From Humble to Huge

We have looked at buildings from some of the biggest buildings in the world built for rocket assembly to micro-houses that four strong men could lift. From the solo voice crying in the wilderness to a billion dollar plus portfolio of 289 apartment communities in 17 states. But the process is always the same: keep looking until the building starts to tell you its story. When I started engineering at GE Aircraft Engine Group, a seasoned German engineer, Gerhardt Neumann, used to say: “The engine speaks, learn to listen.”

SpaceX 9-2015P1000387 167 WPRP1110717
Each building is unique, but their are family histories and regional syndromes. Homes on the coasts are bombarded with saturated moist air that will produce mold enclaves within months of turning on the air conditioning. Frost heaves in cold climates are not limited to roads, I saw a basketball court at Dartmouth that combined BBall with high hurdles with the wood floor buckled up 18″.

We usually get a call to look at a building when there is something wrong, strange, or being sold. However, there are those of us who go to the doctor when there is nothing wrong in order to identify problems before they are life-threatening. The wiser among you may wish to do it for your buildings as well. Give us a call, all you may get is an interesting story and a clean bill of health, but you also may avoid some catastrophic future headache. We enjoy looking and listening to buildings, from humble to huge….

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How much common sense must we ignore before we appear nonsensical?

There are plenty of new mistakes to make, so why keep repeating the old ones. If someone came up with an idea to build a city below sea level, on the coast how much enthusiasm could we muster to proceed? Yet every day, we rebuild in flood plains, ignore the dynamics of river systems, and deny that climate change means storms are going to be more devastating on the coast? Retreat sometimes works better than attack, for the mind, body, and infrastructure. Cities evolve, intelligently designed cities crawl to higher ground.

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The Perfect Wall

The perfect wall would have to be incorporated into the “perfect building” since we have agreed that buildings should be looked at as a system. The best step we can take is to back up to say, “In climates where heating is the predominant activity, better to have the cold dry air leak slowly into the building which makes it warmer and drier; in climates where cooling predominates, better to have the cool conditioned air leak outward to become warmer and drier.” Herein lies the peace of moisture controlled.

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Buildings as Machines or Systems

We seem to be a long way from the self-repairing building that would be the analog of the human body. Many have written about the building skin as analogous to the body skin, but remember: wound the building skin, and it will be a long time before it “heals”. Sure we have self sealing membranes under our shingles; but that is for nail holes, not tree limbs or bullets.

I always used to wonder at the great thermal numbers we got looking at log buildings until we realized that if you have air leakage, and air leakage used to amount to half a buildings heat loss, in a log building you usually could also see daylight. In a frame house the air leak can be 8 feet away on the outside wall from the outlet on the inside where the air pours in: try to trace that path and caulk it. With the log building the leak goes from in to out and you can cure it in an instant.


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Claddings Leak! Water flows downhill!

All cladding leaks! I remember Joe Lstiburek’s “Flash for Cash” presentation well. Even all glass boxes leak at the seams! If 99% of caulk holds, you have 1% holes. Claude Shannon, the father of information theory applied redundancy to transmitting data packets without errors, similarly, adding redundant paths for water to leak to the outside and away from the building walls assures building structural integrity and avoidance of organic growth (the politically correct version of MOLD) colonies becoming established. Some even like to differentiate between mold and fungus. OSHA says:

“Molds are fungi that are found everywhere – both indoors and outdoors all year round. The terms fungi and mold are often used interchangeably, but mold is actually a type of fungi. Concern about indoor exposure to mold has increased along with public awareness that exposure to mold can cause a variety of adverse health effects. There are many thousands of species of mold and most if not all of the mold found indoors comes from outdoor sources. It seems likely to grow and become a problem only when there is water damage, high humidity, or dampness.

Molds produce and release millions of spores small enough to be air-, water-, or insect-borne. They can also produce toxic agents known as mycotoxins. Spores and mycotoxins can have negative effects on human health. For those people who are affected by mold exposures there can be a wide variation in how they react. People at greatest risk of health effects are individuals with allergies, asthma, sinusitis, or other respiratory conditions, as well as infants and children, elderly people, and pregnant women. In addition, individuals with a weakened immune system are at risk.*”

Redundant is as old as construction itself. If a roof of palm fronds is not thick enough, the successive layers will be insufficient to assure that drips will slide (kind of like the chutes and ladders game of childhood) down and sideways until eventually dripping off at the eaves outside of the building walls.

It is also critical, and Boy Scout tent pitching emphasized: to place your building (or tent) above the surrounding ground, sloping away on all sides. If you pitch your tent in a bowl, you will sleep in the soup if it rains.

Why is this mentioned at all?

Because everyone agrees that it is a good idea, and then proceeds to place the foundation too low for the surrounding terrain. And to make matters more confusing, they do it on steeply sloping ground. In the steep slope scenario, this can be a recipe for disaster, with rampant erosion and foundation walls becoming retaining walls without benefit of proper design.

And the things that can be done with a blank sheet of paper or a refined 3D CAD program! Imagine where the water goes when it rains on this bulding???

Copper Building 4x



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Why does good mold go bad?

We humans have enjoyed a long and fruitful symbiotic relationship with mold organisms. They have made us sick, made us well, preserved and enhanced our foods and diets. In short: Where would we be without them? Toting around sour milk, vinegar and malted, sprouting wheat. They help digest our food and all the wastes we create. They even participate in the “rotting” that created our coal deposits:

 Mold for Coal, then Gold

Mold is smarter than the average one celled organism, (I shouldn’t mention that while fighting a cold, the rhinovirus might be surfing the net). I was amazed and perhaps a bit doubtful when I read in Bill Bryson’s Brief History of Everything that garden mold, when its environment has been threatened, forms up into a multi-celled “mold slug” that boogies over to greener, wetter pastures. There it sends out spores to re-establish a one celled colony.

And that finally is what triggered this post: We have mold colonies all over the place, yet they exist for years just making the place smell musty. So why does good mold go bad? Why suddenly so toxic? Look at these happy little colonies:

Photo 1: Mold on nutritious, moist medium

Back to my cold. Yesterday, I saw my doctor, because I felt like I had been run over by a truck, yet had no ostensible symptoms otherwise. He gave me antibiotics, we threatened my hitch-hiking viri. After an overnight of circulating cyclosporins (mold based pharmaceuticals are a huge segment of mold in white hats), I awoke with SYMPTOMS. The colony is preparing for departure, good news to me, but they are asking me to please broadcast their seed, or whatever a virus spore is called, as they leave my premises.

Back to the mold, after the dish dries:

Photo 2: Mold after the medium dried out

So mold removal is a ticklish problem. If you have a leaking roof that has kept a sheetrock cavity moist enough to keep the local mold colonies happy, when you repair the leak, be prepared to remove the moldy colonies at the same time. Stories abound of situations that became toxic when the repairs began.

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Caution Falling Building (parts)

Some of us remember the John Hancock Fiasco when I.M.Pei designed one beautiful all glass building in Boston, and before it was finished the windows started popping out. Theories of failure were abundant, and it turns out the problem was the glass was too well made. Oh well. After hearing a presentation on the Hancock, the presenter showed a slide (remember those 35mm things? pre Powerpoint) of the downtown skyline of Boston and said he was actively working on 11 other buildings that were losing slabs of limestone, granite, and bricks! I was reminded of this when I saw the following example of flimsy attachment of trim on a well built masonry building that had been gussied up with EIFS trim. There are two ramset fasteners visible and no more. The problem with making things foolproof is that fools are so clever. Did anyone watch this installation. Probably not. The “Structural” inspections had all been passed. This was in the realm of the painters. To avoid adding injury to insult we must remember that all things subject to gravity must be taken seriously.

This piece landed in an alley.

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Shower Doors

I am staying in a 200 year old home on the coast of Maine. Real old timey place. One of the “modern” amenities is a beautiful old cast iron claw foot tub that has been rigged for a showers with a ceiling ring and hung curtain.
Every now and then I stay at a hotel with one of those fancy bowed out shower curtains to make a super sized shower. There is usually a note or even an embossed tile with the instructions, “Please put the curtain inside the tub when showering.”! I now know whom to blame for the late crop of flashing related building difficulties we have encountered! Shower door manufacturers! Since cheap and plentiful shower doors have become available, the current generation of designers and constructors have been missing this visual demonstration of how drainage planes and flashing works. Within the past year we have seen buildings where flashing was installed to conduct the water INTO the wall systems. Those designers and builders must be responsible for the sign in the hotels. They don’t know where to put the flashing or the shower curtain during rain showers.

I should also mention that all the water testing standards define failure as “no uncontrolled water leakage to the interior of the building. Let’s look at that language. I was walking through the jetway during a gully washer rainstorm. There are gutters that run along the edges of the passage way. That is controlled water. During window tests, I have seen standing water in the sill extrusion which eventually runs out to the exterior through the weep holes. That is controlled water. Many greenhouses have elaborate interior gutters that discharge outside. That is controlled water.
Let us not confuse visible water with uncontrolled water. This confusion leads to things like caulking up weep holes on the window systems, and yes, we have seen that done too many times.

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Lack of Commonsense!

This is what happens when there’s not enough reinforcing steel in a concrete assembly:

We're going to take this lying down.

Gravity, wins again

First, the apartment building was constructed. Afterward, the plan called for an underground garage to be dug out. The excavated soil was piled up on the other side of the building. Heavy rains resulted in water seeping into the ground. The building began to tilt. Then it began to shift and the “hollow” concrete pilings were snapped due to the uneven lateral pressures and lack of tensile strength from rebar or even welded wire fabric.
• An underground garage was being dug on the south side, to a depth of 15 feet.
• The excavated dirt was being piled up on the north side, to a height of 35 feet.
• The building experienced uneven lateral pressure from south and north.
• This resulted in a lateral pressure of 3,000 tons, which was greater than what the pilings could tolerate.

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Commonsense Direction

So, back in the day, when we started walking upright and living in caves, it was de rigeur not to generate waste on the same end of the cave as the water supply. Similarly, when villages grew, the privy, bathing, and cleanup areas was separated from the water vessel filling stations. And so civilization continued. Villages grew into camps, the chesters (from the Latin castra) of Manchesters and Dorchesters. Better to be spread along the river length so that the water inlets and waste outlets were far enough apart. So population density evolved and we needed controls. We thought that central governments would never let us do something stupid, or harm ourselves.

At some point we wondered if all this was going to be sustainable, and we looked  to the same “big brother” government that told us cigarettes and Thalidomide were O.K. to regulate our energy and resource use. I am beginning to thing we are moving in the wrong direction. It appears impossible to change the direction of the juggernaut. Easier to turn a super tanker around in the East River. But I can change my mind easily. If my choices can become a sustainable me, and my home can be a sustainable home, and my village can become a sustainable village, perhaps the peninsula can become a sustainable peninsula and so forth. So let us not look to “the government” for a solution. Let us each examine the light bulbs, wandering car trips, and running water while brushing our teeth to reverse the momentum of more into a sustainable enough.

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