The newest oldest idea in architecture

While ancient civilizations had their ages of gold and silver, our 20th century was the age of concrete. Will the 21st century be remembered as a new stone age?

Some brave new builders are hoping so, as they look to the past for the material of the future: stone. While we might associate stone with the monumental temples of the past, stone is now being used for office buildings and apartment blocks. As our ancestors knew, stone is ubiquitous, durable, and fireproof. And as we know now, when quarried responsibly, stone may be considerably less emissions-intensive than concrete.

One architect taking part of the new renaissance in stone is Giles Perraudin, whose studio Perraudin Architecture teamed up with Swiss studio Architect to build Les Sciers, social housing providing 200 apartments in Plan-les-Ouates, outside of Geneva. The sober, frugal and elegant buildings are part of mixed residential development with more than 700 houses. This follows a much-lauded Perraudin project in Toulouse constructed of 40 cm slabs of stone, where Perraudin demonstrated that social housing could meet exacting environmental standards – while looking warmly beautiful as well.

In London, Amin Taha Architects and GROUPWORK are championing the virtues of stone as a building material. Their beautiful six-storey mixed-use stone building 15 Clerkenwell Close takes inspiration from the 11th century limestone Norman abbey that once stood on the site. Rather than using energy-intensive refined finish stone, 15 Clerkenwell Close – where Taha’s office is located – uses rough-cut, unfinished stone slabs. According to his calculations, it cost just one quarter of what it would have cost in concrete. Currently, they have another, even more ambitious building in progress: a 10-storey residential building with load-bearing stone walls that will make it the first of its kind since the age of mediaeval cathedral construction.

Of course, stone has been used in the centuries since that time, including for modern temples like Switzerland’s Church of San Giovanni Battista and Turkey’s Sancaklar Mosque, though in recent decades mostly as a decorative facade. But now stone is enjoying a renaissance in part due to its relative sustainability.

It’s an abundant natural resource – perhaps, as we orbit along on our 6.6 sextillion tonne rock, third out from the sun, the world’s most abundant. Stone quarrying has a relatively small environmental impact. Most of stone’s environmental impact comes from finishing and transport, so buildings made of local (within 200km) rough-hewn stone require much less energy to build than a similar concrete structure. And, unlike concrete, stone from construction can be endlessly recycled with very little extra work. When you knock it down, stone stays stone.

Which comes to the question of why aren’t more people building in stone? For one thing, the use of load-bearing stone is something of a lost art for not only architects and engineers, but also quarries. Like any other natural building material, there’s a lot of variation in the quality and suitability of the product, so legislation and standards need to keep up so that all parties are confident in their ability to use stone. And lastly, as Amin Taha discovered when a local zoning board wanted to demolish his office building for not aligning with their fixed idea of acceptable tradition, local rules may have to be more flexible to allow the radical use of “new” materials like stone.

Will stone become the ancient building material for this new millennium? Perraudin, Taha and others have built a solid case for its environmental and aesthetic virtues, but only time will tell.