Tuesday, July 15, 2014

RUNNING ON EMPTY (Part 2 of 2 Parts)

(With appreciation to Charles Hugh Smith for posting from the U.S. on my behalf; I'm in China and can't post due to the PRC's  blocking of Google. Nor can I tweet from here; Twitter is blocked too. This is the downside to a nation where the trains run on time).
Last time, we looked at the coming revolution in automotive technology--the switch from internal-combustion power to hybrid power and, eventually, to straight electric vehicles. This time, we’ll take a closer look at both the pros and cons of electrics, which hold such huge promise for a cleaner, quieter, and more eco-friendly environment.
In order to appreciate how profound this change will be, though, a bit of nuts-and-bolts background is in order. One basic way of seeing how well a machine works is by looking at its thermal efficiency, which is simply the percentage of input energy that’s turned into useful work. The early steam locomotives of the 1840s--the first motive power that didn’t depend on wind, water, or muscle--were about 3 percent efficient. Over the next hundred years, technical improvements managed to nudge that figure up to about 7 percent--a big relative improvement, but none too good in absolute terms. Since a large steam locomotive of the 1940s typically burned about 65,000 pounds of coal per hour, about 60,000 pounds of that coal was effectively wasted.
In the postwar era, diesel-electric locomotives with thermal efficiencies of around 21 percent arrived on the scene, wiping the wasteful steam engine off the map for good. By comparison, most modern internal-combustion cars are around 26 percent efficient, although their friction-laden mechanical drive lines drag this already modest figure down to about 18-20 percent. In other words, sixteen gallons of your twenty-gallon gas tank goes toward generating heat and nothing else.
The electric car constitutes a quantum leap over this dismal performance. Electric motors are typically around 78 to 90 percent efficient to begin with, and the absence of a mechanical drive line means most of this power actually gets to the wheels instead of being burned up in friction. What’s more, electric cars can use regenerative braking systems that use braking energy to charge their batteries instead of burning it up in heat as today’s cars do. The electric drive system is also far simpler and, eventually at least, will be much cheaper to build than today’s enormously complex internal-combustion cars.
But the news isn’t all good. While electric vehicles themselves don’t produce emissions, as things currently stand, the electricity they use is far from emissions-free. In the U.S., about two-thirds of our electricity is generated from burning fossil fuels, which leaves a very nasty carbon footprint indeed.  The thermal efficiency of a typical coal-burning generating plant is itself less than 50 percent, and what’s more, transmitting this electricity to the user induces another loss of efficiency, typically around 7 percent. Under these circumstances, plugging in a purportedly “zero-emissions” electric car simply transfers environmental degradation from the vehicle to the generating plant--in effect, these new electric cars are actually burning coal.

The solution is to develop an infrastructure that can recharge vehicles using clean sources of electricity that are locally generated, whether by wind, water, or photovoltaic panels. This is the only way an electric car can truly meet its potential as a “zero emission vehicle”. The challenges are great, but, if history is any indication, our ingenuity is greater. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014


The story of America’s built environment over the past century is one that revolves largely around the automobile. Cars have ever-increasingly shaped our cities, our homes, and our foreign policy. We devote forty percent of our urban areas to cars, in the form of roads and parking lots (in some cities the number is as high as sixty percent). Our traffic laws theoretically grant pedestrians the right of way--a pretty laughable concept, since it’s obvious that traffic engineers consider cars the real priority. And of course our insatiable national thirst for petroleum, which shapes so much of our foreign policy, is in large part due to our beloved automobiles.
Thankfully, if current developments are any indication, we’re finally reaching the beginning of the end of our auto-obsessed age. That’s not to say that cars are going away soon, if ever, nor even that they’ll look very different. But internally, they’re going to be as different from today’s noisy, fume spewing machines as a digital watch is from Big Ben.
Hybrid cars, which use a small, relatively efficient internal-combustion engine to generate electricity onboard, are already making major inroads against traditional gasoline engine-powered cars. Yet any vehicle that uses an internal-combustion engine--even just part of the time, as  hybrids do--will always be inefficient.  That’s why the hybrid is just a stepping stone to straight electric cars that will run on battery power alone.
Once cars go 100 percent electric, the real paradigm shift will begin. An electric-powered vehicle will be smaller on the outside, because it won’t need a bulky gasoline engine, not to mention a radiator, mechanical transmission, exhaust system, fuel tank, or differential. Once battery technology comes up to speed--and rest assured, it will--the absence of all this clunky hardware will mean that cars will be much lighter as well. These new vehicles will be the ultimate in simplicity, because power won’t be transmitted through a friction-laden drive train of pistons, cranks, and gears, but rather by electrons flowing through a piece of wire.
All this is good news for planet Earth. But if you were expecting the old guard of the American auto industry to lead this revolution, you can forget it. Just as the personal computer revolution was begun, not by corporate behemoths like IBM or Control Data, but rather by a couple of kids named Jobs and Wozniak, the automobile revolution will likewise come from some unruly fresh thinkers who are probably still shooting spitballs in a high school somewhere. Unlike the hundred-ten-year-old auto industry, they aren’t weighed down by the inertia of a huge historic investment in internal combustion technology or a lineage inextricably linked with fossil fuels.
This historic inertia is the reason once-invincible automakers like General Motors have been so humbled in the last twenty years--and deservedly so, it must be said. It was their longtime arrogance, greed, and steadfast opposition to the need for greener transportation that brought them this comeuppance.

Okay. So electric cars are inevitable. Not all the news is good, though--next time: a closer look at electrics, and why they’re “zero emissions vehicles” in name only.  

Monday, June 23, 2014


Last time, we looked at architects who--not atypically--produced some of their best work toward the end of their long careers. In architecture, at least, it seems that old age doesn’t necessarily imply an inability to grow and change. This time, we’ll look at a few architects who changed their design philosophies late in life, and found even greater success.

Edward Durell Stone (1902-1978) was one of the most celebrated architects of modernism’s second generation. In his mid fifties, however, Stone became disillusioned with the movement, declaring, “Much of our modern architecture lacks (the) intangible quality of permanence, formality and dignity.  It bears more resemblance to the latest model automobile, depending upon shining, metallic finish--doomed to early obsolescence.”

Curiously, this period of uncertainty in Stone’s life--coming at an age when most people are mulling retirement--instead marked an upturn in his career. He was awarded a number of important commissions, landing him on the cover of Time magazine in 1958. His firm grew from twenty people to two hundred, and he remained at the height of commercial success when he died at 76.

The career of Philip Johnson (1906-2005) also peaked between his sixties and his eighties, when he was busily designing large numbers of more or less generic modernist skyscrapers. But even these late-life works were a mere prelude. Johnson, like Stone, eventually abandoned modernism and produced a number of postmodern works such as Manhattan’s infamous “Chippendale” AT&T building of 1984--proving that you could indeed teach an old architect new tricks. His longevity, more than anything else, accorded him the title dean of American architects when he died at 98. 

Two who left us too early: H. H.
Richardson, and his landmark...
With long life spans so commonplace among architects, it’s all the more tragic when brilliant talents are lost long before their time. Among these was Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), the all but single-handed progenitor of the Romanesque Revival of the late nineteenth century. Richardson made his mark with Boston’s Trinity Church of 1872, and had just completed Chicago’s epoch-making Marshall Field Wholesale Store of 1885--one of the seminal works of modernism--when he died of a kidney disorder at 47. One can only imagine the face of American architecture had Richardson lived.

Boston's Trinity Church...
Another premature departure was that of Addison Mizner (1872-1933), architect of many incomparably romantic Mediterranean Revival works. Mizner’s passing at 60 coincided with the close of the golden age of Revivalist architecture, and his infallibly picturesque sensibilities remain unequaled to this day. More recent but equally tragic was the loss of Pritzker prize winner James Stirling (1926-1992), architect of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and many other distinguished structures, whose best work surely still lay ahead of him.

and Addison Mizner,
architect of lyrical
Spanish Revival work...
Thankfully, these are anomalies in a profession blessed by unusually long and active careers. The likely explanation for this longevity is that one doesn’t simply fall into an architectural career. The grueling educational process--not to mention the modesty of the monetary rewards--ensures that only the fanatically dedicated will make the sacrifices involved. Architects practice architecture because there’s really nothing else on earth they’d rather do. So, even in the absence of more tangible rewards, at least we have happiness and peace of mind. We grow old because we love what we do, and we want to keep on doing it.
such as Palm Beach's Everglades Club.

Monday, June 16, 2014


“The four stages of man,” Art Linkletter once observed, “are infancy, childhood, adolescence, and obsolescence.” 

While this bromide may well describe the lives of media stars and child prodigies, I’m happy to report that it seldom applies to architects. While many may grow old, few, it seems, grow irrelevant. In fact, most great architects hadn’t even hit their stride until midlife, and many kept going strong into their nineties.

Frank Lloyd Wright, still dapper at 91
Frank Lloyd Wright is of course the poster child for architectural longevity, yet there were surely times in Wright’s life when he doubted his own relevance. He’d begun his career with a bang, devising his brilliant Prairie Houses during the first decade of the 1900s, while he was still in his thirties. But by the time he completed Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel in 1923, his commissions had tapered off considerably. By normal career standards Wright, by then in his late fifties, should have been contemplating retirement. In any case, by the mid-1930s, his organic architecture was already being eclipsed by a younger generation of modernists, whose sleek International Style creations seemed even more advanced than Wright’s work had been. 

Yet it was just at this seeming twilight in his career that Wright staged a spectacular comeback. In 1937 he completed  the Edgar Kaufmann house (Fallingwater), a lyrical conception seemingly meant to outdo the International Style modernists at their own game. It was Bauhaus modernism with a heart and soul. Acclaimed worldwide, Fallingwater relaunched Wright’s career in the seventh decade of his life, unleashing a creative flurry that continued unabated until his death at 91.

Wright’s late-life renaissance isn’t at all unusual among architects, however. The first generation of International Style architects also had lengthy careers marked by equally late triumphs. After his famous stint as director of the Bauhaus, for example, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) came to the United States and, in 1945, when he was already in his sixties, founded The Architects Collaborative (TAC). It was soon to become one of the world’s most successful and respected architecture firms. Moreover, Gropius was nearly eighty when he completed New York’s Pan Am building with Pietro Belluschi (he lived to be 86). 

Le Corbusier's astonishing chapel at Ronchamp,
one of his latest and greatest works...
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) completed New York’s Seagram Building--a work often ranked among the pinnacle achievements of modern architecture--when he was in his early seventies. 

Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, 18887-1965) had a long and influential career, but arguably his greatest work--the lyrical chapel he designed at Ronchamp--was completed only when he was in his late sixties.  No doubt Le Corbusier, too, might have remained productive into his eighties, had he not ignored his doctor’s orders and gone for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea, where he apparently suffered a heart attack and drowned at age 77.

---and the architect in his seventies: We wish he'd listened
to his doctor.
Curiously, while the first-generation modernists recounted above held fast to their convictions for the duration of their long and distinguished careers, some of their equally venerable successors renounced modernism in their later years--refuting the idea that old age breeds inflexibility. We’ll look at some of those long careers next time, as well as a few others that were cut tragically short.

Monday, June 9, 2014

CRACKING THE CODE (Part 3 of 3 Parts)

Last time, we looked at some building code requirements that routinely trip up do-it-yourselfers. As arcane as some of the code’s provisions might seem, practically every one of them exists to ensure health and safety, and many were gleaned from over a century of knowledge hard won from real-life incidents, many of them both tragic and unnecessary.  

Because building codes--and this includes plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and fire codes--are primarily concerned with health and safety, they’re by nature conservative and slow to change. There’s little incentive for the councils who collectively author the various codes to adopt new technologies that make construction cheaper, faster or more efficient, since these things aren’t directly related to safety. Hence, the code generally ignores technical innovations until there’s overwhelming pressure from the trades, the design professions, or manufacturers to incorporate them. 

It took building codes years to approve using this...
There’s no doubt that this conservatism sometimes impedes the adoption of worthwhile new products. For example, plumbing codes were slow to approve ABS plastic drain piping even though its advantages--low cost, light weight, excellent durability, and ease of assembly--clearly outweighed its shortcomings (noisiness and susceptibility to fire). In fairness, plastic plumbing also encountered some resistance from plumbers, many of whom were not keen on seeing a do-it-yourself friendly material infringe on their business. The various metallic pipe industries, who saw a fair share of their markets about to go down the drain, were not too keen on plastic either. Still, the overwhelming advantages of ABS  eventually forced the code to make room for it, and later on for other plastic plumbing materials as well.

...instead of this.
More recently, a simple plumbing device called an “air admittance  valve”, or AAV, has made it possible to greatly simplify the venting portion of drainage systems, eliminating perhaps one-third of the drain piping in a typical house. AAVs have been used in Europe since 1979, and with several million installed, they’re well proven. Yet until very recently, plumbing codes in the US continued to insist that plumbing fixtures be vented through the roof, just as they have been since Victorian times--a needless waste of expensive labor and material, and a common source of roof leaks. Only in the last few years have most plumbing codes finally approved AAVs, and even at that, a few individual state codes still stubbornly outlaw them.

On another front, building codes have shown a sometimes overzealous tendency toward protecting people from themselves, often at a significant cost to comfort and aesthetics. A clear example is found in the code’s ever more stringent requirements for residential railings. The allowable open space between rail balusters, for example, has progressively shrunken from nine inches to six inches to four inches, while the minimum height of exterior railings has recently increased from the longtime standard of 36 inches to a towering, view-obscuring 42 inches. 

Still, these are minor quibbles about a document that do-it-yourselfers ought to welcome as more help than hindrance. The building code is like a crotchety old neighbor who’s seen it all during his lifetime--his advice might grate on us now and then, but we’re still glad he’s around when we need him.

Monday, June 2, 2014

CRACKING THE CODE (Part Two of Three Parts)

Last time, we talked about building code provisions that variously baffle or irritate do-it-yourself builders (and occasionally, seasoned builders as well). While code requirements may seem arcane at first glance, most have a very simple purpose--to keep you reasonably safe day to day, and possibly to save your life in a real emergency. There are still a number of different codes in use, along with regional variations (always check with your local jurisdiction), but most of them more or less agree on basic safety provisions. By way of example, here are some typical code provisions on just one narrow topic--windows--and what they’re meant to accomplish:

•  In general, codes require every habitable space to have a net window area equal to at least 8 percent of the room’s floor area (a “habitable space” is defined as one intended for living, sleeping, eating, or cooking). This is a direct way of ensuring that the major rooms in a house have adequate natural light. 

On the other hand, a bathroom could have a much smaller window, because the code doesn’t consider it a habitable space. In fact, as long as a bathroom has a means of mechanical ventilation (that is, an exhaust fan), it doesn’t need a window at all. Still with me? These kinds of building code “gotchas!” are what can drive uninitiated remodelers crazy.

Do you think that this firefighter....
• The equivalent of half the required glass area has to be openable for ventilation--again, a simple way to ensure minimum access to fresh air. This provision, too, can cause do-it-yourselfers trouble, since a fixed window (or a window less than half of which opens) may well satisfy the code’s requirements for natural light, but may not make the grade in terms of natural ventilation.

is going to fit through THIS window?
• As we noted last time, many code provisions are meant to ensure multiple means of escape--”egress” in code parlance--in case of fire or other emergency. This brings us to yet another set of requirements for windows that are routinely overlooked by do-it-yourselfers. Most codes require that every ground floor bedroom have at least one “egress window” with an opening of 5 square feet, with a minimum net opening at least 24 inches high and at least 20 inches wide. 

Furthermore, the sill of this egress window can’t be more than 44 inches above the floor, so that in an emergency, a small person can still climb out the window by standing on furniture. Bedrooms on upper floors need to have slightly larger egress openings of 5.7 square feet. For obvious reasons, codes also prohibits security bars from being installed over egress windows unless they’re easily openable from inside. 

Mind you, these minimum size requirements aren’t just to allow able-bodied occupants to get out of a burning house. They’re also intended to let firefighters wearing bulky breathing apparatus get inside--to rescue, for example, an elderly person or a sleeping child. 
Seen in this light--and considering the untold tragedy that building codes have probably averted over the past century--code compliance shouldn’t seem quite such a burden.

Next time: A few genuine building code downsides.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

CRACKING THE CODE (Part One of Three Parts)

“When I built my addition, the building inspector made me tear out the bedroom window and put in a bigger one! Personally, I don’t think it’s any of his (deleted) business how big my bedroom window is!” 

I hear these kinds of gripes from disgruntled do-it-yourselfers all the time. Not to rub salt in the wound, but in most such cases, a passing acquaintance with the building code--and even more important, an understanding of its intent--would have saved these folks an awful lot of frustration.

Though it may seem like it at times, building codes weren’t formulated to harass do-it-yourselfers. In fact, they arose to protect public health and safety during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time when a population explosion in American cities was leading to ever more squalid and unsafe living conditions. This was an era in which tenement apartments variously lacked heating, natural light, access to fresh air, or a means of escape in case of fire.

The Triangle Fire.
On a larger scale, poor separation between closely packed buildings meant that a small fire in one structure could quickly spread to adjoining ones. Too often, the result was raging urban conflagrations such as the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, which destroyed 1,500 buildings over an area of 140 acres.

Even nominally fireproof masonry buildings--whose entire safety equipment might consist of a red-painted pail of water labeled FIRE placed on each floor--were far from invulnerable. Such buildings commonly housed overcrowded sweatshops with inadequate means of escape in emergencies, and inevitably, there were a number of horrific fires. The worst was New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, in which 146 garment workers, most of them immigrant girls and young women, either were overcome by the fire or leapt to their deaths from the building’s ninth floor. The subsequent investigation determined that one exit one the ninth floor had been blocked by fire, and that the other had been locked from the outside. The building’s exterior fire escape, the last possible means of egress, was flimsily built and poorly attached. It collapsed when the panicked workers swarmed over it. 

The fire escape that was no escape.
Building codes arose in an effort to prevent such needless tragedies from recurring. In one way or another, every code provision--including the one that raised that do-it-yourselfer’s hackles--trace back to this source. Ensuring an escape route in case of emergency is a primary function of building code provisions, and in residential buildings, this usually means providing more than one way out in case the primary egress is blocked by fire. In a bedroom, that emergency escape route is the window. 

Once we understand the code’s intent, requirements that may seem arcane or burdensome suddenly make sense. Most are meant to ensure that buildings will stand up safely, that habitable spaces have at least minimal access to natural light and fresh air, and that there’s always a way out in case of emergency.  Next time, we’ll look at a few  basic building code requirements, and what they’re meant to accomplish.