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“They swore by concrete. They built for eternity”*…

Understanding how the materials we use work– and don’t work– together…

For most of a red swamp crayfish’s life, cambarincola barbarae are a welcome sight. Barbarae – whitish, leech-like worms, each a couple of millimeters long – eat the swamp scum off the crayfish’s shells and gills, and in most cases improve the crayfish’s health and life expectancy. Together, barbarae and crayfish form a mutualistic symbiotic relationship. Both species benefit from their cohabitation, and barbarae have evolved to the point where their entire life cycle, from egg to adult, occurs while attached to a crayfish.

But their symbiosis is contextual – a tentative truce. Young crayfish (who molt their shells more frequently and therefore accumulate less scum) don’t need much cleaning, and will take pains to remove barbarae from their shells. And even when molting has slowed and a crayfish has allowed the symbiosis to flourish, there are limits to barbarae’s loyalty: If there isn’t enough food for them to survive, they’ll turn parasitic, devouring their host’s gills and eventually killing them.

Like symbioses, composite materials can be incredibly productive: two things coming together to create something stronger. But like crayfish and barbarae, their outcomes can also be tragic. Rarely are two materials a perfect match for each other, and as the environment changes their relationship can turn destructive. And when composites turn destructive – as was evident in the reinforced concrete when the Champlain Towers North were inspected back in 2018 – the fallout can be catastrophic.

The history of what we now call composite materials goes back many thousands of years. For modern consumers, the most common composites are fiber-reinforced plastics (the colloquial “carbon fiber” and “fiberglass”), but perhaps the first composites in history were reinforced mud bricks. The Mesopotamians learned to temper their bricks by mixing straw into them at least as early as 2254 BC, increasing their tensile strength and preventing them from cracking as they dried. This method continues around the world today.

But by far the most commonly used composite material in history is steel-reinforced concrete. Roman concrete usage started as early as 200 BCE, and almost three centuries later Pliny the Elder included a note about what appears to be high quality hydraulic concrete in his Naturalis Historiae. These recipes were subsequently forgotten, and the material largely disappeared between the Pantheon and the mid nineteenth century. Modern concrete involves some legitimate process control: limestone and other materials are heated to around 900° C to create portland cement, which is then pulverized and mixed with water (and aggregate) to create an exothermic reaction resulting in a hard and durable object. The entire process consumes vast amounts of power and produces vast amounts of carbon dioxide, and the industry supporting it today is estimated to be worth about a half a trillion dollars.

But in spite of the fortunes that have been invested in the portland cement process (as well as in a wide range of concrete admixtures, which are used to tune both the wet mixture and the finished product), the true magic of contemporary concrete is the fact that it is so often reinforced with steel – dramatically increasing its tensile strength and making it suitable for a wide range of structural applications. This innovation arose in the mid-nineteenth century, when between 1848 and 1867 it was developed by three successive Frenchmen. In the late 1870s, around the time that the first reinforced concrete building was built in New York City, the American inventor Thaddeus Hyatt noted a critical quality of the material: through some fantastic luck, the coefficients of thermal expansion of steel and concrete are strikingly similar, allowing a composite steel-concrete structure to withstand warm/cool cycles without fracturing. This quality opened up the floodgates, and in the 1880s the pioneering architect-engineer Ernest Ransome built a string of reinforced concrete structures around the San Francisco Bay Area. From there it was history.

More than any other physical technology, it is reinforced concrete that defines the 20th century. Versatile, strong, and (relatively) durable, the material is critical to life and industry as we know it. Reinforced concrete was the material of choice of Albert Kahn, who with Henry Ford defined 20th century industrial architecture; reinforced concrete is a key part of  nearly every type of logistical infrastructure, from roads to bridges to container terminals; reinforced concrete makes up the literal launch pads for human space travel. It’s a critical component of power plants, dams, wind turbines, and the vast majority of mid- to late-twentieth century homes and apartment buildings. Its high compressive strength makes it ideally suited for footings and foundations; its high tensile strength lets it cantilever and span great distances easily.

But reinforced concrete is really only 140 years old – the blink of an eye, as far as the infrastructure of old is concerned. The Pantheon was built around 125 CE, by which time the Romans had been experimenting with concrete construction for well over 300 years. When we see the Pantheon, we’re seeing a mature method – a technology with full readiness, being used in an architectural style that’s tuned for its physical properties.

By contrast, even our most iconic steel-reinforced concrete buildings are prototypes…

Early on in the history of steel-reinforced concrete, it was known that the high alkalinity of concrete helped to inhibit the rebar from rusting. The steel was said to be sealed within a monolithic block, safe from the elements and passivated by its high pH surroundings; it would ostensibly last a thousand years. But atmospheric carbon dioxide inevitably penetrates concrete, reacting with lime to produce calcium carbonate – and lowering its pH. At that point, the inevitable cracks and fissures allow the rebar inside to rust, whereupon it expands dramatically, cracking the concrete further and eventually breaking the entire structure apart.

This process – carbonatation, followed by corrosion and failure – was often visible but largely ignored into the late twentieth century. Failures in reinforced concrete structures were often blamed on shoddy construction, but the reality is that like the crayfish and the barbarae, the truce between concrete and steel is tentative. What protection concrete offers steel is slowly eaten away by carbonatation, and once it’s gone the steel splits the concrete apart from the inside…

There are of course many potential innovations to come in reinforced concrete. Concrete mixtures made with fly ash and slag produce high strength and durable structures. Rebar rust can be mitigated by using sacrificial anodes or impressed current. Rebar can be made of more weather resistant materials like aluminum bronze and fiberglass. Or the entire project could be scrapped – after all, the CO2 emitted by the cement industry is nothing to thumb your nose at. Whatever we do, we should remember that the materials we work with are under no obligation to get along with one another – and that a symbiotic truce today doesn’t necessarily mean structural integrity tomorrow.

On composites, crayfish, and reinforced concrete’s tentative alkalinity: “A Symbiotic Truce,” from Spencer Wright (@pencerw), whose newsletter, “The Prepared” (@the_prepared), is always an education.

* Gunter Grass


As we delve into durability, we might recall that it was on this date in 315 that the Arch of Constantine officially opened. A triumphal arch in Rome dedicated to the emperor Constantine the Great, it was constructed of Roman concrete, faced with brick, and reveted in marble.

Roman concrete, like any concrete, consists of an aggregate and hydraulic mortar – a binder mixed with water (often sea water) that hardens over time. The aggregate varied, and included pieces of rock, ceramic tile, and brick rubble from the remains of previously demolished buildings. Gypsum and quicklime were used as binders, but volcanic dusts, called pozzolana or “pit sand”, were favored where they could be obtained. Pozzolana makes the concrete more resistant to salt water than modern-day concrete.

The strength and longevity of Roman marine concrete is understood to benefit from a reaction of seawater with a mixture of volcanic ash and quicklime to create a rare crystal called tobermorite, which may resist fracturing. As seawater percolated within the tiny cracks in the Roman concrete, it reacted with phillipsite naturally found in the volcanic rock and created aluminous tobermorite crystals. The result is a candidate for “the most durable building material in human history.” In contrast, as Wright notes above, modern concrete exposed to saltwater deteriorates within decades.


“a total space, a complete world, a kind of miniature city”*…

John Portman’s Atlanta Hyatt Regency, which opened in 1967, kicked off a major atrium-hotel-building craze

If you’re craning your neck as severely when you step inside a building as you did outside it, you might be in an atrium hotel, an intensely American structure for sleep, conferences, cocktails, and much more. These are facilities built around a massive central chamber stretching a dozen or several dozen stories into the sky; at the lobby level, you’ll find bars, restaurants, gardens, live birds, and maybe even a boat or two.

We don’t build them much anymore, but Americans invented, perfected and exported this unique building style to the world (where it continues to prosper). Birthed in brash excess, atrium hotels were first seen as too gaudy by the modernist architectural establishment and as too profligate by penny-pinching chain hoteliers. To varying observers, they suggest everything from Disney to dystopia. But in their heyday, these buildings promised — and delivered — a spectacle like no other.

Real estate developer Trammell Crow, the man with the most Dallas-sounding name you’ve ever heard, provided early inspiration for the form with his Dallas Trade Mart atrium, built in 1958. But it was Atlanta architect-developer John Portman, his occasional partner, who adapted and built the form into a colossus. Portman’s Hyatt Recency Atlanta opened in 1967, and was an immediate sensation. Atriums became a signature of the Hyatt Regency brand, and Portman went on to work for a variety of other chains, including Marriott and Westin. Atriums later became a standard feature of most Embassy Suites…

The benefit wasn’t just grand views from the lobby, but from every floor; each hallway was suddenly a balcony. Inside that central volume of space, hotels stuffed a range of embellishments. “One would move through a set of functions and experiences as one might a city: from home, to garden, to urban plaza, cafe, and bar,” wrote University of Technology, Sydney architectural historian Charles Rice in his book Interior Urbanism: Architecture, John Portman, and Downtown America.

The trouble was, some critics saw, that these atrium hotels tended to be creating, as Rice’s title indicates, a new urbanism that was purely inside. Amenities that once faced streets were pulled indoors and replaced with blank walls and hard-to-find entrances. That formula — so irresistible during an era of urban crisis and decay in the 1970s and ’80s — lost some appeal when cities staged a comeback and the streets again beckoned with their own attractions…

Portman’s first atrium wasn’t in a hotel at all, but in the now-demolished Antoine Graves public housing tower in Atlanta, built in 1965. The idea was simple, says Mickey Steinberg, a structural engineer on many of Portman’s early projects. The architect was just trying to provide some sociable space and ventilation to tenants. (The building was not air conditioned.) “If I had a hole down the center of the building,” Steinberg recalls Portman saying, “people could come out and talk to each other and I might be able to get some air through the building.” 

That notion recurred to Portman two years later for the Hyatt Regency. “It wasn’t any grand philosophy about a style of architecture,” Steinberg says. “He was designing for people to want to be there.”

He was also designing for people who might not have wanted to be in Atlanta, whose central business district was in decline. Steinberg recalled Portman’s intention: “I’m going to create a space for them to want to be in, because downtown Atlanta doesn’t have it anymore.”

The Portman-style skyscraper atrium revived a 19th century tradition: the grand hotel lobby, with its adjoining restaurants, ballrooms and other such attractions. In the motel age, these spaces had often been pared back to a mere desk for paperwork. (You’d even usually go elsewhere for that one ineradicable amenity of the ice machine.) Portman bet that guests would embrace spectacle and activity again…

The atrium concept didn’t initially enthrall the moneymen… Bill Marriott had one look and he said, ‘Don’t bother with it. Motels are the thing.’” Conrad Hilton famously called it a “concrete monster.” A then-unknown savior turned up in the form of Don Pritzker, whose nascent Hyatt chain then had only three locations. 

That bet paid off once the Hyatt Regency Atlanta opened: Visits to the hotel in the first four months of operation exceeded their expectation of the first five years. Guests lined up just to go up and down in the glass elevators. And Hyatt ran with the formula, building additional atrium-equipped Regency locations into the 1970s and ’80s…

A consideration of a uniquely-American style and of the social, cultural, and economic forces that birthed it: “Into the Heart of the Atrium Hotel.”

* Frederic Jameson, describing Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Postmodernism


As we blow bubbles, we might recall that it was on this date in 1928 that former concert violinist and proprietor of the One-In-Hand Tie Company of Clinton, Iowa, Joseph W. Less, introduced the modern clip-on tie.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 13, 2020 at 1:01 am

“I installed a skylight in my apartment… the people who live above me are furious”*…




It’s easy to see how the Monster Building got its nickname. Located where King’s Road curves around the base of Mount Parker [in Hong Kong], this 19-storey goliath dominates an entire city block. Its façade is pockmarked by air conditioners, drying laundry and corrugated metal awnings, but when the evening sun hits it from the west, casting it in a soft umber glow, it looks beautiful in its own monstrous way.

There’s nothing official about the moniker, although it is common enough that when local coffee chain % Arabica opened a new shop in one of the building’s two courtyards, it referred to it as its “Monster Mansion location.” The name seems to have emerged after the building was featured in two Hollywood blockbusters, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Ghost in the Shell, which turned it into a social media destination…

Together, the five blocks that make up the building contain 2,443 flats, and illegal huts soon filled up the rooftop space. [Lee Ho-yin, head of the University of Hong Kong’s architectural conservation program] estimates the building is home to roughly 6,840 people – a conservative estimate based on Hong Kong’s average household size of 2.8 people. Considering it occupies just 11,000 square metres of space, he says, “the Monster Building is surely the densest spot on earth.”…

So what is it like to live inside a monster? Eva Ho, who works as an administrator at an educational centre, has spent her entire life in the building. “It’s just a normal living place for me,” she says. At its best, the building offers unparalleled convenience, with grocery stores and a wet market on the ground floor, and two courtyards ringed by restaurants. At its worst, Ho says the building can feel “moody,” with a half-century’s worth of grime, poor ventilation and no views to speak of. “What I can see from the windows are the other buildings,” she says…

The remarkable tale in toto at “Hong Kong’s Modern Heritage, Part VII: The Monster Building.”

* Steven Wright


As we love our neighbors, we might recall that it was on this date in 1903 that Cuba granted the United States a perpetual lease on Guantánamo Bay.  The U.S. had established a presence there during the Spanish-American War; when that conflict ended with the Treaty of Paris of 1898 and Spain ceded Cuba its freedom, the U.S. stayed– first informally, then with the backing of Congress…

In 1901 the United States government passed the Platt Amendment as part of an Army Appropriations Bill. Section VII of this amendment read:

That to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points to be agreed upon with the President of the United States..

After initial resistance by the Cuban Constitutional Convention, the Platt Amendment was incorporated into the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba in 1901. The Constitution took effect in 1902, and land for a naval base at Guantánamo Bay was granted to the United States the following year.  [source]

Gitmo_Aerial source



Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 23, 2020 at 1:01 am

“They swore by concrete. They built for eternity.”*…


concrete dam

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China– the largest concrete structure in the world


In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the global building industry will have poured more than 19,000 bathtubs of concrete. By the time you are halfway through this article, the volume would fill the Albert Hall and spill out into Hyde Park. In a day it would be almost the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam. In a single year, there is enough to patio over every hill, dale, nook and cranny in England.

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8bn tonnes, surpassed only by China and the US.

The material is the foundation of modern development, putting roofs over the heads of billions, fortifying our defences against natural disaster and providing a structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry.

Concrete is how we try to tame nature. Our slabs protect us from the elements. They keep the rain from our heads, the cold from our bones and the mud from our feet. But they also entomb vast tracts of fertile soil, constipate rivers, choke habitats and – acting as a rock-hard second skin – desensitise us from what is happening outside our urban fortresses.

Our blue and green world is becoming greyer by the second. By one calculation, we may have already passed the point where concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet. Our built environment is, in these terms, outgrowing the natural one. Unlike the natural world, however, it does not actually grow. Instead, its chief quality is to harden and then degrade, extremely slowly.

All the plastic produced over the past 60 years amounts to 8bn tonnes. The cement industry pumps out more than that every two years. But though the problem is bigger than plastic, it is generally seen as less severe. Concrete is not derived from fossil fuels. It is not being found in the stomachs of whales and seagulls. Doctors aren’t discovering traces of it in our blood. Nor do we see it tangled in oak trees or contributing to subterranean fatbergs. We know where we are with concrete. Or to be more precise, we know where it is going: nowhere. Which is exactly why we have come to rely on it…

Solidity is a particularly attractive quality at a time of disorientating change. But – like any good thing in excess – it can create more problems than it solves…

Another entry for the “any solution can become the next problem” file: Jonathan Watts on the many ways that concrete’s benefits can mask enormous dangers to the planet, to human health – and to culture itself: “Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth.”

* Gunter Grass


As we muse on materials, we might recall that it was on this date in 1844 that Linus Yale patented the “safe door lock” (U.S. patent no. 3,630), the first modern “pin tumbler lock.”

yale-door-lock-patent-1844 source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Cathedrals are unfinished. It is just the nature of the beast.”*…


St John


Why do cathedrals take so long to build? Because the finish line is besides the point. Cathedrals are so compelling because they make visible the continued commitment that every building, city, and institution requires of their participants if they are to survive. Cathedral building ritualizes construction; they are compelling because they are never finished…

Cathedrals are distinct from typical megaprojects in a very important way: an unfinished Cathedral is by no means a failure.

As Dr. Atif Ansar, a professor in major project management at Oxford, frames it, most infrastructure projects (the dams and bridges that are focus of Ansar’s research) are binary. They are done, or not; a 99% complete bridge is not very useful. Cathedrals, one the other hand, are not binary. The aspiration may be much larger, but in essence, a single room could act as a cathedral. Salisbury cathedral took a full century to build, but services commenced almost immediately in a temporary wooden chapel. At St. John the Divine, the congregation used the crypt for the first services in 1899, just seven years after construction commenced. Cathedrals, Ansar posits, are accretive – they gain value as they are built, “like a beehive.” Accretive buildings pose a challenge for the iron triangle, because the scope is, by nature, open-ended; the project will never be complete.

Accretive projects are everywhere: Museums, universities, military bases – even neighborhoods and cities. Key to all accretive projects is that they house an institution, and key to all successful institutions is mission. Whereas scope is a detailed sense of both the destination and the journey, a mission must be flexible and adjust to maximum uncertainty across time. In the same way, an institution and a building are often an odd pair, because whereas the building is fixed and concrete, finished or unfinished, an institution evolves and its work is never finished…

A consideration of construction (and on-going maintenance) as a way of being: “Building a Cathedral.”

[This piece is via a newsletter, “The Prepared,” that your correspondent highly recommends.]

* Tour guide, St, John the Divine, Morningside Heights, N.Y.


As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1891 that Carnegie Hall was officially opened, with an orchestral performance conducted by Pyotr Tchaikovsky.  First know simply as “Music Hall,” the venue was formally named for it’s funder, Andrew Carnegie, in 1893.

Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

A: Practice, practice practice…

Carnegie Hall in 1895


Carnegie Hall today





Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

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