Once it took 300,000 workers, 6,000 elephants and 30 years to build a temple – unimaginable in today’s world. But just how much has construction improved over the centuries? With the help of gas and electricity, modern technology and today’s building techniques, how much easier would it be to build?
We enlisted a specialist architect and design team from Johnson Design Partnership Ltd to estimate the time and manpower that went into ten iconic landmarks, and what it would be like to construct them today.
1. Chichen Itza
Yesterday: 100s of years. Today: 5 years.
The Mayan city of Chichen Itza was built more than a thousand years ago, and would have taken workers hundreds of years to complete. While it’s impossible to know how many people it took, modern technology would see construction lasting just five years for 1,500 builders. Back then handheld chisels would’ve been the most high-tech tools available, so it’s no wonder even humble modern inventions, such as electric drills, would make building time so much shorter now.
2. The Pyramids of Giza
Yesterday: 80 years. Today: 15 years.
Using the estimates of modern Egyptologists as a basis, our experts calculate that the Pyramids of Giza were likely constructed by 20,000-30,000 workers over a period of 80 years – using simple pulley systems and complex maths. Today it would take 1,500 to 2,000 workers 15 years to complete – a surprisingly small improvement considering almost 5,000 years have passed since their construction. However modern building process would save more than a few strained backs, with cranes for lifting stones and electric machines to cut them.
Yesterday: 1,500 years. Today: 1 year.
With no concrete evidence as to how it got there, this prehistoric site is one of the world’s great mysteries. Despite some people believing it was placed there by aliens, our experts believe the landmark was likely built over a period of 1,500 years using 10 million hours of labour. It’s believed the 25 tons of stone were rolled using tree trunks from as far as Wales. They were then pieced together using plant fibre ropes and wooden A-frames, with weights and timber platforms to help slot the rocks together using tongue and groove joints. Phew.
Today, of course, the rocks would be lifted using cranes and the build time would drop from 1,500 years to just one. The estimated manpower would be almost halved, from 250 to 150.
4. Machu Picchu
Yesterday: 64 years. Today: 10 years.
Perched high upon a mountain in the middle of Peru, construction of this Incan citadel would have been no easy feat. With around 5,000 workers, our experts estimate that it would have taken 64 years to complete the process, using a dry-stone technique to cut and shape the rock. Fun fact: 60% of the construction was underground. Fast-forward 600 years and it would take just 10 years and 300-500 workers thanks to helicopters for transporting materials and equipment, and lasers for cutting stone for the buildings’ facades.
Yesterday: 500 years. Today: 25 years.
It’s estimated that only 15% of this historical city has been uncovered, with the rest still underground and untouched. For this reason, it’s difficult to predict just how long and how many workers it would take to build Petra today. What we do know, however, is that it took at least 500 years to construct the city, using human-power to place and hand-carve the sandstone. Access would also have been difficult due to its location at the end of a narrow gorge. Now, electrical conveyor belts would take the backbreaking work out of transporting the sandstone, and it would likely take just 25 years.
6. Great Wall of China
Yesterday: 2,000 years. Today: 15 years.
The most immense project of all the sites we’ve listed, the Great Wall of China took an astonishing 2,000 years and up to 1.5 million people to build. Basic rope and wooden basket pulley systems were used, and the materials were stone, soil, sand and brick. Today the project could be completed in just 15-20 years with the help of 5,000 people. The individual pieces could be mass-produced offsite to create a kit of parts that could be easily pieced together, then transported into position by helicopters.
Yesterday: 9 years. Today: 3 years.
The Ancient Greek Athenian temple was built from marble from the nearby Mount Pentelikon. Basic rope and pulley systems would have helped to move the giant marble stones into place. Amazingly, the construction took just nine years with the help of an estimated 20,000 people. Today, work could be completed in three years with 1,000 people. A steel frame would be constructed first, then clad in pre-cut stone.
Yesterday: 6 years. Today: 4 years.
Given that the Colosseum was built almost 2,000 years ago, it’s pretty impressive that it only took between six and eight years to build – though it did take a 60,000-strong workforce. The speed was partly thanks to the invention of concrete, which was combined with stone for extra strength. Vaulted arches made of the new material also added strength to the structure. Without this combination, the Colosseum could not have been built.
Today, construction time would be drastically reduced using the same methods as the Parthenon. The roof would comprise of a light metal frame and a thin fabric or EFTE (a kind of plastic that was used to build the Eden Project). It would take four years to build, with 1,000 pairs of hands on deck.
9. Angkor Wat
Yesterday: 37 years. Today: 7 years.
With the help of 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants, this Cambodian temple complex took 37 years to build. Stone was quarried and transported to the site using a series of canals, and this was then encased in sandstone for carving the reliefs. Today, valuable time and cost would be saved using similar methods described with our other landmarks. With gas and electricity making pre-cut stone, construction time would be cut down to seven years and the workforce reduced to just 1,500.
10. Taj Mahal
Yesterday: 20 years. Today: 7 years.
Constructing the Taj Mahal took 20,000 workers, 1,000 elephants and 20 years of hard work. Wells were dug and filled with rubble to create the footings of the tomb, colossal brick scaffolding was constructed and a post-and-beam pulley system was used to lift everything into place. Materials were transported using animals and wagons. Today, a steel frame could be clad in marble or a lighter cladding such as Trespa, which is hardwearing and easier to install, therefore reducing build time to just seven years for 1,500-2,000 workers.
Laser cutters and even simple electrical drills have all drastically advanced the world of construction – but none of these innovations would have come about without two key ingredients: gas and electricity!