Building Materials
January 21, 2010 1:57 AM   Subscribe

How big are the holes that are left from digging up the material for the world's buildings? Where can I see one?

Walking around any city, the sheer amount of building above ground level always makes me wonder. Where did it all come from?

I guess I'm particularly interested in the materials that make up concrete.
Is this stuff all over the place? Does it come from one place? Particularly: what does this place look like now?
posted by devnull to Science & Nature (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Aberdeen was built from this.
posted by fire&wings at 2:09 AM on January 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Obligatory link to the "biggest man-made hole in the world".

It's actually a diamond mine.
posted by Rei Toei at 2:10 AM on January 21, 2010

posted by Rei Toei at 2:11 AM on January 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Photo of Rubislaw quarry before it filled with water.
posted by fire&wings at 2:21 AM on January 21, 2010

As suggested above the rock used in buildings is quarried and eventually the quarries are left to fill with water in most cases. the dirt can come from a number of place; leveling off a hill to fill and adjacent low spot, for example, just leaves a big level area. On the other hand the holes left digging up fill dirt also sometimes are left to fill with water; the pond in the center here was created when the adjacent expressway was built; you can tell it was man mad by the parallel rows of dirt left for some reason at the bottom of the picture. As an aside the small round structure near the top in the same pond is a beaver lodge. Here is a quarry near the Atlanta airport; it doesn't look very impressive from this picture but when you fly over it on final approach from the east, you can tell it is huge and much deeper than it looks like here.
posted by TedW at 2:51 AM on January 21, 2010

Many of the older granite buildings in the northeast were built from stones that came from the Rock of Ages quarry in Vermont.
posted by skwm at 3:30 AM on January 21, 2010

If it's not grown, it's mined. (Bumper sticker I saw somewhere).

The majority of the materials in the buildings (structural / architectural, not interior decorating etc.) doesn't come from plants. It comes from mines. Steel, glass (silica) copper, marble, brass, nickel, lead, etc etc.

There are mines all over the world. It's not a place. It's many places. Hundreds of thousands of them.

Don't forget the roads. Roads have bitumen (asphalt) on top, but underneath there is crushed rock (from quarries), sometimes concrete - also containing crushed rock, also from quarries. There are quarries everywhere, supplying materials for roads concrete etc. You probably never even noticed them.
posted by defcom1 at 3:53 AM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

They dug the shit out of Awaji Island to make an artificial island for Kansai International Airport.
Quarry I used to pass on my cycling route.
posted by planetkyoto at 4:20 AM on January 21, 2010

A large chunk of London was built from Portland Stone
posted by Leon at 4:22 AM on January 21, 2010

Concrete comes from sand and gravel, both of which are quarried. Same for granite and marble.

Steel is an alloy of iron, which is mined. The open-pit iron mines will give you the "big gaping hole" you may be looking for: 1 2 3.
posted by megatherium at 4:45 AM on January 21, 2010

Thornton Quarry, south of Chicago. In the first picture in the gallery, you can clearly see the expressway that runs right through (over?) it.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:02 AM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't quite know what you're looking for, but here's a picture of a nail house* in China that gives a nice sense of scale.

* They're called that because the owners are like stubborn nails that refuse to submit to hammering.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:44 AM on January 21, 2010

At the risk of saying something obvious, those buildings, like molecules, are made up largely of empty space.

Edward Burtynsky has taken some beautiful photographs of the kinds of places you have in mind. Check out Quarries and Oil, among other titles.
posted by box at 5:46 AM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

It comes from mines and quarries. Quarries are all over the place, if you know where to look, and many are still in operation very near urban areas, which have constant demands for sand, gravel, and concrete. This one is not five miles from the center of my current city. Here's two within a couple of miles of each other near Bridgeport, PA.

Google Maps is awesome, no?

Metals are another story. Those require actual mining, not just glorified excavation, and the ore needs to be separated from the rock before it's useful. Mining is a lot more controversial and a lot less pleasant than quarrying. To run a quarry, you dig a hole and that's about it. But mining frequently involves literally tons of waste, both physical and chemical. Furthermore, though you can stick a quarry just about anywhere--most of the Earth's surface is rock after all--when you're mining you're looking for specific minerals which are not evenly distributed throughout the crust. As a result, mines tend to be located where the ore can be found and are very rarely located near population centers. Where they are, the population is frequently plagued with health problems from the toxic chemicals used nearby.
posted by valkyryn at 5:58 AM on January 21, 2010

I live in Houston, TX. We have no stone. You have to travel for more than an hour to find the first rock outcroppings. I also live next to train tracks. On a daily basis, around the clock, 5 to 10 train loads of crushed stone are brought into the city on this route. Each train has about 100 cars, and many of the cars are labeled with a capacity of about 186,000 lbs. You can do the math. These trains come from the center of Texas, in the Austin and San Antonio region, where limestone is common. It is about a 250 mile trip.

This stone is used to make concrete for the buildings, roads, sidewalks, etc. The quarries out in the Hill Country are broad areas, usually not more than 100 feet deep, were the stone has been blasted, piled, crushed, and loaded into countless trains. They are not particularly pretty. However, in San Antonio (for instance) a lot of urban development has taken place in and around old quarries. Trinity University clings to the sides of an old limestone quarry, and has the Heart Attack Stairs that students who are late for class must climb from their dorms. I have see houses that sell for a premium because they are on the edge of an old quarry and have dramatic views.

For pretty quarries, travel northwest of Austin to where the pink granite is mined from old volcano cores. This granite is used in grand buildings and jogging paths in Houston, and elsewhere.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 6:21 AM on January 21, 2010

A good portion of southern Indiana is pockmarked by limestone quarries that have provided stone for buildings all over the world for a long, long time. The exterior of the Empire State Building is Indiana limestone, for instance.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:39 AM on January 21, 2010

If you have noticed the palisades on the Hudson river north of the george Washington bridge, they were the source for much of the building material for manhattan 100 years ago. interesting NYT ad from 1895 Iirc the preservation of the palisades led to the creation of the NY/NJ trail committe.
posted by shothotbot at 6:44 AM on January 21, 2010

Interestingly, many of the people whose deaths are listed in the main link of this post from a couple days ago were killed in quarry accidents in Indiana.
posted by Daddy-O at 6:59 AM on January 21, 2010

You see buildings being destroyed, right? Well, when one is knocked down, it means another can be erected -- it's kind of like skyscraper whack-a-mole.

This leaves unresolved where Detroit is going, but I think it's resurfacing in China.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:31 AM on January 21, 2010

megatherium writes "Concrete comes from sand and gravel, both of which are quarried."

And portland cement which is about 80% sintered limestone. We have a cement plant at the edge of town but there isn't a hole per se to look at, they are just levelling a mountain to get the limestone.
posted by Mitheral at 7:52 AM on January 21, 2010

I live on a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve that has extensive quarrying operations. It is sad to see the beautiful Carolinian forests reduced to grey holes ion the ground but at the same time, people need places to live/work as our population is growing.

A few years ago there was an article in the Toronto Star talking about the logistical problems of delivering concrete (two hours is pushing it, and if you are late the load hardens in the drum if water isn't added, which ruins the mix). Te article is behind a paywall but I can email it to you if you are interested.
posted by saucysault at 8:14 AM on January 21, 2010

Here is what builds much of San Antonio, and if you zoom out and go east about 10-20 miles toward New Braunfels you can see other such facilities. These are giant limestone and gravel quarries. You can easy spot them on the aerial imagery even while zoomed out viewing all of the San Antonio area; they are extremely white and really stand out.
posted by crapmatic at 8:43 AM on January 21, 2010

Google satellite view of the biggest man-made hole in the world (linked to above).
posted by flug at 10:00 AM on January 21, 2010

Flickr set of Thornton Quarry south of Chicago, and the expressway that runs over it.
posted by washburn at 10:11 AM on January 21, 2010

World's Largest Limestone Quarry, which is in Michigan, near the Lake Huron shore.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:54 AM on January 21, 2010

A lot of the aggregate used for roads, cement etc in the UK comes from river terraces, for example, along the thames valley. These are ancient deposits of well-sorted gravel and sand, carried by water along the river basin and then deposited at natural bends as the river rises and falls over time. These deposits are quarried, but usually the quarry is filled and landscaped because river valleys in the UK also tend to be areas of high population.

Materials can also be extracted from 'live' coastlines, either by taking from beaches or by off-coast dredging, so you don't 'see' a hole as such, but it can destroy ecosystems wholesale, or lead to faster natural erosion of an area.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:36 AM on January 22, 2010

Also - a lot of the granite and polished stone you see on buildings is actually sheets of 'facing stone' attached to a framework of cheaper material (e.g. cement, breeze blocks etc). Facing stone has to be quarried, cut and polished, and is often sourced at distance, so it would be too expensive to build with entirely.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:44 AM on January 22, 2010

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