Worldbuilding: Give It Structure

What’s your world built out of? Physically. As in, what do characters and cultures in your world consider construction materials for ordinary surroundings?

Note, this is going to depend partly on your tech level, partly on what’s readily available, and partly (note, partly, humans being humans and sometimes nuts) on what’s good architectural sense of how to put things together. Also note that humans tend to add materials to “what we can use” over time, and rarely abandon anything completely. There are still people building sod cabins!

And sometimes even the best efforts to build something sound fail due to the builders not considering one piece of info that should be obvious. For example, a certain well-known university in the Northeast had a library built, moved stuff in… and the nice brick façade promptly starting cracking off, creating a hazard to all students and many purely innocent passersby.

Any of you with even a modest book collection at home is probably facepalming right about now. Yep. The architect planned with the weight of the structure and human occupants stressing the façade… and totally failed to account for the tons of books.

Ahem. Now that we’ve absorbed that example of utter fail, let’s look at some common building materials.

Stone. Sometimes thought of as the oldest building material, likely due to the association with the Stone Age and the megalithic structures that exist to this day. But there’s good evidence that people learned to build these massive structures in more perishable substances first. See Woodhenge. Stone takes skills and muscle power, or at the very least a lot of hands, time, levers, and ropes.

On the upside stone is available just about anywhere humans choose to live. Including space, if you snag the right asteroids. Downside is that not all stones are the best for building with, and it takes skill to read the signs of a hidden flaw that means a solid-looking piece of granite will actually snap like a matchstick under the wrong bit of stress.

Wood. It has some of the same problems as stone, with the additional Weird Trick of being flammable.

(Not usually a problem with stone, unless you’re trying to build with phosphates, coal, or fissile materials. In which case, why.)

Wood does have the advantage of being lighter, somewhat bendable, and usually buoyant. If you’re planning to live somewhere with a shortage of available stone – say, taking to sea – wood works very well. It also is a renewable resource, if you treat it right. But it doesn’t grow everywhere. And in places it doesn’t, humans get scarily creative. Some building materials include: sod, compressed earth, bricks (earth done up fancy with ingredients), concrete, leather, felt, and bones.

(Yes, bones, especially when we had mastodons and mammoths roaming around. Yikes.)

Concrete has been around millennia; we have concrete floors in Greek palaces dating to about 1300 BC. Steel, glass, and polymers are comparative newcomers to the building game. I have no doubt that SF and fantasy environments will come up with new and exotic materials for building. What about treehouses spun of stiffened spiderweb, or living buildings of bioengineered bamboo, or a crystal palace of frozen starlight?

If you’re going to build a world, build one that’s amazing. Make it so, like Howard Carter peering into the past, we all see “wonderful things!”


15 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Give It Structure

  1. For today’s world building, I had to describe a character as very weathered. Catch was, it was on a formerly feral space habitat.

    So one of the waves of recolonization brought cathedrals with them from earth. Which also means the various cultures are also devoutly religious, in a civil war at least in part driving by the definition of what is human.

    I have somehow painted myself into the corner of doing the Americans Ivan Civil War, in space, with both factions being at least somewhat sympathetic, even if one of them is also wrong.

    Did I mention this was the one that keeps trying to turn itself into what is technically a paranormal romance?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “(Not usually a problem with stone, unless you’re trying to build with phosphates, coal, or fissile materials. In which case, why.) ”

    :child/alien gives innocent blink: “Well we didn’t know it was *flammable*….”

    Liked by 7 people

  3. It’s also worth pointing out that the first person to use a new material often works out well.

    The later ones, that are confident they know how it works and comfortable reducing safety margins, are the ones that usually have problems.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. I did rather like the… legislative chamber, I think. Or maybe a church…. up in Alaska somewhere, that they built of wood, but following the form of the old whalebone houses the Eskimos built (no, I don’t remember which group of them it was. Maybe Inuit.)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. One bit of interesting history was the development of steel techniques for structures with the spread of rail.

    They experimented with suspension bridges that used chains to carry load, which proved a little too flesible/dynamic for what you really want in a rail bridge.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Now, now, I’ll have you know that building your structures from (the right amount of) fissile materials ensures they stay nice and warm! 😀

    Although, jokes aside, I could actually see that, in a situation where you wanted something to Really Last, and also needed a totally passive way to keep the ice&snow from collecting on it. Like a giant LOOK HERE landmark on a planet undergoing runaway icehouse, when you want whatever space travellers stop by in 1k, 10k, or 100k years to be *sure* to see it.

    Of course, in the Marvel comics (and in GotG), the huge space station Knowhere is actually the head of a dismembered Celestial (“head up towards the old prefrontal lobes area, turn neckwards at the nasal cavity…”)

    And the degree to which people scavenge quality materials — so many old cities and temples (even the Great Pyramids) stripped of a Good Stuff as soon as no one was bothering to guard them anymore.

    And then there were the Brick Thieves of St Louis:

    And I keep hoping that *someone* will try building Project Habakkuk, just for the shier WTFery…

    Liked by 2 people

  7. The fire in Rome during Nero’s rule as Emporer proves that if the fire is hot enough, even stone is flammable.

    Now, as I am taking a few known climates to use in Draco, I figured I would take a look at what the people who live in those places use.

    In the north, we have Fradra (name subject to change), where there is snow in some places all year round. I figure I can get away with small towns of igloos because snow is a surprisingly good insulator. And “Log Cabins”, depending. Mostly of fir trees.

    To the east, there’s a kingdom that is modeled off of the eastern cultures, so, earthen works (like the Great Wall of China) and the old wooden structures from Japan and China both. (And Korea, I need to look into that.) I have not done enough research.

    In the kingdom to the west, I’ve decided on a tropical climate, so wet, humid, and hot. I’m thinking of using the softer stones like tuff (or however that’s spelled), limestone, sandstone, and hardwood.

    For the final kingdon to the south, I’ve decided on a more deserty climate so hot and dry.

    I’m thinking tents and perhaps sandstone (Egypt specifically comes to mind here.)

    And then the City of Castles at the center of the map would be built of things such as Marble.

    There is a fifth kingdom that was built on the back of a huge turtle, but I’m not sure what kind of material is used to build there yet.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The fire in Rome during Nero’s rule as Emporer proves that if the fire is hot enough, even stone is flammable.

      Or at least, can be damaged by fire, plus most stone buildings have wooden supports and/or floors….

      Liked by 3 people

      1. What chlorine triflouride does to some minerals is considered to be burning it.

        I’m pretty sure it doesn’t count as true combustion, but I’m not convinced I understand and can cite the true definition of combustion.

        Liked by 2 people

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