Massive-precut stone is a modern stonemasonry method of building with load-bearing stone. Precut stone is a DFMA construction method that uses large machine-cut dimension stone blocks with precisely defined dimensions to rapidly assemble buildings in which stone is used as a major or the sole load-bearing material.
A key technique of massive-precut stone ("MP stone") is to specify precut stone to precise dimensions that match the architect's plan for rapid construction, typically using a crane. The blocks may be numbered so that the masons can follow the plan procedurally. The use of massive stone blocks has several benefits, listed below.
Massive-precut stone construction was originally developed by Fernand Pouillon in postwar period who referred to the method as "pierre de taille" or "pré-taille" stone. It became possible through innovations by Pouillon and Paul Marcerou, a masonry engineer at a quarry in Fontvieille, to adapt high-precision saws from the timber industry to quarrying and stone sawing.
Massive-precut stone is also known as "prefabricated stone", "pre-sized stone", "megalithic" construction, or simply "massive stone", however these terms have namespace conflicts with synthetic stone, cosmetic (non-loadbearing) precut stone, and/or older methods of massive handworked stonemasonry. MP stone has a close affiliation with post-tensioned stone as emerging techniques of modern load-bearing stonemasonry. Massive-precut stone has a connection to mass timber as they are both emerging methods of low-carbon construction.
Since 1948, MP stone buildings have been constructed in France, Algeria, Iran, Switzerland, Palestine, United Kingdom, Spain, and India. The re-adoption of MP stone inspired architecture critic Rowan Moore to note that "It’s conceivable, indeed, that the era of concrete will prove only an interlude in the far longer history of stone."
Design features of massive-precut stone
MP stone is defined by five design attributes. These differentiate MP stone from both traditional stonemasonry and modern non-load-bearing and/or non-DFMA stone methods.
Load bearing. This distinguishes MP stone from cosmetic precut stone, which is used for cladding decoration.
Massive blocks. Using massive dimensions has three critical benefits: (1) minimizing cuts, which lowers cost and shortens production time, (2) increases the thermal mass of walls for temperature regulation in the building, and (3) makes use of crane construction, thereby lowering manual labor, shortening assembly time, reducing mortar, labor, and cost.
Precise offsite dimension cuts. Precutting can be done at the quarry, or at a masonry workshop by sawyer and banker masons. The precision amounts to a form of prefabrication, such that the masons do not have to make adjustments onsite, and construction is an assembly process. Precise interfaces also reduce the amount of mortar required.
Machine fabrication and assembly. Unlike traditional stonemasonry, cutting (saws) and assembly (cranes) is primarily done with machines.
Design for manufacturing and assembly. The architect will design the building to specify each ashlar's dimensions. Blocks are to be designed to be as modular as possible, ideally with a handful of different shapes. Reducing the types of shape simplifies manufacture. Pouillon was able to build large housing projects faster and cheaper than the competition, in part due to his DFMA process.
"Exactly how Pouillon brought the 2,635 apartments of the 1959 Résidence du Parc in Meudon-la-Forêt (1959) online in record time and at less-than-market prices remains a mystery no-one seems to want to see solved.".
Types of massive-precut stone construction
There are three implementations of massive-precut stone.
Massive-precut monolithic ashlars. Blocks cut precisely on four to six sides, used to assemble walls, lintels over windows and doors, and in flat arches. The first major use of this variation was in the La Tourette and Vieux-Port redevelopment projects.
End-shaped massive-precut monoliths. Quarry-finished dimension stone blocks with precisely shaped ends for assembly into post-and-lintel frameworks. The first implementation of this method was in the 15 Clerkenwell Close building, completed 2017.
Massive-precut cyclopean concrete blocks. Developed by IBAVI in Mallorca, rough stones are placed in a mold and saturated with concrete. The concrete is sawn into massive ashlars for crane assembly. Enables reuse of rough plum stones from traditional stone masonry. The first documented architectural use of precut cyclopean concrete blocks was in a social housing project on Mallorca in the early 2020s.
MP stone is typically used in conjunction with other materials, notably for floors, as unreinforced stone is unsuitable for tensile spans. It has most often been used together with reinforced concrete floors, but plans are in place to use it with cross-laminated timber floors, and post-tensioned stone floors. Reinforcing massive precut stone with post-tensioning reinforcement would make it strong enough to substitute for reinforced concrete in a wide range of applications.
Benefits of massive-precut stone construction
MP stone construction has five key advantages over non-massive stone and brick masonry, concrete, wood, and other conventional construction methods.
Specific benefits of massive-precut stone construction
Build speed. The use of precisely cut and numbered ashlars, combined with crane-assisted assembly, significantly reduces construction time compared to traditional stone masonry techniques. Compared to concrete construction, MP stone is faster as there is only a limited setting wait time.
Simplicity. Amin Taha compares a stone-clad concrete column with a stone column. The former demands multiple layers: steel, concrete, fireproofing, waterproofing, stone cladding, and the fixtures connecting them; all require the various specialized workers for installation. The latter is a block of stone that is installed by masons using a crane and mortar.
Design efficiency. Simplicity improves design efficiency, enabling architects to generate and iterate building designs quickly. Use of DFMA and modularity improves the chance of project success.
Labor Efficiency. The use of cranes and a well-organized construction plan reduces the labor required, lowering costs and reducing the wait time for skilled mason availability.
Cost reduction. Compared to brick masonry or smaller ashlars, using larger stone blocks (and thereby minimizing sawing and fixer-masonry costs,) means that the overall expense of constructing a building can be reduced.
General advantages of stone construction
Environmental Benefits. The use of a material with lower embedded carbon contributes to a more sustainable building process, minimizing the environmental impact. Lower carbon emissions: load-bearing stone construction emits around 1/10th the carbon as a comparable concrete building. As 80% of energy is non-grid fossil fuel, and construction is respoinsible for 8% of carbon emissions, the replacement of coal-burning concrete production with lower-energy dimension-stone production could have a substantial impact on net-zero goals.
"Imagine: we currently crush, burn and chemically mix limestone to make cement for concrete that then has 40 per cent of the strength of its original strength, needing steel to reinforce it. Why do we use concrete then?"
Durability. Buildings constructed using massive precut stone maintain the inherent durability and longevity of stone construction, offering long-lasting and low-maintenance structures. Historically, load-bearing stone is the most durable construction method. An engineering analysis of a 20-storey unreinforced MP-stone tower has suggested this method has good seismic resilience:
"With regard to the current Algerian seismic design regulation, the results obtained in terms of time period, frequency, storey drifts and displacements showed that the… [Diar Es Saada massive precut stone]… tower can be considered as an earthquake-resistant building fulfilling the required structural safety conditions."
Aesthetics. Compared to concrete and other materials, massive precut stone construction yields visually striking and distinctive buildings that showcase the natural beauty of stone. There is a trend away from artificial stone products due to their fake image. “People increasingly want the authentic beauty and inconsistencies of natural stone; imitation ceramic tiles include realistic veins but have a repeat pattern like wallpapers, so you can tell quickly that they’re fake.”
Reusability. When a building has reached the end of its usefulness, rectilinear ashlars are easily reused as spolia in new construction.
Thermal Performance. As with traditional stone construction, massive precut stone buildings benefit from excellent thermal mass, helping to regulate indoor temperatures and reduce energy consumption for heating and cooling.
Fire resistance. Compared to wood and other products, stone has far superior fire resistance, so requires little or no additional fireproofing.
Controversies around massive-precut stone
MP stone has been ignored and/or resisted by mainstream architects and developers.
Belief that dimension stone is too expensive for non-luxury load-bearing construction. Depending on the context, this may be true if quarries are not developed for large precision blocks. However, in the early 2020s quarries in France and Italy were able to furnish cost-effective precision-cut stone. Amin Taha of Groupwork points out that using stone directly obviates the use of fireproofing, waterproofing, stone (or other) cladding, associated fixtures, and cuts labor costs, while simplifying design and design iterations.
Claim that MP stone cannot be safely used for tall structures. This view is contradicted by two 70-yo towers standing >50 m, located at 2 Rue Saint Laurent, Marseille; and Diar Es Saada, Algiers, the latter of which is close to a fault. Also the stone towers of cathedrals that have lasted for centuries, and ancient tall stone structures—like the 48-m Pont du Gard—that have stood for millenia.
Unsuitability of MP stone for long spans, including floors. Due to its poor tensile strength, stone cannot be used for long spans, so (unlike reinforced concrete), architects and builders must switch modes during design and construction of horizontal and vertical components. MP stone can be used in conjunction with concrete floors, manufactured timber panels, and post-tensioned stone flooring units.
The mainstream modernists, who were focused on concrete, steel, and other new materials, disliked the continuity with the old world that MP stone represented. This disregard for stone in fact violated Louis Sullivan's maxim that "form follows function".
The variable rustication on the blocks supporting 15 Clerkenwell Close was opposed by a local councilmember due to heritage style and aesthetics. Ironically the use of load-bearing rusticated stone is an ancient style and the use of limestone was specifically appropriate to the site, which was the site of a limestone Norman abbey.
In many nations, quarries produce aggregate, and/or dimension stone is only produced for cosmetic veneers, not structural purposes. This means that the most abundant natural construction resource is inaccessible to most of the world's population. This explains why the method has been used most extensively in France, where the quarrymasters and other stonemasons are knowledgeable in load-bearing stone. The presence of heritage stonemasons in many regions suggests that there is the potential to restore structural stonemasonry in many countries.
History of massive-precut stone
Fernand Pouillon (1912-1986) was a French architect who pioneered the use of massive precut stone in modern architecture. During the post-war period, his innovative approach to stone construction led to the development of numerous noteworthy projects, with a particular focus on housing. Throughout his long career, Pouillon played a crucial role in the development and popularization of massive precut stone construction techniques. His pioneering work laid the foundation for subsequent architects to build upon and innovate, leading to the resurgence and expansion of this construction method in modern architecture.
In the post-war era, Pouillon—first in Perret's firm and then through his own office—designed and completed MP-stone buildings that held tens of thousands of apartments, in France and Algeria.
Mid-century precut stone. Precut stone for modern architecture was pioneered by Fernand Pouillon in the post-war period in France, Algeria, and Iran.
"This new technique consisted of adapting machines used to form steel and wood to cut stone. As a result of this technique it became possible to mine and shape the blocks of the Fontvielle quarry very finely, which allowed for a particular building technique, named ‘ready-made’ or ‘prefabricated’ stone by Pouillon.".
1940s: Pouillon began experimenting with the use of machines to cut stone, adapting technologies initially designed for steel and wood processing. This new technique enabled the precise shaping of stone blocks from the Fontvielle quarry. The signature development from this time was the design and construction of La Tourette in the reconstruction of the Vieux-Port of Marseille, in collaboration with André Devin, Eugène Beaudoin, and Auguste Perret. A landmark development in this project was the construction of the first MP stone skyscraper, 2 Rue Saint-Laurent, a 16-storey apartment building.
1950s: Pouillon designed and constructed various housing projects in France using his prefabricated stone technique, such as the Meissonier housing project in Aix-en-Provence, which showcased the speed and efficiency of his construction method. He worked in Paris, building several large housing developments of architectural merit.
Algeria, 1950s-1970s: Pouillon extended his work to Algeria, designing several major housing projects in Algiers, such as Diar es-Saâda (730 units), Diar el Mahçoul (900 units) and Climat de France (3500 units). Although these projects utilized French stone, they demonstrated the adaptability of his technique to a different region. A notable building of this era was the Tower of Diar es-Saâda, a 20-storey unreinforced MP stone skyscraper, which has stood undamaged for 70 years in a seismically active region
1980s-1990s. For several decades, MP stone was largely forgotten, overshadowed by concrete. After his death in 1986, there were no practicing architects constructing modernist MP stone buildings in the post-Pouillon years. The legacy of architects like Le Corbusier and the other mainstream modernists left the focus on reinforced concrete. In the modern context, stone became associated with heritage buildings and decorative cladding of concrete.
Gilles Perraudin's revival of MP stone
Vauvert Winery, 1998. Lyon-based French architect Gilles Perraudin rediscovered Pouillon's technique and began to develop it further, starting with the construction of the Vauvert Winery. The winery used stone from a quarry close to Pont du Gard. A key development here was the use of MP stone in a "trilithic," trabeated system. Eventually this building, Perraudin's other MP stone projects, and the architect's hands-on course in stone architecture would inspire renewed interest in massive precut stone construction, with a particular focus on social housing.
MP stone in the 2010s: renaissance
Apartments in Cornebarrieu, 2011. Completion of a sustainable MP stone building with 20 social-housing units in Cornebarrieu, France, designed by Perraudin. The first MP stone housing project since Pouillon was active, and led to additional phases, resulting in 104 units total.
"The project followed several key principles: North-south oriented housing for proper ventilation during summer; Use of 40 cm thick structural massive stone for better high thermal inertia and summer comfort; Unprocessed and unpainted materials: solid wood window frames and shutters left untreated to age naturally; walls without plaster. Constructed with a social housing budget of €1,150/sqm (m2), this project demonstrated the modernity of stone construction, perfectly suited to today's housing demands. Massive stone allows for quick, relatively dry construction with minimal site disturbance and reduced assembly time. The stone's properties of thermal inertia, phase shift, and hygrothermal regulation make it a healthy and durable material. Recycling is limited to deconstruction and reuse of stones in their original form."
2013. House in Croix Rousse, Lyon, France. Perraudin Architects.
In Palestine in 2015, AAU Anastas architects complete the Toulkarem Courthouse, which uses MP stone with concrete.
Mixed-used building, London. In 2017, Groupwork completed 15 Clerkenwell Close, an innovative building that used massive precut stone in a post-and-lintel exoskeleton design. Unlike the Vauvert winery's triliths, the partially dimensioned blocks were left with quarry finishes except for critical contact points. The quarry-hewn approach yields a saving in dimension sawing, while facilitating precise, modular assembly with minimal or no modification during construction. The use of end-precut blocks is the first major innovation since Pouillon, as it further reduces the cost of dimension cuts, while retaining DFMA approach and modularity. The three quarry finishes (sawn, drilled, and ripped) caused controversy in the neighbourhood for years, but conversely was given city and national awards by RIBA in 2018, and shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2021.
Social housing, Paris, 2017. In Paris' 11th district, 92 Rue Oberkampf was designed by Barrault Pressacco architects in a contemporary interpretation of Hausmannian style. Completed in 2017, the development was built using abundant limestone from the Paris Basin; 92 Rue Oberkampf demonstrated the feasibility of infill urban housing development with stone, and helped pave the way for the numerous French MP stone housing projects in the subsequent years.
Plainfaing Tourist Office, France; completed in 2019, designed by Studiolada, made from pink sandstone.
In the 2010s, the housing institute of the Balearic Islands (IBAVI) started a programme to build >1000 apartments from mostly local materials. Inspired by Jørn Utzon's Can Lis, they implemented a program of using precut local marés sandstone for construction. As of 2022, they had built hundreds of apartments from MP stone, and pioneered a number of novel techniques, including the implementation of stone barrel vaults for social housing, use of a fast-setting cement mixture that allows laying several courses per day, and cyclopean concrete blocks.
MP stone in the 2020s: wider adoption
The most recent MP stone housing typically uses a combination of materials, usually concrete plinths and internal structure, with load-bearing stone facades. Following the work by Perraudin and Barrault Presacco, a range of French architects adopted this method and applied it to projects across France.
2020. Designed by architect Jean-Christophe Quinton, a building at 12 Rue Jean-Bart in Paris' 6th district was cimpleted. The project features 8 social housing units and an extension of a nursery. With its vertical openings and limestone facade, the building subtly blends into the typical Parisian street while maintaining a contemporary presence.
2020. A group of building experts published the Stone Tower Research Project showing that construction of a 30-storey skyscraper office block with a combination of an MP-stone load-bearing exoskeleton and post-tensioned stone flooring panels would cost less than the same building in concrete. In conjunction with cross-laminated timber, the stone skyscraper would be carbon negative.
2020. Massive-precut stone was featured prominently in "The New Stone Age", an exhibition at The Building Centre.
2020. Architect Raphaël Gabrion designed a sustainable building at 52 Rue des Cévennes in Paris' 15th district, comprising 9 social housing units. The design employs load-bearing massive stone on the building's periphery and an interior structure of concrete columns and slabs. The massive stone offers the advantage of total, non-destructive disassembly.
2021. In Plan-les-Ouates, Switzerland, 68 apartments completed. Designed by the Perraudin Archiplein Consortium, planning started in 2016 for 8,000 m2 of floor space over eight floors in two towers, costing €24,000,000 excl. VAT (€3,000 per sqm).
2021. Architects Denis Eliet and Laurent Lehmann completed an apartment building in MP stone. Located near the Chantiers station in Versailles, the development has 16 units, a floor space of 5,000 m2 and primarily features cut stone as its main construction material.
2021. The 6th edition of the French 21st Natural Stone Construction Prize, titled "Construire en Pierre Naturelle au XXIe Siècle" (Building with Natural Stone in the 21st Century) awarded prizes exclusively to projects using load-bearing stone construction.
2022. "L’Îlot fertile" was designed by TVK architects and completed in 2022 by Bouygues Construction subsidiary Linkcity. Located in the 19th district of Paris, the development has a floor space of 35,200 m2; stone and concrete were used as the main construction materials.
2022. Perraudin and WYSWYG architects completed construction of their design of a mixed-used MP stone building in Lyon.
MP stone in planning and under construction
For completion in 2023, Vincent Lavergne Architecture Urbanisme and Atelier WOA designed an apartment building in Rosny-sous-Bois. This development consists of 266 housing units (including 43 social housing), 8 shops, and a parking facility. The building materials used for this project include cut stone from Carrières Violet in Nogent-sur-Oise, wood, and concrete.
Due for completion in 2024, A 10-storey MP stone building at 317 Finchley Road, London is a collaboration between architect Amin Taha of Groupwork and engineer Steve Webb. The building will use massive Sicilian basalt stones with precut ends for post-and-lintel construction. Post-tensioning will be used for additional stability, and will represent an important development to improve the utility of MP stone.
Covered market in Saint-Dizier, France, designed by Studiolada.
In 2022, Groupwork won the competition for a housing project in Castle Park, Bristol, with a proposal that includes a low-carbon 30-storey tower from MP stone and wood. When completed, it will become the tallest massive-stone skyscraper, exceeding Pouillon's 20-storey 1953 tower in Diar es-Saâda, Algeria.