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A concrete shell, also commonly called thin shell concrete structure, is a structure
composed of a relatively thin shell of concrete, usually with no interior columns or exterior
buttresses. The shells are most commonly flat plates and domes, but may also take the form
of ellipsoids or cylindrical sections, or some combination thereof. The first concrete shell
dates back to the second century.


Most concrete shell structures are buildings, including storage facilities, commercial
buildings, and residential homes. Concrete shell construction techniques are well
suited for complex curves, are also used to build boat hulls (called ferroconcrete).
Civil engineering students often build concrete canoes during their undergraduate
classwork in order to explore the techniques involved in building concrete shells. The
canoes are then raced in a competition, and in order to be competitive, the canoes
must be both lightweight and strong.


Like the arch, the curved shapes often used for concrete shells are naturally strong
structures, allowing wide areas to be spanned without the use of internal supports, giving an
open, unobstructed interior. The use of concrete as a building material reduces both
materials cost and construction costs, as concrete is relatively inexpensive and easily cast
into compound curves. The resulting structure may be immensely strong and safe; modern
monolithic dome houses, for example, have resisted hurricanes and fires, and are widely
considered to be strong enough to withstand even F5 tornadoes.

Since concrete is a porous material, concrete domes often have issues with sealing. If
not treated, rainwater can seep through the roof and leak into the interior of the
building. On the other hand, the seamless construction of concrete domes prevents
air from escaping, and can lead to buildup of condensation on the inside of the shell.
Shingling or sealants are common solutions to the problem of exterior moisture, and
dehumidifiers can address condensation.


The oldest known concrete shell, the Pantheon in Rome, was completed about AD 125, and
is still standing. It has a massive concrete dome 43m in diameter. A monolithic structure, it
appears to have been sculpted in place by applying thin layers on top of each other in
decreasing diameter. Massively thick at the bottom and thinning at the top, the Pantheon is a
remarkable feat of engineering.

The Seattle Kingdome was the world's first (and only) concrete-domed multi-purpose
stadium. It was completed in 1976 and demolished in 2000. The Kingdome was constructed
of triangular segments of reinforced concrete that were cast in place. Thick ribs provide
additional support.

Modern concrete shell construction

Modern thin concrete shells, which began to appear in the 1920s, are made from thin steel
reinforced concrete, and in many cases lack any ribs or additional reinforcing structures,
relying wholly on the shell structure itself.

Shells may be cast in place, or pre-cast off site and moved into place and assembled. The
strongest form of shell is the monolithic shell, which is cast as a single unit. The most
common monolithic form is the dome, but ellipsoids and cylinders (resembling concrete
Quonset huts) are also possible using similar construction methods.

Geodesic domes may be constructed from

concrete sections, or may be constructed of a
lightweight foam with a layer of concrete
applied over the top. The advantage of this
method is that each section of the dome is
small and easily handled. The layer of
concrete applied to the outside bonds the
dome into a semi-monolithic structure.

Monolithic domes are cast in one piece out of

reinforced concrete, and date back to the
1960s. Advocates of these domes consider
them to be cost-effective and durable
structures, especially suitable for areas prone
to natural disasters. They also point out the
ease of maintenance of these buildings.
Monolithic domes can be built as homes,
office buildings, or for other purposes.


A barrel vault, also known as a tunnel vault or a wagon vault, is an architectural

element formed by the extrusion of a single curve (or pair of curves, in the case of a
pointed barrel vault) along a given distance. The curves are typically circular in shape,
lending a semi-cylindrical appearance to the total design. The barrel vault is the simplest
form of a vault: effectively a series of arches placed side by side, i.e., one after another.

As with all arch-based constructions, there is an outward thrust generated against the
walls underneath a barrel vault. There are several mechanisms for absorbing this thrust.
One is, of course, to make the walls exceedingly thick and strong - this is a primitive and
sometimes unacceptable method. A more elegant method is to build two or more vaults
parallel to each other; the forces of their outward thrusts will thus negate each other.
This method was most often used in construction of churches, where several vaulted
naves ran parallel down the length of the building

Barrel vaults are known from Ancient Egypt, and were used extensively in
Roman architecture. They were also used to replace the Cloaca Maxima with a system
of underground sewers. Early barrel vault designs occur in northern Europe, Turkey,
Morocco and other regions. In medieval Europe the barrel vault was an important
element of stone construction in monasteries, castles, tower houses and other
structures. This form of design is observed in cellars, crypts, long hallways, cloisters and
even great halls.

Barrel vaulting was known and employed by

early civilizations, including Ancient Egypt and
Mesopotamia, but apparently it was not a very
popular or very common method of
construction. The technique probably evolved
out of necessity to roof buildings with masonry
elements such as bricks or stone blocks in
areas where timber and wood were scarce.
The earliest known example of a vault is a
Tunnel vault found under the Sumerian
ziggurat at Nippur in Babylonia, ascribed to
about 4000 BC, which was built of burnt bricks
amalgamated with clay mortar. The earliest
tunnel vaults in Egypt are found at
Requagnah and Denderah, circa 3500 BC;
these were built in sun-dried brick in three
rings over passages descending to tombs: in
these cases, as the span of the vault was only
two meters.

Ancient Romans most probably inherited their knowledge of barrel vaulting from Etruscans. Romans
were the first to use this building method extensively on large-scale projects, and were probably the
first to use scaffolding to aid them in construction of vaults spanning over widths greater than
anything seen before.

After the fall of the Roman empire, few buildings large enough to require much in the way of vaulting
were built for several centuries. In the early Romanesque period, a return to stone barrel vaults was
seen for the first great cathedrals; their interiors were fairly dark, due to thick, heavy walls needed for
support of vault. One of the largest and most famous churches enclosed from above by a vast barrel
vault was the church of Cluny Abbey, built between eleventh and twelfth century.

In thirteenth and fourteenth century, with the advance of the new Gothic style, barrel vaulting
became almost extinct in constructions of great Gothic cathedrals; groin vaults reinforced by stone
ribs were mostly used in the beginning, and later on various types of spectacular, ornate and
complex medieval vaults were developed. However, with the coming of Renaissance and Baroque,
and revived interest in art and architecture of antiquity, barrel vaulting was re-introduced on a truly
grandiose scale, and employed in constructions of many famous buildings and churches, such as
Basilica di Sant'Andrea di Mantova
Leone Battista Alberti,
San Giorgio Maggiore
Andrea Palladio, and perhaps most glorious of all, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, where a huge barrel
vault spans the 27 meters wide nave.


With a barrel vault design the vectors of

pressure result in a downward force on
the crown while the lower portions of the
arches realise a lateral force pushing
outwards. As an outcome this form of
design is subject to failure unless the
sides are anchored or buttressed to very
heavy building elements or substantial
earthwork sidings. For example, at
Muchalls Castle in Scotland adjacent
walls to the barrel vaulted chambers are
up to 4,6 meters thick, adding the
buttressing strength needed to secure the
curved design.Well documented cases
exist of the long term stress effects on
inadequately laterally supported barrel
vaults such as the seventeenth century
church of Guimarei.[5]