BEA New York, actual books…..

May 31, 2013 § Leave a comment


A good day yesterday–that’s the first stack of Chicago Skyscrapers 1871-1934 from the printers, and I’m delighted to report that they were snapped up in about 25 minutes at the Book Expo of America yesterday. I enjoyed signing and talking to the line of book types who showed up, many with good stories about the city, skyscrapers, or some combination. (And a whole gaggle of librarians, which was particularly encouraging!). University of Illinois Press has been fantastic in getting the word out, and I’m looking forward to a number of Chicago events in the next month–especially Printer’s Row Lit Fest, which takes place next weekend.

If, that is, I make it out of New York alive…this morning’s Times op-ed page puts the debate over One World Trade Center’s height front and center. I’d like to say it’s a normal Friday when I find myself wedged between David Brooks and Paul Krugman…



May 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Some of the coverage of the Oklahoma tornado has asked a reasonable question–why is it that, in the middle of tornado alley, houses in Moore weren’t equipped with basements?  This morning’s NPR coverage had probably the most succinct answer.  Scott Neuman, one of their bloggers, talked to local contractors and heard that:

…the contractors are required by building codes to sink the foundation down below the frost line. So in a place like, say, Indiana, when you excavate to go down below the frost line to put a slab in, you’re already halfway there toward a basement.

Whereas in Oklahoma, you don’t have to dig down that far. So the up front costs for a homeowner to put in a basement is actually a little bit higher.

Furthermore, the clay in Oklahoma allegedly tends to hang on to water, making basements leak–in the past.  Waterproofing and sump pumps have gotten better, enough so that one contractor Neuman spoke with admitted that, basically, it’s a bigger hassle than most builders want to go through.  And more than one realtor in news coverage of the region’s aversion to basements points out that the cost associated with them is considerable–making homes with basements less affordable.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but this highlights a point I make all the time when we’re talking about building codes in tech class.  If codes in the area required basements in new construction, then every new house has to absorb the cost.  This  means that, yes, new houses are more expensive, but the ‘base price’ for every new house would go up more or less equally–adding a basement wouldn’t disadvantage one new house over another, because every house would have the cost built in.  Some buyers might prefer cheaper, older houses without basements, but anyone buying a new house would have the protection of the building code.  There’s no real reason that builders in particular ought to be against such a code provision.

The lack of safe rooms in schools is another issue entirely–even if a school district decides not to spend the money on a basement, there’s so much reinforced concrete being poured for floor slabs in a suburban school anyway that additional reinforced concrete walls are, in terms of overall scope, minor costs (compared with, say, artificial turf on football fields…)  If you want to live in a house without a basement and take your chances that’s one level of decision.  But building public buildings without any protection at all seems (again, in hindsight) unfathomable.  Somewhere down the road, a reporter ought to look at meeting minutes from the construction of the school that had no reinforced concrete walls at all and see how this happened.  It’s exactly the sort of thing that is easy to cut during value engineering, especially when there’s political pressure to build schools as cheaply as possible.  And, for most schools, it’s an expense that will never pay itself back.  But in the risk/reward calculation, this seems a classic example of the difference between cost versus value, and in the worst of circumstances, a few walls of reinforced concrete would have been worth an incalculable amount.


compressive vs. tensile strength of tortilla chips

May 17, 2013 § Leave a comment

Courtesy of Serious Eats.  Good SCI-TECH example here, clearly tortilla chips behave more like concrete than like steel.  Worth an experiment or two if you can afford the carbs and dry cleaning involved…

printer’s row lit fest, new york book expo

May 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Printer’s Row Lit Fest has finalized their calendar, and it looks like I’ll be talking about Chicago Skyscrapers with Gary Johnson, president of the Chicago History Museum on Sunday, June 9th from 1:30-2:15 in the University Center/Loop Room.  Lit Fest tickets required, details here.  I’m also tentatively scheduled to appear at the University of Illinois Press’ booth at the New York Book Expo on May 30th, time to be determined.  Pleased to be a part of both events…!

new tallest building in north america?

May 15, 2013 § 2 Comments

sears freedom towerNot so fast…

With the erection of the spire atop One World Trade, the press is abuzz that there’s a new “tallest building in the United States/North America, Western Hemisphere.”  And the implication is that Chicago has, after nearly forty years, relinquished the title back to its rightful owner…

This, of course, is a never ending discussion, and the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats will make the “official” ruling later this month.  CTBUH has a number of agreed upon criteria by which they judge such things, including a very fine distinction between “architectural top,” which is not supposed to include extraneous antennas, “highest occupied floor,” and “height to tip,” which includes things like “spires” that are intrinsic to the building’s structure.

For comparison, I’ve drawn up a fairly crude diagram to the left, there, showing the key heights of One World Trade and Sears.  One World Trade’s claim rests entirely on whether you call its pointy thing an antenna or a spire–if it’s the latter, then sure, we have a new winner and North American champion.  But here’s the thing:  all of this week’s press coverage focused on the craning in to place of the 408-foot “spire,” in other words, an element that was simply bolted on to the building’s structure.  The CTBUH criteria oddly say that it doesn’t count as a “spire” if it consists of “functional-technical equipment,” and as the Times points out, One World Trade’s “spire” may actually be an “antenna” anyway because of its lack of architectural cladding.  (Interestingly, no matter what it is, the structure was designed in part by Kenneth Snelson, who’s widely credited with inspiring Bucky Fuller to take up tensegrity as a project…)

No matter how the CTBUH rules, from the profile I’d say this doesn’t pass the squint test.  If you look at the architectural structures, and not the pointy things stuck onto them, any Chicagoan would agree that Sears is still #1.  And yes, it’s still called Sears by most of us.

No doubt this will come up in the APTWGLC/CHSA skyscraper symposium on 22 June…

aptwglc/chsa skyscraper symposium 22 June at SAIC

May 10, 2013 § Leave a comment


Pleased to share the attached–the Western Great Lakes chapter of the Association for Preservation Technology, in conjunction with the Construction History Society of America, is sponsoring an afternoon-long symposium on historic skyscrapers on June 22 at the Leroy Neiman Center, the School of the Art Institute’s new student center at 37 S. Wabash.  There will be two sessions–one on current preservation projects, and the other, later one will be a debate between myself and Construction History superstars (?) Don Friedman, of Old Structures in New York, and Meghan Elliott, of PreservationWorks in Minneapolis.  We’ll be debating the origins of the tall building construction, and which city can claim the mantle of “home of the skyscraper.”  Promises to be a steel-cage-match showdown, full of terra cotta and steel details, discussion of how you really measure a tall building, and random swipes at the Mets.  Social hour to follow, hope to see a truly partisan crowd there!  More details as they’re confirmed at:


May 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today’s recommended reading comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has a suite of articles on the idea of ‘resilience,’ or a measure of a system’s ability to maintain its “operational integrity.”  The term first surfaced in 1973 to describe ecological performance–how well a species or population could survive given changes in their environment–but ‘resilience’ has found its way into social sciences as both a metaphor and as a model for population studies.  The results have been predictably messy and, as the articles note, somewhat controversial, but also interesting.

Anyone who has been stuck at O’Hare for 24 hours because of a weather system on the east coast knows the idea of resilience first-hand.  Airlines that have to cancel hundreds of flights because of a storm hundreds of miles away are, um, not resilient.  They may be lean, they may be efficient on good days, but if a predictable event throws the system into chaos, that’s a classic example of a non-resilient system.  (And yes, I’ve had hours and hours in Terminal 1 to sit and ponder this).

There’s an interesting hint here for environmental design and preservation, too.  If we changed our terminology, as the article seems to suggest, from “sustainable” to “resilient,” we’d be a bit more honest about what we really expected our buildings to do.  And it would put the focus more on improving what’s already there instead of on the latest gadgets.  If we build a ‘sustainable’ building, the rhetoric is that we can continue to build, exactly like that, for as long as we want, and in the back of our minds I think we all know that ain’t the case.  If, on the other hand, we build a “resilient” building, it’s one that will still be habitable through climate changes, floods, energy costing more, etc.  That seems a better goal ethically.  And it also implies thinking about how we retrofit existing buildings to make them more adaptable to change–foreseeable and otherwise.  For example, complex building management systems work fantastically well–when they work.  Passive daylighting and cooling, on the other hand, work pretty well no matter whether the power’s on, the internet is up and running, etc.  Embedded in this terminology is a pretty nifty rebuttal to the additive nature of a lot of ‘sustainable’ design today, and a suggestion that simple solutions that are easy to fix and to manipulate will always trump complicated systems that require several things to be going well in order to perform.

Worth a read…

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