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Born to build: New books show how and why humans create structures

Colorful illustrations help tell the stories of buildings, bridges and more.

Whether scraping the sky, burrowing into the ground, or connecting one piece of land to another, structures need to be stable and secure to last even a year. Here are three books that look at the history of man-made buildings, tunnels, bridges and more from three different perspectives. The first focuses on the world’s most widely used building material. The second explains how some of the world’s most formidable structures have been designed and constructed. The last explores why humans have built — and keep building — structures that are taller and taller.

Concrete: From the Ground Up

By Larissa Theule; illustrated by Steve Light

Ages 7 to 10

This fun and informative book explores the long-but-interrupted history of one of the tougher substances around. A mixture of stone, sand, water and cement (itself a combination of limestone and clay), concrete was used by the Romans to make structures that remain impressive achievements today: aqueducts that brought fresh water into cities; the massive oval amphitheater called the Colosseum; and the temple known as the Pantheon that Emperor Hadrian ordered rebuilt with a huge concrete dome. But, as author Larissa Theule points out, “the recipe for Roman concrete was lost” after the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century.

Concrete was revived in the 19th century after an engineer figured out how to use it to build a lighthouse that could withstand storms and fires. The invention of reinforced concrete, which has steel rods running through it, led to skyscrapers, bridges, large-scale projects (such as the Hoover Dam in the 1930s) and architectural wonders such as the Sydney Opera House.

Theule’s explanations are clear and concise, while Steve Light’s illustrations are playful even when they’re showing off the solidity and magnitude of concrete creations.

How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures

By Roma Agrawal; illustrated by Katie Hickey

Ages 8 and older

Ever wonder how towers withstand strong winds, or how bridges outlast earthquakes? In this spectacular tour, award-winning engineer Roma Agrawal presents structures from around the world that have been designed to withstand the test of time compression, tension and other forces of nature.

Well-matched by Katie Hickey’s colorful and detailed illustrations, Agrawal’s text features famous structures, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as less-visited ones, such as the movable Halley VI research station in Antarctica.

She delves into a wide variety of building challenges and shows how they were addressed by architects, structural engineers and mechanical engineers. In the case of the Brooklyn Bridge, it was the brilliant wife of the chief engineer who completed the project.

Agrawal explains everything — from soil, materials and machines to human labor and ingenuity — with an expert’s enthusiasm. She will get you thinking about the most imposing structures in the world, but also the buildings you see every day and the ones that will be built in the decades to come.

Why Humans Build Up: The Rise of Towers, Temples and Skyscrapers

By Gregor Craigie; illustrated by Kathleen Fu

Ages 9 to 12

Packed with photos and illustrations, this book covers structures from different regions but also considers the downsides of building up. Author Gregor Craigie presents 11 reasons tall edifices have been constructed, including security, spirituality, luxury and efficiency, and describes how several structures in each category were made. They range in time from the Tower of Jericho (made from rough stones covered in mud plaster around 8300 BC) to more recent buildings such as the Brock Commons Tallwood House (finished in 2017) on Canada’s West Coast. Tallwood House, which was the tallest mass timber structure when it opened, is featured in the book’s last chapter. Titled “Sustainability,” it discusses the efforts of engineers, architects and city planners to reduce energy use, promote natural cooling and heating systems, and preserve the wild areas of the world.

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