In America, we tend to think buildings that have stood a few hundred years are ancient, even though other countries have structures that have withstood far more centuries. A new video from The Atlantic, however, looks back even further, exploring the dwellings humans have called home for thousands of years. While the video starts in 25,000 B.C., the oldest structure ever found, a hut, dates all the way back to 500,000 years ago, according to the BBC.
Painted Cave — 25,000 B.C.
Situated on a limestone cliff in southern France, the Chauvet Cave contains some of the best-preserved cave paintings, dating back to about 30,000 years ago. While it also contains hearths and smoke marks from torches, some archaeologists argue that Paleolithic people mostly used caves for rituals and not shelter. “Almost all caves are described by archaeologists as seasonal, namely as autumn or winter occupations,” anthropological archaeologist Margaret Conkey tells Nautilus. “It’s clear that people were in caves for maybe a couple of months a year at the most.”
Mammoth Bone Hut — 16,000 B.C.
In 1965, a Ukrainian farmer found mammoth bones on an archeological site known as Mezhirich. Huts made from the bones, complete with hearths and pits, are between 14,000 and 15,000 years old. But there are remains of a 44,000-year-old Neanderthal building, also constructed from mammoth bones. “It appears that Neanderthals were the oldest known humans who used mammoth bones to build a dwelling structure,” archaeologist Laëtitia Demay told The Telegraph in 2011.
Hide Tent — 11,000 B.C.
The remains of hunting camps in Pincevent, France, offer clues about life 12,000 years ago. While the tents and the hides that presumably covered them are long gone, there’s evidence of hearths at each tent’s entrance, preserved by sand from annual floods. There are also reindeer bones, and the animals would’ve been used for both food and shelter. Reconstructions of the tepee-like structures took three dozen skins, according to The New York Times.
Mud-Brick — 8,000 B.C.
Travel to Dadhar, Pakistan, and you won’t be far from Mehrgarh, which dates back to at least 7000 B.C. Many of the hand-formed bricks are well preserved, made of clay and chaff; though the vegetation has since decayed, its impressions are still clear. The buildings themselves had several rooms, including places for storage. Courtyards separated the houses and contained bones of the Mehrgarh people’s dead, according to After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5000 B.C.
Stilt-House — 1,200 B.C.
Also known as pile dwellings, these houses on stilts were not actually constructed over water, though many of them hover over lakes today. “In those days, the lakes were smaller. The villages were built on dry land or in marshy areas. The piles really served to protect the inhabitants from flooding, since the water level varied much more than it does today,” Christian Harb, head of the Unesco World Heritage project on pile-dwellings, told swissinfo.ch. There are 111 sites around the Alps, and you can visit open-air museums such as Pfahlbaumuseum Unteruhldingen to see reconstructions of the dwellings, some of which date back to 4000 B.C.
Domus — 500 B.C.
If you were a member of the wealthy upper class in ancient Rome, you lived in a domus. The rooms — including bedrooms, a dining room, kitchen, and lavatory, and perhaps a library and private bath — surrounded an open-air atrium, where you would entertain and spend most of your days. Depending on how much coinage you had, you might keep a domus in the city and another in the country, according to PBS.
Insula — 500 B.C.
Latin for “island,” insulas were ancient Roman apartments for the plebs, a.k.a., the people who couldn’t afford a domus. Often these were mixed-use, meaning workshops and stores occupied the first floor. Those on the upper floors often didn’t have access to water and sanitary facilities, as pumps couldn’t accommodate them. Often poorly constructed, they were prone to collapse and fires, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Timber-Frame — First Century
For at least 7,000 years, timber frames have supported Chinese buildings, in a variety of shapes. Often the homes were symmetrical, made up of a platform, the timber frame, and a decorative ceiling, sometimes with paper and wood ornamentations. During the Neolithic period, the architects used unbaked mud bricks for the foundation, according to Chinese Architecture. A different sort of timber frame house, the House of Opus Craticium, was buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.
Chateau — Third Century
Yes, chateau means castle in French, but it also describes the lord of the manor’s home or the nobility’s country homes, sort of like Downton. The surrounding lands support the house. The structures have their origin in Roman villas, which began to become enclosed by walls in the third century, according to Wikipedia.
Mudhif — Ninth Century
For centuries, sheikhs built mudhifs of reeds among the marshes in Lagash, Iraq. The large, curved structures served as guesthouses and for events and political discussions. It’s amazing what you can construct out of just reeds, which were used for everything: the frame, ceiling, and as rope. Saddam Hussein authorized the draining of the marshes in the 1990s, but Nature Iraq recently documented the construction of a mudhif.
Machiya — Ninth Century
Preserving machiya — the traditional, thin townhouses — is a recent trend in Kyoto, Japan. Previously, they were often torn down to make room for more modern structures. Long and narrow, the wooden homes were called “eel beds,” because they were often only about 20 feet wide. They housed merchants and craftsmen, and the land they currently sit atop is more valuable than the homes themselves, according to CNN.
Caravanserai — 10th Century
Travelers making their way along the Silk Road might spot a square structure in the distance and feel relief they’d have somewhere safe to spend the night. Inside the opening, wide enough to fit their beasts of burden, a courtyard would lead to a building full of stalls, home to bazaars and hamams, as well places for voyagers to eat and sleep. The caravanserai were important locations for trading not only goods but news and ideas, according to Unesco.
Cob House — 11th Century
Mix subsoil, straw, and water, and you have what the British call cob. Traditional Afghan homes are also constructed out of the material, with thick walls and little windows. This helps the earthquake-resistant buildings stay cool and just be durable all around. “In England, people are still living in cob houses built before Shakespeare was born,” Patricia McArdle writes in a New York Times article.
Carved Cave — 11th Century
Carved into the volcanic rock of dormant Mt. Sahand in Iran are a series of hobbit-like homes dating back to at least the 13th century. Like the cob houses, they stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. For an updated experience, the Kandovan Laleh Rocky Hotel has modern conveniences, including TVs and plumbing.
Yurt — 12th Century
Greek historian Herodotus made the first mention of yurts in around 440 B.C., but Mongolians have used the portable, flexible, circular structures for thousands of years. Commonly used by nomadic people, thanks to the ease of setting them up and taking them down, a wood-burning stove sits in its center, and a chimney extends beyond the domed, partially open roof. Willow, birch, or other lightweight woods are used for the poles, and leather ties hold them together. Nomadic herders used wool from their sheep, yak, or goats to construct the felt that covered the poles. It’s not too hard to find modern yurts in campgrounds today, but perhaps the most famous yurt dweller is Mongolian leader Genghis Khan, who had 22 oxen pull his ger (the Mongolian version of a yurt), according to National Geographic.
Gothic — 12th Century
Gothic of course refers to more than just a clothing style preferred by disaffected adolescents. Lots of medieval European cathedrals are totally Gothic, but the architectural style — best known for its pointed roofs and flying buttresses — extended to secular buildings, as well. Used more in palaces that private homes, Gothic elements cropped up in other ways. Whole towns were sometimes enclosed by Gothic walls. One of the largest medieval Gothic buildings, the Palais des Papes, still stands in southern France. The former pope’s residence centers around the thickly walled Papal Tower, which is flanked by two wings of apartments. Through the years, the palace has been home to nine popes; today it’s open to the public.
Colonial — 16th Century
English colonists settling in what is now Connecticut and Massachusetts brought with them traditions, including home styles. Yet they were met with different materials and a new climate. There was an abundance of both timber and snow, so the two-story homes had angled roofs to help shed the flurries and central chimneys to heat the whole structure. Diamond-pane windows were another common feature. While the wood in these original homes didn’t last, the style had a second life during the Colonial Revival in the late 1800s through the 1950s, according to Historic New England.
Minka — 17th Century
There are four types of minka in Japan: farmhouses, fishermen’s dwellings, mountain homes, and merchants’ townhouses, each with their own style and materials dictated by the region, according to Jaanus. Instead of joining the wood frames with nails, they’re secured with joints. Traditionally, the roofs were made of thatch and clay, while the inside was partitioned by sliding doors. Like machiya, they are being torn down or abandoned in favor of more modern structures, though people like former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison have been trying to preserve them: In his case, he had a farmhouse imported to Silicon Valley, according to the LA Times.
A broad term, tulou is a traditional residence in Fujian, China, that housed clan groups, as many as 800 people at a time. Most of the several-storied structures encircling the shrine were made of mud with tiled roofs, though some were constructed out of granite or brick. For defense purposes, there would be a single entrance and no windows facing outside on the first floor. Built between the 15th and 20th centuries, the tulou were plain and fortified outside but comfortable and decorous inside, according to Unesco.
Beaux Arts — 18th Century
Anyone who’s read Devil in the White City remembers the descriptions of the symmetrical, decorous buildings that made up the World’s Columbian Exposition. Under the direction of Daniel Burnham, the monumental buildings adhered to the Beaux-Arts design principles; they were neoclassical and uniform, all covered in white stucco. The movement started in France but left its mark on the United States, as MIT, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University, and several other colleges were designed in this style. In New York, you can find some examples of residences with this style, thanks in part to architect John Hemingway Duncan. Known for designing Grant’s Tomb, he also made a Beaux-Arts maison for Lehman brothers, according to The New York Times.
Victorian — 19th Century
When someone says a house is Victorian, there are several styles they could be referring to. Between 1830 and 1910 (that is, when Queen Victoria ruled), the architecture evolved out of the Gothic style and reflected Victorians’ love of the ornate. Thanks to mass-production and the Industrial Revolution, it was cheaper to make trim and other decoration, so why not dress up the home a bit, incorporating elements from France, Italy, and beyond.
The homes were several stories, asymmetrical, made of wood or stone painted in bright and earthy tones, elaborated trimmed with wood or metal, and featured roofs with many gables and perhaps a tower. It wasn’t uncommon to have a porch wrapping around the entire home, according to HGTV. If you’ve ever seen San Francisco’s painted ladies, Maine’s Wedding Cake House, or Savannah’s Gingerbread House; you get the idea.
Vardo — 19th Century
For centuries, Romanies traveled on foot and slept in tents. By the 1850s, however, they began building vardoes, beautifully decorated wagons that became their homes. Made of wood, often ornately carved and painted bright colors, they were pulled by horses or tractors. But they were first and foremost a residence; they even had chimneys. They fell out of use in the 1960s and ’70s but tiny-house enthusiasts are bringing them back in a sense by making micro-homes they can pull with their cars, according to CBS News.
Craftsman — 19th Century
A sort of anti-Victorian, anti-Industrial Revolution response, the British Arts and Crafts movement began in the 1860s. The American version caught on in the early 1900s, celebrating the handmade over the factory-built, the simple instead of the over-adorned. Craftsmen homes are typified by the Gamble House in Pasadena, California, but you’ll find them all over the country. Brothers Charles and Henry Greene designed the home for David and Mary Gamble of the Procter & Gamble Company in 1908. Craftsman homes are often smaller than their Victorian predecessors, according to Zillow. Some common features include low-pitched roofs supported by square columns, overhanging eaves, exposed rafters, handcrafted stone or woodwork, and mixed materials. Instead of wraparound, these homes usually just have a front porch.
Public Housing — 20th Century
At the start of the 20th century, a few tenement codes — designed to improve livability in New York City’s slums — had passed. As in England, there were some philanthropic ventures that sought to improve conditions in these buildings, but reformers thought the government needed to get involved. The first public housing project, Boundary Estate, opened in London in 1900, according to the Advertiser, but it wasn’t until 1923 that a housing project went up in the U.S.: Milwaukee’s Garden Homes. Ninety-three two-story, stucco cottages with lawns held 105 units, and most were single-family homes, according to the National Register of Historic Places. Under the New Deal, housing projects that were closer to high-rises than cottages sprang up in greater numbers than ever before in the U.S. and in cities such as Chicago, has led to controversy ever since, NPR reports.
Modern Pre-Fab — 20th Century
Why hire an architect when you can order your home out of a Sears & Roebuck catalog? Seventeenth-century settlers were getting unassembled homes shipped from England to Cape Ann, Massachusetts. The trend continued into the 1940s, and the myriad options from Sears included everything you needed to make the home, including nails and paint. They became unfashionable after World War II, but like everything else, prefab is making a comeback, according to From Sears & Roebuck to Skyscrapers: A History of Prefabricated and Modular Housing.
Geodesic Dome — 1950s
Invented in Germany in 1922, geodesic domes are spherical structures made up of triangular panels that fit together sort of like soccer ball. Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center is one. Popularized by Buckminster Fuller, the domes are energy-efficient because air flows unobstructed and the structure’s decreased surface area means less exposure to heat and cold, according to the Buckminster Fuller Institute. Although modestly popular in the ’60s and ’70s, they never quite caught on and Lloyd Kahn, author of Domebook One and Domebook 2 stopped publishing the books after he became frustrated with building and living in the structures. Another dome owner offered to give $100,000 to whomever took his off his hands, because it was so difficult to maintain.
Mobile Home — 1950s
“The mobile home may well be the single most significant and unique housing innovation in twentieth-century America,” writes the author of Wheel Estate: The Rise and Decline of Mobile Homes. They transitioned from recreational vehicles to homes during the Depression. Military bases used them for emergency housing and factories put up employees in trailers during World War II. Mobile home parks with showers and laundries spread in the postwar years. Technically, you’re not supposed to call them mobile homes anymore: The term was replaced with manufactured homes in 1976 when the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) introduced national safety and quality standards, according to Bob Villa’s website.
Styrofoam Dome — 1970s
Head to Midland, Michigan, and you can see a Styrofoam dome home that’s been standing since 1964. Manufactured by the Dow Chemical Co., it used to be owned by a mentee of Buckminster Fuller, according to Midland Daily News. Much of the energy efficiency that applied to the geodesic dome also applies, but the Styrofoam house has fewer headaches because it’s not made up of so many different pieces. The house appears to have been a one-off for Dow, but Japanese company Dome House also makes domes out of expanded polystyrene.
Shipping Containers — 20th Century
Trucking entrepreneur Malcolm McLean bought a steamship company in 1955 and realized it would be easier to have a single container that could go from trucks and trains to ship without having to unload the contents. Thus, shipping containers were born. The idea caught on; the military used them to send supplies to troops during the Vietnam War, and they were sometimes used as shelters during an emergency. In 1987, Philip C. Clark filed for a patent for a “method for converting one or more steel shipping containers into a habitable building.” It took several more years before architect Peter DeMaria constructed the United States’ first two-story shipping container home in 2006, according to Arch Daily. It remains to be seen whether these will become a trend or go extinct.
3D-Printed House — 2015
Yet another new method of home construction recently took off with the advent of 3D printing. Still in its infancy, work began on the first 3D-printed house in 2014. What’s unique about 3D printing is that it’s not a style of home but a method of construction. You can make apartment buildings or a mansion. And as the technology develops, construction will happen more rapidly. An engineering professor has a conceptual machine that combines mechanical cranes and 3D layering to assemble a whole house in just a day, according to The Washington Post.
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