How Cathedrals Were Built Before Modern Technology



Three hundred and sixty six feet above the ground in London stands the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. What is amazing to me about it, aside from the beauty of the building itself, is the logistics and techniques that went into the construction.


How do you get concept plans without CAD? How do you meet with your team without Zoom? How do you find good subcontractors without Google reviews? How do you hoist stone up 366 feet without a crane? These are just a few of the logistical questions that come to mind when I think of something built so long ago.


Sir Christopher Wren, the architect (and de facto general contractor), behind St. Paul’s Cathedral used wooden 3D models for his designs. Not only were these to show the stakeholders in the projects, but also as a means of communication with his master tradesmen.

I think there are pros and cons to this. One benefit of this method of planning is the ease of understanding similar to my CAD renderings of projects. Stakeholders in a project can see what they are getting and can make modifications. The downside to using these wooden models as opposed to modern construction drawings is that when it comes to actually building, there isn’t a standardized “language” that all the subcontractors could refer to, which increases logistical issues.


When it comes to the logistics, projects like this just took longer. Much longer. For example, the Empire State Building, which was constructed in the 1930’s was completed in 1 year and 45 days. St. Paul’s Cathedral was completed in 40 years. Some of this difference can be attributed to communication and networking abilities in London in the 17th and 18th century. Wren had to act as the general contractor for this project, so he sought out the skilled tradesmen to complete each of the tasks. Then the skilled tradesmen had to find laborers who would come in and get paid by the day for their work. This is not nearly as efficient, but very impressive to coordinate prior to electronic communication.


The biggest contributing factor to the length of this project was the technology. Now we can rent out a crane or a powerlift. It is remarkable how this was done before newer technology though. Flying scaffolds were used progressively, or suspension cables from the top of the structure, so as the building would go higher, the scaffolding could reach higher. This required constant manual adjustment as progress was made in order to continue. For hoisting heavier materials up, temporary ramps were constantly built and adjusted. Additional techniques were pulley systems, operated by men on the ground, and timber cranes. timber cranes were originally invented by the Romans, and while being manually operated, could hoist tons at a time. This is still a mystery to modern engineers. The problem solving and labor that went into these techniques and technologies are ingenious in their own respect.


Many of these old buildings are very impressive architecturally, but even more impressive logistically and technologically. There is a lot to learn from these builder that had a lot less to work with, but still produced amazing results. I think the main lessons are critical thinking and resourcefulness. While it is great to have overpowered machines and adequate equipment, these old masterpieces show that with enough thought, any problem can be solved.

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