Building construction, the techniques and industry involved in the assembly and erection of structures, primarily those used to provide shelter.
Building construction is an ancient human activity. It began with the purely functional need for a controlled environment to moderate the effects of climate. Constructed shelters were one means by which human beings were able to adapt themselves to a wide variety of climates and become a global species.
Human shelters were at first very simple and perhaps lasted only a few days or months. Over time, however, even temporary structures evolved into such highly refined forms as the igloo. Gradually more durable structures began to appear, particularly after the advent of agriculture, when people began to stay in one place for long periods. The first shelters were dwellings, but later other functions, such as food storage and ceremony, were housed in separate buildings. Some structures began to have symbolic as well as functional value, marking the beginning of the distinction between architecture and building.
The history of building is marked by a number of trends. One is the increasing durability of the materials used. Early building materials were perishable, such as leaves, branches, and animal hides. Later, more durable natural materials—such as clay, stone, and timber—and, finally, synthetic materials—such as brick, concrete, metals, and plastics—were used. Another is a quest for buildings of ever greater height and span; this was made possible by the development of stronger materials and by knowledge of how materials behave and how to exploit them to greater advantage. A third major trend involves the degree of control exercised over the interior environment of buildings: increasingly precise regulation of air temperature, light and sound levels, humidity, odours, air speed, and other factors that affect human comfort has been possible. Yet another trend is the change in energy available to the construction process, starting with human muscle power and developing toward the powerful machinery used today.
The present state of building construction is complex. There is a wide range of building products and systems which are aimed primarily at groups of building types or markets. The design process for buildings is highly organized and draws upon research establishments that study material properties and performance, code officials who adopt and enforce safety standards, and design professionals who determine user needs and design a building to meet those needs. The construction process is also highly organized; it includes the manufacturers of building products and systems, the craftsmen who assemble them on the building site, the contractors who employ and coordinate the work of the craftsmen, and consultants who specialize in such aspects as construction management, quality control, and insurance.
Building construction today is a significant part of industrial culture, a manifestation of its diversity and complexity and a measure of its mastery of natural forces, which can produce a widely varied built environment to serve the diverse needs of society. This article first traces the history of building construction, then surveys its development at the present time.