1/23/2020 Notes

Wireless collisions cause struggle over fan operation in a multi-unit apartment building. Wireless switching for lights and devices seems like an easy way to give clients exactly what they want without having to tear open the walls (in my region Caseta has been the drumbeat on this issue), but what a hassle when it goes wrong.

USModernist manages an archive of more than a century’s worth of architectural magazines (many even have been run through OCR!). If you have an archive, they’ll digitize them for you. I stumbled on this when someone linked to USModernist’s digitized copy of Christopher Alexander’s A City is Not A Tree published in The Architectural Forum (part 1 and part 2).

Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom by the Sea published in the 1980’s mentions a resort company called Butlin’s which is still in business today. It’s a package vacation company that, uh, doesn’t get a lot of respect in Theroux’s travelogue. The geography of their facilities is fascinating – they’re described as being located in “traditional seaside towns” but the nearby town is more marketing than reality, with no true connection to the resort compound. The most charitable metaphor I can come up with is “beached cruise ships.”

Zero road deaths in Oslo, Norway in 2019. Public safety is truly a matter of political will.

Lighting Vendor of the Week: I had a client looking for display lighting that will fluoresce some minerals he wants to display and had a difficult time finding a vendor for UV display lighting. Waveform Lighting looks like the pretty good solution, reach out if you have a better one!

1/2/2020 Notes

Check out the video for Weval – Someday put together by Páraic Mc Gloughlin. The lightning fast rate of imagery, each set based around a common characteristic, is a neat look at the built environment. Patterns Patterns Patterns.

Christopher Samuel designed a hotel room built to frustrate to highlight the accessibility issues inherent in the private built environment. Available for rental at the Art B&B in Blackpool, England.

This work reminds me a bit of a house built to the specifications of Madeline Gins and Arakawa profiled in this 2008 New York Times article. In this case the goal was to make the occupant uncomfortable to ward off aging and death. There is a thin line between a challenging environment and an inaccessible environment.

69 Bravo is a privately owned helicopter service station located in the Santa Monica Mountains built to support fire fighting activities. I don’t think you’ll find infrastructure like this in city simulators or planning textbooks.

Deep Dive Article of the Week: Bloomberg profiles Star Wipers, a recycling success story. As the tariffs between the USA and China have developed over the past few years, it’s been interesting to see how many building products were impacted especially in the hardware and lighting space.

12/5/2019 Notes

pencils from CW Pencil photo by Carl Mikoy
Photo by Carl Mikoy

The New York Times took a look at niche stores in NYC back in November, profiling stores that only sells pencils, rubber stamps, antique cash registers, and vintage video games. What struck me from the pictures is how small these spaces are – enough room for stock, a couple of customers, and the proprietor. You see spaces like these pop up in development pitches all the time, a set of micro store fronts or a ‘food mall’ or a ‘craft market’, but there always seems to be trouble filling them consistently. One of my favorites was a small storefront Grillo’s Pickles ran in Inman Square, Cambridge for a couple of years.

In These Times spends some time discussing the slow but inexorable rate of rural hospital closures with a focus on Appalachia. Coming from Maine, the issue there was less acute – most of the closures were related to advanced treatment centers and maternity services. As parts of the country become more divorced from convenient medical care, how does this impact work injury treatment? Thinking about the remote construction teams I’ve worked with, some hours from a hospital, the first aid kit wasn’t better stocked or the team trained in emergency medicine. At what distance from a hospital should you start training your team in wilderness first aid?

They’ve been around for a long time, but just in case you’re looking for a leather-free steel/comp toe muck boot check out Bog’s line of slip on boots. Currently all of the lace up versions have leather ever since the Turf Stomper line was discontinued a few years ago.

I’m not sure where I saw the question (perhaps in the Lost Art comments?), but someone was looking for a metric tape measure and was linked to FastCap’s ProCarpenter line. I’ve got to admire the specificity involved in having a tape measure line with six different tape types.

Music Video of the Week: Raconteurs – Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying). Released last month and filmed at House on the Rock, the product of a one collector/builders signature vision. Totally worth a visit, you may also remember it from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

7/18/2019 Notes

Douglass Row in Baltimore., built by Frederick Douglass in 1890s Listed on the NRHP

I came across a small aside in an article about Frederick Douglass about his short history as a real estate developer, responsible for building a short stretch of row homes known as Douglass Place in 1892. The homes were built on the site of the Methodist Episcopal Church which Douglass attended in his younger years, and which had become dilapidated by the time he acquired the property for redevelopment. A 2015 Baltimore Sun article has some pictures from inside one of the homes, all of which still stand today.

Stranger Thing’s third season landmark set, Starcourt Mall, was more than a typical soundstage production. Built into a struggling mall in Georgia, the set featured both original and period store reproductions.

Matthias is an oddball with evergreen appeal, I was recently re-linked to his personal study on wood joint strength.

Places published a piece in April about shade as a civic resource and, as the wet heat bears down in the Midwest, it’s clear how easy it is to make the urban environment bearable or unbearable for pedestrians. I bike to work mostly under a leafy canopy except for one glaring asphalt six-lane intersection. A noise and heat mini-hell. One business along that street recently removed their awning and now the sidewalk feels less like a protected space and more like an extension of the gutter. I’ve been privileged to live my entire life in a Tree City.

Charity of the Week: Miles4Migrants funds plane tickets used to re-unite the families of refugees and asylum seekers using donated airline miles and cash. A wonderful person I grew up with really cared about their program and volunteered a lot of time (and miles), based on his own family’s experiences escaping poor circumstances. He recently passed away at a young age, so now seems like the right time to help fill his shoes.

7/11/2019 Notes

Flags hung on canal boats. T. R. Roosevelt, Delft, Holland.

Quo Vadis is an interactive boat simulator designed for patients with dementia, leaning on the wide experiences with boating among the elderly on the island of Goeree-Overflakkee in the Netherlands. Here is another video showing how it all got put together.

I think of myself as unusually exposed to new, buzzy construction concepts – but I missed the latest topic of the week: the T-Stud. I’m a double-stud advocate and thought someone would eventually come up with some kind of ‘double stud’ component, but the T-Stud is a little different than I expected. It doesn’t have the same short dimension as a 2×4 or 2×6, which is an interesting construction norm to violate. Here’s a good overview by Peter Yost at Green Building Advisor. I do wonder where the tech comes from, as Roosevelt Energy Technologies refers to themselves as the “north american licensee.”

The Fine Homebuilding Podcast recently mentioned that Martin Holladay of Green Building Advisor and general infamy will be retiring. Don’t see anything on GBA about it, hopefully he’ll get an official send-off. Martin’s writing is a place I’ve found key insights as my career has developed.

I’ve got to ask our steel vendor if they’ve heard of these DuraSquirt self-indicating washers, they ‘squirt’ material out when they’ve been fastened to the correct torque. There just isn’t a ton of steel in single family residential buildings, so getting the install torque right often can’t be done through pure experience.

Individual Contributor of the Week: Lew French of Stone by Design is an example of mastering one particular skill and making it your life’s work. Martha’s Vineyard is an odd place – there are a number of really excellent craftspeople living and working on an island only a couple of miles wide. John Abrams, for example.

7/4/2019 Notes

interior of frederick douglass house restoration photo

On this, our independence day:
“Such people lived then, had lived before, and will, probably, ever have a place on this planet; and their course, in respect to any great change, (no matter how great the good to be attained, or the wrong to be redressed by it), may be calculated with as much precision as can be the course of the stars. They hate all changes, but silver, gold and copper change! Of this sort of change they are always strongly in favor.”

When products are manufactured in a factory the assembly process can be inspected and the product tested to find issues introduced when transitioning a product from design development to line production. There are always new ways to produce an unexpected result. This opportunity is hard to come by on a construction site where personnel work independently, instructions can be confusing or incomplete, and inspections of completed work are never comprehensive. Structure Tech recently ran into an example of this: they were missing a key part of fire stop collar inspections – the fastener used really matters. For new construction, it looks like wood blocking should be installed to receive the collar to avoid the use of toggle fasteners.

A look into the set design of HBO’s Chernobyl.

Berlin Brandenburg Airport came up in conversation this past week and it stirred vague memories – wasn’t that place supposed to open almost a decade ago? I remember reading articles about the opening delay years and years ago. Yup, looks like the construction flaws persist and it still won’t be opening anytime soon. A highlight – 750 display screens need to be displayed due to end of life caused by running test arrival/departure data for more than seven years during the delay.

Gift Idea of the Week: Acme Klein Bottle designed and sold by Cliff Stoll. You may recognize him from the book The Cuckoo’s Egg (1989). Here is a great video of his inventory storage and retrieval system built under his home.

6/27/2019 Notes

Exterior of tenement house, New York City

There has been a slow trickle of digitized urban photography over the last couple of years – not explicitly art photography, but the grim and grind photography of urban administration. New York has put online historical Tax Assessment Photos covering tens of thousands of buildings. Here’s a good introduction to the collection published in the New York Times from December 2018.

It’s not always easy to find non-leather work boots and tool systems. I’ve had some luck with Bogs for non-leather boots, but they recently discontinued their rubber lace-up steel toe boot so the future is hazy on that front. For tool belts I recently came across Diamondback Toolbelts which sell a modular tool belt/pouch system – they don’t specifically note the material, but other reviews indicate that they use cordura fabric. Let me know if you have a Diamondback and how it’s working out.

The impossible screw, a physical brain worm.

Reuben Saltzman of Structure Tech recently reviewed the issues with attaching decks to homes with brick veneer and does a great job of laying out the simple issue – bricks are almost always a non-structural cladding material these days. This is one of those details you can keep an eye out for, not only with decks but with anything that looks heavy attached to a brick veneer.

Sporting Event of the Week: The Megavalanche, check out Damien Oton’s run from 2018 here

6/20/2019 Notes

Japanese Gate at Boston MFA

The Carpentry Way is a gem of a blog written by Chris Hall. It’s a detailed look at what a dedicated craftsman can do, and his attention to documenting his craft is incredible. I believe I first came across his work when I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts – Chris built a fantastic gate at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. Chris has recently publicized his cancer diagnosis and provided a second update here.

Density is a hot subject in urban planning and zoning and quickly runs afoul of legacy zoning codes which designate large swaths of many urban areas as ‘single family only.’ There is a lot of ink spilled about the failed concept of the garden city, but if we look at single family zoning as a form of growth-restricting belt around cities, perhaps the garden city really does exist today. The New York Times takes a look at the prevalence of single family zoning and it’s truly astonishing how little density is zoned in cities like Portland, Oregon or San Jose, California. It reminds me of the argument that rural decline is just an artifact of the classification methodology – perhaps in the same way urban growth is partially just a misclassification of suburban growth. It’s simply not possible to have urban growth in a city dominated by single family zoning, because single family homes are not ‘urban’.

Kate Wagner is the voice behind McMansion Hell and she recently published a short piece on the history of open-vs-closed home layouts at CityLab. Open concept homes, like many aspects of home building, reflects class realities and aspirations – it’s more expensive to build open home with larger structural spans for example. With household sizes trending smaller and evidence of wage stagnation in many industries, perhaps open concept layouts will begin to fall out of favor.

A short piece in Fire Engineering on how the cladding at Grenfell contributed to the disaster in 2017. Take-aways: it’s astonishing that the cladding was sold in a ‘combustible’ and ‘non-combustible’ configuration. Even more astonishing that a real person saw those options and thought the combustible one was the right call. Second, the air-gap under the cladding directly contributed to the spread of the fire – a hidden pathway where a dangerous condition to develop. I’m reminded of why fire-stopping details are so important in balloon framing.

Medieval Skill of the Week: Scythe Mowing a Lawn (Video)

6/13/2019 Notes

Festool has a flash sale site for reconditioned tools.

Words get spilled about ‘warranty work’ and ‘call backs’ on construction jobs, but you hear less about ‘rework’ – work discovered to be deficient before the completion of a job. That’s what seems to be on display at NYC’s Hudson Yards which opened this year – tons and tons of rework.

I’m not sure when solar panel leasing started, but I don’t think it ever seemed like a good idea. Lease space on your roof for someone else to install electrical equipment, making it impossible to service your roof service and encumbering your property at sale? I’ve known people who have done it, but the downsides always seemed striking and lightning has finally struck a JLC editor. The leased panels on his roof caught fire, damaging his roof and now he’s struggling to get them removed. Here is his original story from April 3rd and the follow-up from May 22nd of 2019.

Many of my likes and dislikes can be mapped to ‘things with a system’ and ‘things that don’t have a system but should’. The Copenhagen Central Hospital Laundry is a building with a system. The photographer, Alastair Philip Wiper has some other great galleries of his architectural photography.

Software As A Service of the Week: Pinboard.in

What I read in May 2019

These lists are a little off-topic – I read a lot of fiction/non-fiction unrelated to the built environment. Good book recommendations come from unexpected places and can expand your world – these round-ups are my contribution to discovery. You can always find my full library here.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ | Alex Honnold/David Roberts: Alone on the Wall (2016)

I don’t climb, which means my interest in the sport is shallow. Alex Honnold is not only a force in that world, but a contemporary – we are about the same age. Viewing his personal evolution through a similar passage of time is fascinating. Only thing better are the documentaries he has been in: Free Solo (2018), Alone on the Wall (2008), Sufferfest (2014), and Sufferfest 2 (2015) are all great.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ | Leonard Mlodinow: The Drunkard’s Walk (2009)

A critical entry-level text on the intersection of human instinct and mathematical concepts. Optical illusions for the analytical mind. Put it in the same category as Innumeracy (1988).

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ | Francis Spufford: Red Plenty (2012)

Fiction set in the soviet planned economy. A good journeyman attempt, a little heavy on the history lecture interludes.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ | Tony Groom: Diver (2008)

Memoir of a British navy diver, with a heavy focus on his role in the Falkland war. A slice of the world I’ve never experienced, told with honesty and detail. Perhaps a little bit of a heavy focus on bar stories.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ | Drew Magary: The Postmortal (2011)

Drew Margary is a great casual writer. If I see his byline I’ll crack it open, no matter what the subject. This book is his first shot at fiction and covers a future where aging has been eliminated and some natural/unnatural consequences. If you like Drew Margary you’ll like this book.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ | Michael S. Sanders: The Yard (1999)

A portrait of Bath Iron Works at the turn of the century. Skip any chapter that starts talking about the Navy and you’ll find a tight, engrossing look at a Brigadoon-like manufacturing facility turning out some of the world’s most advanced ships with some of the oldest methods/equipment on the continent. Check out the facility in Bath, Maine to see where they’ve gone in in the last two decades since the book was published.