Barrel Vault: Definition, Construction & Architecture

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  • 0:03 Definition of a Barrel Vault
  • 0:47 Barrel Vault…
  • 1:20 Architecture of Barrel Vaults
  • 1:55 Examples of Barrel Vaults
  • 3:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Swoboda
This lesson defines what a barrel vault is and how it is constructed. See a diagram of a barrel vault, and learn how barrel vaults are used in specific structures, from ancient to modern times.

Definition of a Barrel Vault

You have probably seen barrel vaults numerous times without even realizing it. Barrel vaults are commonly seen in many ancient and modern structures, including churches, government buildings, museums, aqueducts, stadiums, sewage systems, tunnels, and more. As a matter of fact, barrel vaults are often referred to as tunnel vaults. Just as the name implies, a barrel vault resembles a barrel that has been laid on its side and cut in half along its length: the top is rounded and the bottom is flat. In ancient times, barrel vaults were constructed of stone. With the advent of materials such as steel in the modern era, variations of the barrel vault can now be constructed using a variety of materials.

Barrel Vault Construction Elements

The most important component of any barrel vault is the arch. A barrel vault, very simply put, is a row of repeated arches lined up one behind the other. You can see the individual elements of a round stone arch in this diagram:


  1. Keystone
  2. Voussoir
  3. Back
  4. Impost
  5. Intrados
  6. Rise
  7. Clear span
  8. Abutment

Architecture of Barrel Vaults

There is one characteristic of an arch that makes it very desirable as an architectural and engineering element: it is capable of supporting a great amount of weight. Weight and thrust are distributed evenly from the top of the arch downward. The individual blocks of the curved top of the arch are fitted wedges. The keystone at the very top and center of the arch is the most important element of the arch, since it essentially locks the other stones into place. The individual blocks are held in place by the pressure that they exert against one another, thus creating a very strong support element within the barrel vault.

Examples of Barrel Vaults in Real Life

Barrel vaults were first extensively used in architecture and infrastructure throughout the ancient Roman Empire. The Romans used barrel vaults in major structures such as the Colosseum, city cisterns used to collect water, sewage systems, aqueducts that brought millions of gallons of water into Roman cities, public bath houses, etc. Barrel vaults were well-suited for use in these very large, heavy structures as they could carry and channel great amounts of weight. The humble barrel vault featured extensively in the increasingly sophisticated Roman infrastructure.

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