Monday, March 25, 2013


Nothing grabs people’s attention or draws crazed male wolf calls quite like the sight of some old Las Vegas highrise being imploded. While Americans may never again view such events without eerie flashbacks to 9/11, bringing down a large building predictably, and above all safely, ironically remains a calling that demands both skill and finesse.

The few seconds it takes to carry out a graceful, seemingly slow-motion building implosion makes this kind of work look simple--even effortless. In fact though, it requires weeks and often months of planning and preparatory work.  The engineering involved can be nearly as complex as that used to design the building in the first place. 

First, highrise demoliton engineers or “blasters” study the original building plans and decide how to persuade the structure to fall how and where they want it to. Nonstructural portions are often removed by conventional methods so that they won’t impede the collapse, and columns or beams may be weakened so that they’ll fail in predictable locations--something like scoring cardboard to make it fold where you want it to.

Despite the well-known use of explosives in this profession, it’s gravity that really does the job. After all, the energy it took to hoist every single beam and brick into place is locked up in the structure, waiting for Mother Nature to reclaim it. The taller the building, moreover, the more stored energy it contains. Using explosives just gives gravity a little nudge and lets it go to work.

Often, the presence of nearby structures requires a building to be brought down in a certain direction, or even within the space of its own footprint. To accomplish this, blasters use a carefully choreographed sequence of explosions, each of them relatively small, to induce a predictable and orderly collapse. For example, in a typical highrise implosion, the bottom center support columns will be blasted first, followed a few seconds later by the columns further out, so that the sinking middle portion will pull the building walls inward after it. 

In a reinforced concrete building, the blasters may choose a grade of explosive that will pulverize the concrete but leave the reinforcing bars intact, so that the steel strands will help guide the building down in the right direction.

While there are countless outfits who demolish buildings, in the realm of highrise demolition, there’s only one superstar. Controlled Demolition, Inc., is a Maryland company run by the Loizeaux family, the Flying Wallendas of building implosion.  Through three generations, the Loizeauxs have demolished skyscrapers, stadiums, smokestacks, bridges, radio towers and just about every other kind of large structure imaginable. They’re even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most buildings to be imploded at the same time--seventeen--handily beating their own previous Guiness record of twelve. 

It’s a tribute to the family's skill that the public almost nonchalantly expects buildings weighing many millions of pounds to obediently crumble into a tidy little pile at the push of a button.  Making it so isn’t quite as easy as it looks.

Monday, March 18, 2013


I often hear people say of some old house, “Wow, they don’t build ‘em like this anymore.” To which I’m often tempted to add, “And it’s a good thing, too.” There’s a lot to be said for the aesthetic of older homes--I’ve said a good deal of it myself--but on the technical side, houses are far better built today than they were just thirty years ago, let alone sixty or a hundred years.  

For one, we know a lot more about protecting houses from all the bad things that can happen to them. Take fire safety: Older houses were built with wooden lath that made perfect kindling, single-wall furnace flues that could rust out and overheat, and damage- and overload-prone knob-and-tube wiring that could smolder and start fires. Modern houses are built with flame-resistent gypsum wallboard, double-wall flues, better protected wiring systems, and perhaps the most worthwhile life safety feature of all: smoke detectors.

New houses also hold up much better in earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes.  Prewar houses typically had little or no foundation reinforcement and were sheathed with horizontal boards that gave very little lateral strength. They also had rather casually connected floors, walls, and roofs. Today’s houses, on the other hand, have well reinforced foundations, enormously strong plywood shearwalls to resist wracking, and a host of inexpensive yet very effective metal connectors, the sum of which allows new homes to survive natural catastrophes that would probably destroy an older home.

But safety isn’t the only thing that’s improved. New houses are several times more energy efficient than those of just a generation ago, thanks to mandates for better floor, wall, ceiling and duct insulation, double-glazed windows, and more efficient furnaces and lighting.

They’re also more durable. Modern copper water pipes, for example, will easily last the life of the structure, which certainly can’t be said for the rust-prone galvanized steel pipe found in most older homes.  And the “engineered lumber” used in today’s houses--much of it made from mill waste that used to be thrown out or burned--is stronger pound for pound than the solid-sawn lumber used by builders of yore. Even modern glass is better: While the french doors in old houses contain plain glass that shatters into dagger-like shards, the tempered glass required in modern doors crumbles into harmless little granules when broken.

Given that today’s homes are technically superior to yesterday’s, why do developers try so hard to make their new houses look as if they were old? And why do so many people still prefer to live in an old house with all the infirmities noted above?  No doubt it has something to do with the peculiar human tendency to idealize bygone times. Or as the writer and humorist Finley Peter Dunne put it, “The past always looks better than it was; it’s only pleasant because it isn’t here.”

That can’t be the whole story, though. To my mind, when people say they don’t build houses like they used to, they’re not really talking about lumber, pipes, and wiring. They’re talking about the one elusive quality you can’t build into any new house, no matter what the price:  The inimitable dignity of a genuine past.

Monday, March 11, 2013


American traffic laws tell us pedestrians have the right of way.  If you believe that, try walking across your city sometime.  The way we lay out our roads, our shopping centers, and even our houses makes it clear who’s really boss.  It’s good old Otto Mobile.

Given that the car is king--for the time being, anyway--it’s up to us lowly bipeds to demand at least a token of respect from our planners, most of whom are fixated on catering to motor vehicles, and who treat pedestrians as an incidental annoyance.  To that end, I offer a pedestrian’s Bill of Rights:

1.  When traffic laws say pedestrians have the right of way, that shouldn’t just mean that if you’re hit by a car, it’s not your fault.  People on foot shouldn’t have to fear, evade, negotiate, or maneuver around cars, whether moving or parked, just because planners routinely put the convenience of people inside vehicles far above that of people using their own two feet.

2.  No pedestrian should ever find that the only way to reach that store or office on foot is to cross a huge desert of asphalt, with moving cars threatening on all sides. Any parking area with more than two rows of stalls should be required to have a pedestrian walkway running down the strip where cars usually face off nose-to-nose.  If these walkways reduce the space available for parking cars, well, boo-hoo--cars already take up twenty times as much space a person does.  Enough is enough.

3. No pedestrian should ever be expected to cross more than four lanes of traffic, whether or not there are crossing signals present.  The vast six and even eight-lane-wide boulevards that are being imposed on more and more of our suburbs tear neighborhoods apart and form virtual Grand Canyons to people on foot. 

Once and for all, planners should shake the wrongheaded belief that the way to fix traffic congestion is to make roads wider. This is like telling a four hundred pound man with a heart condition that what he really needs is some bigger pants. The wider we make our roads, the more traffic will arrive to fill them up, and the more impassable our cities will become to people on foot. 

4. In dense urban areas, pedestrians should be free to shop, stroll, or sight see without constant threat of assault by cars, buses, or taxis.  Hence, planners should provide centralized public parking at the fringe of city cores, offer a shuttle service, and make downtown blocks pedestrian-only zones. Sedentary car jockeys would only benefit from having to walk a few steps to get where they’re going, and the rest of us would be blessed with a quieter, greener, and less polluted city.

5. Lastly, American planners should recognize that, in relative terms, cars are a mere fleeting speck of technology on planet Earth, like the chariot, the man-of-war, and the steam locomotive.  We bipeds, on the other hand, are hopefully here for the long run. It’s just plain dumb to continue building an entire nation around a machine that’ll likely be obsolete in fifty years--especially considering that, no matter what takes its place, we’ll always want get around on our own two feet.

Monday, March 4, 2013


The U.S. Department of Transportation tells us that, according to its latest figures, there are some 254 million passenger vehicles registered in the United States.  That’s pretty close to one car for every man, woman, and child in the nation. In fact, it’s some 58 million more cars than there are licensed drivers to drive them.

Thanks to such mind-numbing figures, historians will someday regard the twentieth century--though hopefully not much of the twenty-first--as an absurdly auto-infatuated era. After all, ours is a time in which cars are at the very core of American identity. They’re central to our coming of age and integral to our self-image and social status-- not to mention being all but mandatory to get around in the asphalt-paved, commute-saddled world we’ve created for ourselves.  

Still, future historians may have quite a bit of trouble understanding the supposed romance of a machine whose thirst for petroleum led us to befoul our own skies and oceans, and made us tailor our foreign policy in large part to keeping our gas tanks cheaply filled.  They’ll be even more mystified at how we Americans could panic over the supposed health risks of asbestos, electromagnetic fields, and radon gas, while over forty thousand of us died every year in the comfort and perceived safety of our own automobiles.

We shake our heads at our ancestors, who fought long, brutal wars over water, salt, or patches of worthless land.  But once oil-powered vehicles join the paddle wheeler and the steam locomotive as stone-dead technology--a moment that’s coming much sooner than we might think--future generations, too, will shake their heads over our own century-long addiction to automobiles, oil, and the troubles that went with them.

The fact that cars have also taken over our built environment may be a less immediate threat, but it’s equally dismaying.  Among city planners, not to speak of traffic engineers, the logistics of accommodating motor vehicles long ago took precedence over the needs of mere humans on foot.  And since a car takes up about twenty times more space than a person does, making room for those two hundred million-plus motor vehicles has led us to pave over some forty percent of our cities (in Los Angeles, this figure is said to be closer to sixty percent).  Inside our own homes, about one-fifth of our hard-earned living space is given over to keeping our four-wheeled friends warm and dry.  A century ago, not even 
Henry Ford could have dreamed that our automobile obsession would lead us to this state of affairs. 

So there you have it:  Another tract decrying those awful automobiles, written by a tree-hugging car hater, right?  Not quite. I’ve been a hardcore gearhead my whole life. I own four cars, three of them being what car nuts rather amusingly call “classics.” I’d stay up all night talking about spread-bore carbs and roller cams if I got half a chance.  But even this degree of motor mania can’t overcome an obvious fact: We’ll all be better off when petroleum-powered cars have putt-putted off into history.