concrete, structural masonry material made by mixing broken stone or gravel with sand, cement, and water and allowing the mixture to harden into a solid mass. The cement is the chemically active element, or matrix; the sand and stone are the inert elements, or aggregate. Concrete is adaptable to widely varied structural needs, is available practically anywhere, is fire resistant, and can be used by semiskilled workers.

The use of artificial masonry similar to modern concrete dates from a remote period but did not become a standard technique of construction until the Romans adopted it (after the 2d cent. b.c.) for roads, immense buildings, and engineering works. The concrete of the Romans, formed by combining pozzuolana (a volcanic earth) with lime, broken stones, bricks, and tuff, was easily produced and had great durability (the Pantheon of Rome and the Baths of Caracalla were built with it). Enormous spaces could be roofed without lateral thrusts by vaults cast in the rigid homogeneous material.

Scientifically proportioned concrete formed with cement is an invention of modern times; the name did not appear until c.1830. Modern portland cement has revolutionized the production and potentialities of concrete and has superseded the natural cements, to which it is vastly superior. The component materials of concrete are mixed in varying proportions, according to the strength required and the function to be fulfilled; the proportions were first worked out by Duff Abrams in 1918. The ideal mixture is that which solidifies with the minimum of voids, the mortar and small particles of aggregate filling all interstices. A typical proportioning is 1:2:5, i.e., one part of cement, two parts of sand, and five parts of broken stone or gravel, with the proper amount of water for a pouring consistency. A simple test called a “slump test” is used to confirm the proportions and consistency of the mixture, and it is then poured into wood or steel molds, called forms. Concrete usually takes about five days to cure, or reach acceptable hardness, but a technique called steam saturation can shorten that curing time to less than 18 hours. A wide variety of additives allow the concrete to harden faster or slower, resist scaling, have increased strength, or adopt the final shape more easily.

Concrete used without strengthening is termed mass, or plain, concrete and has the structural properties of stone—great strength under compressive forces and almost none under tensile ones. F. Joseph Monier, a French inventor, found that the tensile weakness could be overcome if steel rods were embedded in a concrete member. The new composite material was called reinforced concrete, or ferroconcrete. It was patented in 1857, and a private house in Port Chester, N.Y., first demonstrated (1857) its use in the United States. It is now rivaled in popularity as a structural material only by steel. Concrete reinforced with polypropylene fibers instead of steel yields equivalent strength with a fraction of the thickness. Reinforced concrete was improved by the development of prestressed concrete—that is, concrete containing cables that are placed under tension opposite to the expected compression load before or after the concrete hardens. Another improvement, thin-shell construction, takes advantage of the inherent structural strength of certain geometric shapes, such as hemispherical and elliptical domes; in thin-shell construction great distances are spanned with very little material. The perfecting of reinforced concrete has profoundly influenced structural building techniques and architectural forms.

See A. A. Raafat, Reinforced Concrete in Architecture (1958); J. J. Waddell, Concrete Construction Handbook (1968); D. F. Orchard, Concrete Technology (1976).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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