Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Simple versus complex building

Last year I had to get a bunch of learning units for my license renewal, so I took some online courses. This one about masonry construction had some interesting facts. But me being me, and given what I write about here, I couldn't help but note the dramatic contrast in these passages between two entirely different philosophies of building and construction:
The masonry trade is an extreme blend of old and new technology. Consider the situation in undeveloped countries such as Malawi, a small country in South East Africa. Roofs in this village are primarily constructed by lashing sticks together into a crude frame and then covering the frame with bundles of grass to provide minimal shelter from sun and rain. The homes are primarily constructed with mud brick. These bricks are dug from the native soil on site and then baked in a wood-fired oven, also on site, to remove some of the moisture. The end product is a brick that is only slightly stronger than a dirt clod. They are laid in running bond using mud as mortar. They dig a small hole on the site and periodically wet the hole to dig “mortar” for laying the brick. No cement or other additive is used.

Dimensional tolerance? Unit compressive strength? Type S or Type N? f'n? These are nowhere to be found. On the other hand, these dwellings illustrate the simple beauty of masonry and the ancient roots of the trade. These structures are surprisingly sound. They have high thermal mass, are termite proof, require no transportation of materials, are 100 percent recyclable, are locally mined and manufactured. In fact they surpass even our best efforts at being “green” and sustainable. One man can mine, manufacture, deliver, and install all the necessary components to build these structures—a remarkable feat.

Since its inception thousands of years ago, masonry has in many ways not changed. It is still practiced today in exactly the same form that it began so long ago. Even at its most basic state, masonry is still a very effective means of providing shelter and security for people all over the world...


In fact, some architectural masonry projects are so complex that their geometry cannot be resolved without an analytical tool. Case in point is St. Mary's Academy, a school project in New Orleans, which involved such complicated geometry that constuctibility and cost issues threatened to jeopardize the project. The design involved more than 140,000 glazed CMUs; more than 100 unique shapes further multiplied by multiple color, score patters and bonding methods to be shipped in various quantities—or more accurately put, 350 unique items. Because of the intended single wythe wall construction, the design was compared to a 140,000-piece 3D puzzle with a photo on each side. When the architects presented the design to contractors, a unanimous vote of “impossible to build” was returned. The only alternative was to build two 4-inch walls to separate the complexity—an approach that was cost prohibitive and not desired by the architects who stood behind their design. Detailed masonry modeling during the design phase, however, salvaged the design, and resulted in precise identification, ordering, and installation of each masonry unit. The technology was used to control costs and preserve the design intent.
No Tech Magazine has some good articles on simple-yet-elegant masonry construction solutions.

Also, here is some info on a sadly neglected architectural movement: Brick Expressionism (Wikipedia)

Bricks Expressionism, a new aesthetic (Zapolote Photography)





  1. I love low complexity stuff which is probably because I'm basically an idiot when it comes to anything technical and yet I often do my own repairs; that's a real bad combination if ya know what I mean. The thing that almost turns me republican, but not quite and plus I rarely vote, is all the zoning and permit rules. I'm trying to build a very small house as simply as possible on a very cheap piece of land and man what a hassle and this is true even though most of the officials are actually trying to work with me. God forbid officialdom was hostile I could never get the project done without millions of dollars. I finally got a permit for a composting toilet but then was required to put in a septic system for 4 people which now deals only with greywater. I wanted an out building that could be used as an office and an extra bedroom but it actually requires two doors, two windows, a separate flushing toilet (not even required in the main house), and heating other than a wood stove. So no out buildings it would cost more than the house. The septic system and the required extra wide driveway already cost as much as the house. I'm sure these are important rules for many reasons but they make simple living more expensive than regular living.

    1. Yeah, I heard a lot of stories like that when I was in Topanga - it's impossible to build anything which raises the prices of existing land etc. I'm currently working in California (virtually), and it certainly awakens you to the fact that sometimes there is too much regulation (months of regulatory activity for minor changes, etc.). It's not untrue that sometimes regulations are too restrictive and outlive their purpose.

      BUT, it's important to have a nuanced view. I'm all for eliminating regulations to allow people to be more self sufficient. But you can see why such regulations were put there in the first place - to prevent slum lords from unsafe and unsanitary dwelling. All you have to do is look at Jacob Riis' book How the Other Half Lives to see the genesis of such laws. The problem is that now the laws are too rigid and a hindrance. Societies change, and laws and regulations should change with them, but that's either sad than done. It's not black or white. The problem is that Republicans always use this ideas as a Trojan Horse for eliminating regulations that put restrains on the power of big money to run roughshod over society (banking, environmental regulations) instead of eliminating ones that help the little guy. Deregulating beer and breweries is the best example of that - someday I need to write a piece on that. Thousand of new jobs, small businesses AND much better tasting beer came out of that - a win for everyone!

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  3. I do struggle with the issue of regulation. Like most people I'm glad it's there for other people but don't much care for it when I'm the target. In my case I can clearly see where and why the rules were invented and there is a go around it's just too costly and time consuming for me to pursue. The out building rules came about, so I'm told, because some families were keeping children and the elderly in unheated garages and so forth and the regulation for extra-wide driveways is to make room for fire trucks. Although I dare say the dirt road to my plot is so bad I doubt a firetruck would make it. I hope you have chosen somewhere nice in CA. I lived there many years and one thing that always amazed me is that you could be in say Compton or lower South Side LA renting an awful apt for $1,000 a month or you could be in a slightly smaller apartment in a nice area in Long Beach for about the same amount. Never made much sense to me.

    1. I'm not in California yet! By virtually I meant I'm using a remote desktop connection to connect to a computer in San Francisco to work on a project in Palo Alto. I'm still in Milwaukee, but fortunately we're having a warm spell and it's nearly 80. But I'm sure we'll be back to our usual 50 degrees, rain and low-hanging clouds which will persist until mid-June.


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