Are Older Buildings Stronger? The Truth Revealed

Published Categorized as Construction
Lath and Plaster Construction

New buildings might not be considered as strong as old buildings because they haven’t proven their ability to hold up to aging. However, you may be wondering if this means that older buildings are actually stronger or just older. A strong building will withstand the tests of time, but what if the building just hasn’t had the opportunity?

Older buildings are sometimes stronger than new ones because they are typically made with stronger, more expensive materials. Without the modern technology we used today to construct buildings, builders often overestimated for safety. However, some new buildings hold up better than old ones.

The truth is, there is no single correct answer to this question; instead, it goes on a case-by-case basis. The pyramids in Egypt have been holding up for hundreds of years, and tons of architecture in ancient Europe has withstood the test of time. However, other buildings from those periods have also collapsed, so let’s look at the topic in more detail below.

Why Some Older Buildings Are Stronger Than New Construction

Whether you’re a fan of old architecture or noticed that the old buildings you have lived in seem to hold up better than new construction, you may be wondering what the X-Factor is in old homes or buildings. Though not always, old buildings tend to be much stronger than newer buildings, some lasting hundreds of years with minimal construction. But how?

As I mentioned earlier, old buildings are stronger than new buildings because of the quality of materials used and how they were structured.

Calculations for safety were overestimated and rounded up to ensure safety. However, our modern technology can get things down to the smallest measurement possible to save money.

This is, of course, not always the case. Many of the buildings we still see standing in Europe or other ancient parts of the world survived because they were structured with strong materials and deliberately built. However, many old buildings still didn’t survive from the ancient or even more recent worlds. Below, I’ll talk about what made those buildings that are still standing stronger than their new construction counterparts.

Materials Used in Old Buildings vs. New Buildings

Ancient buildings, like the pyramids we mentioned above or the buildings in Europe, are made with stone or bricks. Old buildings, like houses or office buildings made in older neighborhoods, were typically built with things like lath and plaster.

Lath is a type of thin stripped wood, and plaster is a material used to spread over and cast walls and ceilings. Drywall, on the other hand, is what is typically utilized in new buildings. Drywall is a much weaker form of plaster.

In fact, during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, none of the buildings having used drywall remained. Only one building, which had used plaster, was still standing after the hurricane. Drywall was invented in 1916, and in 1940 it gained popularity. It’s a less expensive material than plaster. Nearly 20 billion feet (over 6 billion meters) of drywall are manufactured and sold in America every year.

Often, newer build construction companies just want to have the lowest material and labor costs possible. For this reason, they may cut corners when it comes to supplies and material costs. Still, sometimes they cut things just close enough that a building will pass but become structurally damaged soon after. Usually, this will be caught in the structural assessment (as I discuss below).

So when we are thinking about the materials used in old buildings versus new buildings, we can already see that the materials used in old buildings are much different than those used in new buildings. Older buildings using lath and plaster will hold up better than newer buildings using drywall.

Structures Within Old Buildings vs. New Buildings

The structural integrity is also a massive factor in what makes something stronger or weaker. Not only do you need suitable, strong materials to hold up your house or office space, but you need it to be built intentionally.

Throwing up four walls and then adding a roof, windows, stairs, or whatever else might leave you in shambles if you don’t calculate what walls can bear weight, reinforce those walls, etc.

This video shows how professionals check for the integrity of a building:

As you can see, design codes are strict and structural engineers are necessary for making sure buildings are safe for people to live or work in.

Depending on how often you check the integrity of a building, you may find that things change over time, and structures that once held up well are now weaker. This means they’ve been checked and repaired more often than a newer build for older buildings. Years of reinforcement can be a factor in how strong a building is, but it’s not necessarily to say new buildings won’t someday be that strong.

The Human Factor in Buildings

We also have to think historically about who was doing the repairs in the household and how much expendable cash people had to get repairs done to their house. In the YouTube era, many modern-day people make repairs to their homes, saving money short-term but ruining structures long-term.

You’ll often notice that old houses and new houses alike have structural issues on home repair shows. Old homes may be weathering down due to age, while newer homes could be having problems because of added additions without considering the rest of the building. This video gives an example of what that might look like in a new house:

HGTV and home improvement networks have entire shows dedicated to structural damages in houses caused by homeowner renovations. Sometimes, it has less to do with the materials or the structure and more to do with human error. Older houses might have been cared for differently than newer houses, or vice versa.

Over Reinforcement: A Lesson in History

Another reason that older buildings may be stronger is because of over reinforcement. In the past, construction workers and engineers didn’t have the technology to calculate how things would hold up over time, the minimum amount of support needed, and so on. Most things were done with calculators or by hand, not with the advanced programs we have now that just take the numbers and spit out measurements.

For this reason, many construction workers and engineers over-reinforced the buildings they were working on to ensure safety. Instead of under-estimating or rounding down, which could save them material costs and labor, they often overestimated how much a building would need to make it as safe as possible. Sometimes, this works out well and keeps a building stronger. Other times, it results in beam failure.

The Bottom Line: Old Buildings Are Stronger Sometimes

Older buildings are often made with stronger materials. Because they’ve been around for so long, we associate them with strength or toughness. However, this isn’t necessarily fair to newer buildings. They haven’t had the opportunity to hold up for a long time, so it’s hard to tell how they’ll do in the future.

With older buildings, materials are older, so their structural integrity might give out. They’ll hold up next to a new building, but you’ll notice they both may start having problems around the same time.

The world’s toughest buildings range from structures built in Ancient China to modern-day hospitals and skyscrapers. The strength of a building has less to do with its age and more to do with the materials, structural integrity, and care put into the building.

What Makes Older Buildings So Strong?

There’s no denying that many of the old buildings we admire today were built very long ago. Some might consider them old–referring to ancient old or mid-century old–but they still stand up to newer buildings presumably made with better materials or more advanced technology. So how do these old buildings manage to withstand the tests of time?

Old buildings are so strong because of the materials used to build them. Additionally, the construction process often overestimated the level of materials or support something would need. All things were built with longevity, not necessarily profit or labor costs.

Historically speaking, older buildings were constructed by those who might have been exploited for their labor and therefore not paid much (or anything) for their work. For this reason, investors and builders were able to buy more expensive materials and require workers to perform hard labor. Things like plaster, lathe, steel, concrete, and stone were the most common building materials.

Certainly, there are strong buildings with newer construction, thanks to advancements in engineering technology that can provide us with numbers indicating the least possible material costs necessary, least possible labor costs, and the most safety. However, this often leads to companies cutting corners and using the least expensive materials possible.

Below, I talk about the materials typically used in older buildings. I also bring up one interesting–albeit silly–theory that though shocking, is followed by a number of historians and archaeologists.

Lathe and Plaster

As mentioned above, more recent mid-century homes and buildings were made with lathe and plaster. Lathe is made up of pieces of wood thinly cut and placed next to each other to construct a wall or ceiling. Plaster usually is made with gypsum, lime, or cement. Newer build walls often use drywall instead of plaster and lathe, a weaker material.

Using Steel and Concrete

Steel has been a popular material since before the 1900s. Typically paired with concrete, steel makes buildings very strong and structurally sound. Still, with its rising cost, some newer buildings opt-out of using steel and choose a different choice.

Steel wasn’t just used in old buildings, though. It’s often used in more modern structures but may be used less volume-wise.

Bricks, Stones, and Other Trends

Especially in the oldest buildings, we see tons of bricks, stones, and masonry. The oldest structures in the world are all constructed of various kinds of stone, and they’ve lasted thousands of years. Brick and stone are more challenging to get a hold of and more complex to build than the wood-and-drywall models that most modern construction workers are used to.

It’s not all cutting corners and looking at costs, though. Using bricks and masonry could also have a significant environmental impact because of the way they need to be transported and created. Bricks are heavy, and transportation can cause a vehicle to use more gas, adding more pollution to the air. Additionally, sometimes firing large amounts of brick creates unideal CO2 emissions.

Final Thoughts

Old buildings aren’t always stronger than new ones, but you can attribute it to a few things when they are. They are often made with stronger steel, concrete, brick, and stones. Trends in older buildings made their structures stronger.

Additionally, advancements in technology have allowed modern builders to do more with less. We can measure things down to minuscule numbers. Before this tech was available, builders had only safety in mind, so they often overspent and used the extra material to ensure a building would be safe.


By Giovanni Valle

Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.

1 comment

  1. I am really impressed by the lasting power of older buildings; their materials and craftmanship often seem unmatched. But I also appreciate the safety and innovation in modern construction. There is a lot we can learn from the past to inform our future builds.

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