In the context of climate protection, old solid construction with ornamental stone is being rediscovered from a modern perspective

Christoph Aubertin Architecte: <a href=""target="_blank">Visitor center in Plainfaing</a> in the Vosges made of local sandstone. Foto: Ludmilla CervenyThe oldest house in the town of Rochlitz in Saxony, Germany made of local porphyry tuff. Photo: Peter Becker

It will establish itself alongside the currently common cladding with panels for facades or tiles for floors and walls, not replace it

Solid construction with ornamental stone goes back at least 10,000 years. Today it is becoming popular again because the ecological footprint of a building plays an important role for climate protection. Peter Becker, editor-in-chief of, looked at the bigger picture of building history in a lecture at the Fortaleza Brazil Stone Fair 2023.

Massive construction with stone means that stone elements of different sizes are used for structural purposes, i.e., to transfer the loads of the roof and floors to the foundations.

In Göbekli Tepe (from 9000 BC) in what is now Turkey, there were at least precursors to this: Pillars consist of several blocks placed on top of each other. A few thousand years later, the large construction sites of the pyramids appeared in the ancient Egyptian empires. The story continues with the temples of the Greeks and Romans. In Rome, white marble from the Greek island of Paros was initially THE material for noble buildings.

Göbekli Tepe, Türkei. Foto: Radosław Botev / <a href=""target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>, <a href=""target="_blank">Creative Commons License</a>

Caesar introduced a new fashion: he brought the local stone culture with him from the Nile and initiated a modernization of stone quarrying in the colony of Luna in today’s Italy. This is the area around Carrara.

The Roman stone sector really took off under his successor, Emperor Augustus. He turns Rome into a marble city, reports the euphoric biographer Suetonius.

At this time, it should be noted that the capacities in the quarries as well as the stonemasonry know-how for processing the blocks and slabs are fully developed. The engineers had mastered the shipping and handling of heavy loads.

For the next almost two millennia, stone was the material of choice for large and magnificent public buildings that were intended to last a long time.

In the private villas of the wealthy, the walls were clad with thinner slabs as early as Roman times.

Many of the massive stone buildings of the following centuries survived the storms of weather and politics.
* Notre-Dame Cathedral (from around 1150 AD), in which iron bracing was used for the walls;

* the various Chinese Walls (from 700 AD) or the Anping Bridge not far from Xiamen (12th century AD);

* in Central America, the pyramids of the Maya and Aztecs, incidentally with decorations on the top of the stones (~ 500 BC), as elsewhere;

Exterior walls at the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman. Photo: Christophe Meneboeuf / <a href=""target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>, <a href=""target="_blank">Creative Commons License</a>
* In South America, in what is now Peru, development took a different direction: the fascinating stone walls of Cuzco (Sacsayhuamán) were built there with angled stones and incredibly precise joints, without any decoration at the front. It is speculated that this construction method was intended as earthquake protection.

We note: the case of Cuzco shows that solid construction with stone can be successful not only with rectangular blocks.

Joseph Monier (1823-1906) has changed the world.  Source: <a href=""target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>, <a href=""target="_blank">Creative Commons License</a>
After 1860, however, this phase of solid construction with stone ended abruptly: the Louvre gardener Joseph Monier was looking for a better material for the wood of his planters and found the suggestion to use iron rods in concrete at the World Exhibition in Paris.

The principle worked and made the gardener rich: reinforced concrete was invented. When the two materials are closely bonded together – by vibrating the concrete and corrugating the iron – their properties complement each other: the concrete contributes its compressive strength, the steel its flexural strength.

This material is changing the world because – to name just one example – roads can be built that take the economy to a new level.

Meanwhile, what is happening to natural stone?

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: German Pavilion at the World Exhibition in Barcelona (1929). Photo: Canaan / <a href=""target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>, <a href=""target="_blank">Creative Commons License</a>
Architects continued to love it – Mies van der Rohe showed the way in his pavilion at the 1929 World’s Fair in Barcelona: his slabs of travertine, marble and onyx were merely decorative and clad the steel frame, which had the load-bearing function.

But fixing the slabs to external façades was not easy: occasionally they fell off because the mortar cannot withstand the stresses of wind and weather. Today’s anchoring systems are developed with this in mind.

Suitable adhesives were soon available for the walls inside the building or the floors.

21st century: climate change is a concern

In the 21st century, however, the world continues to turn. Climate change is a concern for humanity, and one of the top priorities is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in connection with buildings. Studies show that the construction industry and the operation of buildings release around 40% of global greenhouse gases.

This is where natural stone comes back into focus as a building material, as it has an excellent carbon footprint.

For example: in France, building according to the modular principle with prefabricated standard blocks has survived as a niche.

This construction method goes back to the architect Fernand Pouillon.

The architect Gilles Perraudin subsequently picked up on the ideas and developed them further.

Perraudin Architecture: FabLab in Lyon.Perraudin Architecture: FabLab in Lyon.

Some aspects of this construction method:
* one can erect a building faster and cheaper;
* one can dismantle the walls just as you put them together – which makes the house a kind of savings bank: the generation of heirs can choose to continue living in the house; demolish it and sell the material and the plot separately; or demolish the house and rebuild it to new standards on the same plot using the same material.

Solid construction with stone makes the circular economy perfectly possible. This is not really new – this is how the material has been used for thousands of years.

Sufficient stone material is available, at least in mountainous regions: in every village there are abandoned quarries that have been exploited for churches, schools, and private houses (see also photos on top).

Giuseppe Fallacara: “Hypargate Vela“.
Another current approach to solid construction with stone involves modern technologies. The pioneer here is Giuseppe Fallacara, professor at the Politecnico in Bari. He has developed numerous spectacular constructions in which precisely cut stone slabs are held together under tension by steel cables.

Another example of his concepts is the “Flux“ vault.

From Renzo Piano’s works we will only mention the groundbreaking Chiesa di San Pio da Pietrelcina with prestressed stone arches.

Some architecture studios in France are now going other ways asking, for example, whether stone is not too valuable to be used in large volumes for solid walls.

There are examples of solid construction with stone in many other countries:

The Spanish company Rosalstones is thinking in a completely different direction: it cuts small clinker bricks from waste pieces, which can also be used to build solid walls.

Let us summarize the current state of affairs:
* development is being driven forward at a high professional level, as architects from universities are involved together with associations and leading stone companies;
* the solid construction principle is not new; it is simply being rediscovered and enriched with modern technical knowledge.

What is particularly remarkable about this is that such developments are normally set in motion by new technologies – this time it is society that is initiating the development.

For the first time, people are shaping the future according to their own – self-defined – ideas. This is a quantum leap in the history of humanity.

At Stone+tec in Nuremberg (19-24 June 2024), the German Ornamental Stone Association (DNV) is organizing a congress on solid construction with stone in English.

(04.12.2023, USA: 12.04.2023)