The brick made civilisation possible, and will continue to do so. Lacking stone, the Mesopotamians developed sun-baked brick technology to such an extent that by 3000 BC they could make very large buildings with columns and terraces - the greatest of them, the Ziggurat of Ur, having an upper stage over 30m high and a base of 60m x 45 m. Go to the British Museum, and in the Mesopotamian rooms you can walk from 6000 BC, past the Sumerians of Ur, to the beautiful glazed fired bricks of Babylon around 650 BC. In doing so, the striking thing is the development of writing as a legacy to the future born out of clay technology.
Today the world population exceeds 6.5 billion people, and is set to rise to nine billion in the next quarter of a century. Building in brick, along with concrete, is going to be the basis of that vastly bigger global civilisation. The reason is simple. Brick and concrete, often but not always faced with stone or ceramic, is a durable method of construction. Making buildings last longer matters. As populations grow we require more development, but we also have to replace the stock already built.
Civilisation has two choices. Either extend the service life of buildings, or find ways of making other kinds of buildings much faster. Both have proven to be viable strategies, but the brick offers the long service life possibility as standard. Designed to accommodate change and services upgrades, a brick structure will last. If other construction technologies are to challenge the brick, they will have to improve on the rate of building production. The tragedy is that currently about one billion people are living in squatter settlements of much poorer construction, and without an increase in the productive capacity of global construction that figure is expected to double in the time it takes to reach the nine billion total.
So I nominate the fired clay brick, as the technology for all other construction methods to beat. May all nations manufacture and lay more of them each year over the coming quarter of a century than at any previous time in human history.
Ian Abley is an architect, research engineer at the Centre for Innovative and Collaborative Engineering Loughborough University, and project manager for audacity.org