History Department

Environmental Science, Policy, and Engineering Program (ESPE)


Spring 2024

HST-291 / ENS-291

Professor Dr. Ashraf Ghaly, P.E.
Department Engineering
Office Olin 102D
Tel., email 518-388-6515, ghalya@union.edu

Lectures: TTH 10:55 AM - 12:40 PM, ISEC 387.

Consultation: Immediately after class, or by appointment.


An interdisciplinary introduction to the technology of construction and the social uses of buildings by humans. The course will consider types of building materials and their application to domestic housing, castles, cathedrals, palaces, monuments, dams, bridges, tunnels, factories, and office buildings. No prerequisite. ETS credit.


90+ = A 85+ = A- 80+ = B+ 75+ = B 70+ = B- 65+ = C+ 60+ = C 55+ = C- 50+ = D






Throughout history, different civilizations have used construction as means to display their greatness. Construction has always been influenced by historical, cultural, social, environmental, natural, and engineering factors. Humanity has always sought ways to advance the art and science of construction to better serve its needs. Despite these great ambitions, the state of knowledge and availability of proper construction materials have necessarily controlled and limited what was actually constructed. Furthermore, in some areas construction is affected by natural conditions such as earthquakes, heat, snow, wind, rain, humidity, and floods. These conditions cannot be controlled or regulated and have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The difficulties and rewards associated with constructing massive or unusual structures have long been a source of fascination and challenge which humans have shown ready willingness to accept.

This course is mainly concerned with the human side of construction. Its goal is to understand how the engineering of structures is closely knit with historical, cultural, social, environmental, and natural factors.

The course will conclude with thoughts about the relationship between construction and humanity in the twenty-first century.


Seven major themes will be addressed in this course:

1. Earth as a construction material used in large structures, such as dams, or as a small structural component in itself, such as masonry or bricks

Earth (soil) was one of the early construction materials found in abundance which could be easily processed and molded into desired shapes. The type of earth available in a given region, however, limited the type and scope of applications. The relationship between construction and earth throughout history will be explored. The historical and engineering perspectives will begin with the origin of human construction and proceed to the following points:

* The need for shelter

* Building materials

* Environmental factors

* Building techniques

* The emergence of villages and urban civilization

2. Domestic housing in the Ancient World

Small houses in which ordinary people spent most of their lives have seen constant changes in style, method of construction, and construction materials. These factors will be examined together with their influence on improving people's lives. The historical and engineering perspectives will cover the following points:

* Construction styles

* Impact of climate on construction

* Use of materials in construction

* Culture, customs, and construction

3. Large domestic and public structures: castles, and cathedrals.

In many societies wealthy secular or religious elites have used their power to build imposing structures designed to enhance their status. In Europe the transition from wood to stone as a primary construction material is especially evident in this category. Three historical and engineering perspectives will be covered:

* Castles: From Wood and Earth to Stone

* Cathedrals: Pointed Arch and Flying Buttress

* Palaces in Renaissance Florence

4. Uninhabitable structures such as monuments and dams

Civilizations throughout history dreamed of ways to commemorate their achievements. Construction of monuments was one to achieve this goal. Although monuments are uninhabitable structures, they were always used to symbolize what nations attempted to achieve. The historical and engineering perspectives will cover the following points:

* The Pyramids of Egypt

* The Eiffel Tower

* Hoover Dam

5. Large structures over gaps or waterways (bridges) or underground (tunnels)

Different civilizations viewed waterways or mountains as obstructions crippling or reducing their progress. Bridges and tunnels were thought of as possible solutions to connect different people, encourage commerce, or establish new communities. The social and historical implications of bridge and tunnel construction have been enormous, and this course will cover both the engineering and human aspects of large structures.

* Bridges: The Brooklyn Bridge

* Tunnels: The Channel Tunnel

* Subway systems

6. Large workplace structures such as factories and high-rise office buildings

These two types of construction will be examined in terms of how they change the workplace. The historical and engineering aspects of these structures will be covered from the following perspectives:

* Factories and industrial facilities

* High-rise structures and office buildings (Example: The Empire State Building)

7. Futuristic structures

An overview of innovative and unusual designs.




Papers should be a PDF or a Word document. There is no minimum or maximum number of pages for the paper. Students may wish to supplement their text with proper photos, pictures, tables, graphs, charts, and figures. Supplementing materials must be referenced at least once in the text of the paper.

Paper Grading Criteria

Students taking this course will receive Engineering/Technology/Society (ETS) credit. Classroom presentations and discussion will promote critical thinking to enable students to evaluate evidence, results, and claims related to the natural sciences/engineering/technology and their impact on broader human or societal issues. In their written paper and in their oral presentation, students are expected to highlight and detail principles similar to those listed above. The grade in this term paper will be assigned based on the quality and depth of thought, organization, and relevance of content to the subject under consideration, understanding, clarity of presentation, and demonstration of ability to address questions with comprehension.

Professor Ghaly Homepage Union College Homepage