Huerta Fernández, Santiago
Wedges and plate-bandes: mechanical theories after De la Hire.
"L'architrave, le plancher, la plate-forme. Nouvelle Histoire de la construction".
Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, Lausanne, pp. 405-435.
Plate-bandes are straight masonry arches (they are called, also, flat arches or lintel arches). Ideally they have the surfaces of extrados and intrados plane and horizontal. The stones or bricks have radial joints converging usually in one centre. The voussoirs have the form of wedges and in French they are called "claveaux". A plate-bande is, in fact, a lintel made of several stones and the proportions of lintels and plate-bandes are similar. Proportions of plate-bandes, that is the relationship between the thickness t and the span s (t/s)varies, typically between 1/4–1/3 in thick plate-bandes, and is less than 1/20 in the most slender ones. A ratio of circa 1/8 was usual in the 18th Century and follows a simple geometrical rule: the centre form with the intrados an equilateral triangle and the plate-bande should contain an arc of circle. The joints are usually plane, but in some cases present a «rebated» or «stepped» form.
Plate-bandes exert an inclined thrust as any masonry arch. This thrust is usually very high and it requires either massive buttresses, or to be built in the middle of thick walls. Master builders and architects have tried since antiquity to calculate the abutment necessary for any arch. A modern architect or engineer will measure the arch thrust in units of force, kN or tons. Traditionally, the thrust has been measured as the size of the buttresses to resist it safely. Old structural rules, then, addressed the design problem establishing a relationship between the span and the depth of the buttress. These were empirical rules, particular for every type of arch or structure in every epoch. Thus, the typical gothic buttress is 1/4 of the vault span, but a Renaissance or baroque barrel vault will need more than 1/3 of the span. A plate-bande would require more than one half of the span; this is precisely the rule cited by the French engineer Gautier, who tried unsuccessfully to justify it by static reasons. They were used, typically, to form the lintels of windows or doors (1-2 m, typically); in Antiquity they were used, also, though rarely, at the gates of city walls or in niches (ca. 2 m, reaching 5.2 m).
Plate-bandes may show particular problems: it is not unusual that some sliding of the voussoirs can be observed, particularly in thick plate-bandes. The stepped joints on Fig. 1, left, were used to avoid this problem. There are other «hidden» methods, like iron cramps or the use of stone wedges, etc. In seismic zones these devices were usual. Another problem relates to the deformation; a slight yielding of the abutments, or even the compression of the mortar joints, may lead to some cracking and the descent of the central keystone. Even a tiny descent will convert the original straight line of the intrados in a broken line with a visible «kink» or angle in the middle. Of course, both problems should be avoided. Finally, the wedge form of the voussoirs lead to acute angles in the stones and this can produce partial fractures; this occurs usually at the inferior border of the springers at the abutments.
It follows, that to build a successful plate-bande is not an easy matter. Also, the structural study of plate-bandes is far from simple, and mechanics and geometry are related in a particular way. In the present paper we will concentrate on the structural aspects and their constructive consequences, with a historical approach. We will outline the development of structural analysis of plate-bandes from ca. 1700 until today. This brief history has a more than purely academic interest. Different approaches and theories pointed to particular problem, and though the solution given may have been incorrect, the question posed was often pertinent. The paper ends with the application of modern Limit Analysis of Masonry Structures, developed mainly by professor Heyman in the last fifty years. The work aims, also, to give some clues for the actual architect and engineer involved in the analysis or restoration of masonry buildings.