To some it might seem obvious what Construction History is. However the subject is frequently debated. Construction History is the history of how we construct the world around us. It is not restricted to buildings but also includes the construction of civil engineering and infrastructure. So it includes bridges, sewers, power stations, mills etc. as well as conventional buildings. Importantly the subject focuses on how these objects were constructed.
Histories of Techniques and Dating
Construction history is thus key to understanding and dating structures. If you can show that a particular technique was used in a certain period, then you can use that information to date a building or construction or subsequent additions to a building. As most buildings are added to over time, being able to show when changes were made is fundamental to understanding how old and how significant they are.
Histories of building crafts and craftsmen
Of course to understand the histories of techniques we also need to understand the social and economic factors that led to them. So Construction History also encompasses the development of guilds and trade bodies, contracts and accounts, methods of payment and procurement, working hours, rates of pay and conditions for workmen, and their training.
Histories of Understanding of Building Technology
Allied to our understanding of the role and conditions of those who worked on building sites, construction history seeks to understand how people in the past thought about building technology itself. How did they calculate whether something would stand up? How did they set out buildings on the ground? Here there is a clear overlap with the history of engineering and the building professionals, including the roles of overseers, designers, architects and engineers in every period.
Periods of Study and Sources
Construction History encompasses all periods from the various earliest signs of human activity to the very recent past, from cave dwellings to nuclear power stations. Obviously the techniques used to study these periods vary. Early buildings lack written records, so the descriptions tend to depend entirely on archaeological recording and interpretation. Later, written records can be used along with archaeological recording. In more recent periods very details accounts may survive, with drawings, models and photographs to show how building were put together and oral histories can be compiled from those who worked on them.
Who Studies Construction History?
Anyone who studies buildings in the manner described above is acting as a construction historian, often without realising it. Field, industrial, and building archaeologists are engaged in construction history on a day-to-day basis. Architectural historians and architects working on historic buildings engage with it continuously. So do engineers and building surveyors working on existing structures. But those interested includes economic and social historians as well. There is so much left to be studied in the field that it is open for research from the professional and amateur alike. Those compiling local histories or family histories may find they have much to contribute.