cathedrals. Cathedrals were some of the largest structures of their time when many of them were built. Many were erected before the 19th century and were built with manual labor. Often, cathedrals were cross-shaped, with the two lines running north-south and east-west. The structures were usually complex and used advanced architectural features. The architectural styles of most cathedrals are Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, or Renaissance. The churches you may be familiar with probably don't resemble a cathedral. Everyday churches are usually more modern in design and were made with steel and concrete. Modern church construction ranges from small-scale to large, soaring buildings.

Other Unique Structures

Many other types of buildings exist worldwide that were created using innovative engineering. The Great Pyramid of Giza is 481 feet high, and it was the tallest structure in the world for 3,800 years. The Eiffel Tower in Paris is 81 stories high, and it was built for the 1889 World's Fair. Now, it is the most-visited monument in the world. The Great Wall of China deserves recognition for being the longest wall in the world, at 5,500 miles long. And the Dome of the Pantheon in Rome was the largest dome in the world for 1,300 years.