Monday, August 26, 2013


How many structures have qualified as the tallest thing ever built? Surprisingly, it’s a pretty small club. 

We don’t know much about structures of the distant past, of course. But we do know that if you’d been hanging around Giza in 2570 BC or so, you’d have found the spanking-new Great Pyramid soaring some 481 feet into the sky--high enough to hold the title of tallest manmade structure for nearly four thousand more years. 

The Great Pyramid was finally overtopped around 1300 by England’s Lincoln Cathedral, whose spire was said to stand 525 feet tall.  Alas, this record-breaker was wrecked by a gstorm in 1549, ceding the honor to St. Olaf’s Church in Tallinn, Estonia--whose spire was barely three feet shorter--until this too burned down after a lightning strike in 1625.

Thereafter, the title to seesawed between a series of German and French churches--first St. Mary’s in Stralsund, Germany (495 feet tall, but guess what?--another lightning casualty in 1647); then back to France’s Strasbourg Cathedral (1647, with a 469-foot spire). It took the Germans over two hundred years to reclaim dominance with the spire of St. Nikolai at Hamburg (1874, 483 feet), only to have the French embarrass them again two years later when the cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen topped out at 495 feet.

The Germans ultimately won the spire wars in 1880 with the stupendous 515-foot tall northern spire of Cologne Cathedral, but this also turned out to be the last hurrah for Christianity’s long monopoly on erecting super-tall buildings. Instead, a secular structure--and one in the New World at that--claimed the title of World’s Tallest Structure for the first time. After being long delayed by a shortage of funds and then by the Civil War, the Washington Monument finally reached its full height of 555 feet in 1884 after 36 years under construction.

Yet this triumph was short-lived. Five years later, France once again reclaimed ownership of the World’s Tallest Structure, this time delivering a walloping knockout punch with its 986-foot Eiffel Tower. So complete was the Eiffel’s domination of the height race that it managed to retain its title right through the flurry of skyscraper building that took hold of America after 1900. Only in 1930 was it finally bested by New York’s 1,046-foot Chrysler Building.

The latter, ironically, had perhaps the most fleeting reign of all. It was unseated the following year by its downtown neighbor, the Empire State Building (1,250 feet), which retained the title for the next 36 years.

Although we usually think of skyscrapers when we consider super-tall structures, any freestanding structure qualifies, and thus the next two world height records were set by communications towers--first Russia’s Ostankino tower (1967, 1,772 feet) and then 
Toronto’s CN Tower (1975, 1,815 feet). The latter owned the trophy for the rest of the twentieth century. 

In 2000, however, Canada’s pride was quietly surpassed by a building still under construction in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Designed by architect Adrian Smith, the 163-story Burj Khalifa (known as Burj Dubai prior to its opening in 2010) sets the modern record at 2,722 feet, or just over a half-mile high. It's far and away the world’s tallest freestanding structure--for the time being, anyway.

Monday, August 19, 2013


The other day I came across a plastic house. Not the futuristic World’s Fair variety--this was just an ordinary old house that had been “improved” with a brace of glaring-white vinyl windows, lots of wavy vinyl siding, and some flimsy looking vinyl gutters and downspouts. As icing on the petrochemical cake, it was ringed by a white vinyl picket fence. If there were any termites left in the place, they must have been pretty hungry.

Vinyl is, of course, the plastics industry’s more euphonious name for polyvinyl chloride, or PVC . It’s the world’s second-largest commodity plastic, second only to polyethylene. About 35 million tons of the stuff are cranked out in a typical year, but with the housing market in rebound, production is now predicted to reach 49 million tons by 2017. 

You may be surprised to learn that the building industry is the world’s biggest consumer of PVC. According to an industry website, <>, about 23% of PVC production is used for pipes and fittings alone. Another 27 % goes to extruded profiles such as those used in vinyl window frames, gutters, and the like, and 10% or so to other building applications such as coatings and vinyl flooring (the latter, not to be confused with more eco-friendly linoleum, shows up in two out of three American kitchens).

Like many other environmentally troubling manmade materials, PVC starts out innocuously enough: its raw ingredients are salt and petroleum. Salt water is electrolyzed to produce chlorine, which is then combined with ethylene obtained from oil to produce ethylene dichloride. This compound is processed at high temperature to create a vinyl chloride monomer--still with me?--which is finally polymerized to form a polyvinyl chloride resin. Various additives make the resin suitable for different uses and protect it from its archenemy, ultraviolet light. 

The final result is a material that’s cheap and easily processed, which is one reason millions of tons of PVC are gobbled up each year in the form of vinyl windows, siding, gutters, flooring, and other economy-grade building products. Alas, when these not-very-substantial products end up in the landfill--which they usually do much sooner than the traditional materials they aim to displace--there’s trouble. A number of environmental authorities consider PVC to be the most toxic plastic in the environment. Bury it in a landfill, and it just sits there. Burn it, and it produces dioxin, a toxic chemical compound that’s a known teratogen, mutagen, and carcinogen.

PVC has proven its usefulness in many applications. On the other hand, it’s also wended its way into markets for which it simply isn’t suited. PVC gutters, for example, are neither durable nor attractive--in fact, other than their cheap first cost, they have no advantage whatever over more traditional gutter materials such as sheet metal, wood, aluminum or copper. The same goes for PVC fencing and the host of other nominally architectural PVC products on the market. Even in the vastly successful arena of vinyl windows, long term durability remains an unknown, manufacturer’s claims notwithstanding.

Every miracle material conjured up by man has downsides, and PVC is no exception. Since for practically every newfangled architectural use of PVC there are more eco-friendly traditional materials at hand, it’s worth thinking twice before choosing “vinyl” for your home. By any other name, it’s still 35 million tons of PVC.

Monday, August 12, 2013


The word “renovation” implies they you’re replacing something old and worn out with something new and better. Yet too many so-called renovators simply replace things that are old and substantial with new ones that are cheap and flimsy. That’s not renovation--it’s more like ruinovation. 

If every modern building product were better than its counterpart of fifty years ago, meaningful renovation would be easy. But they’re not, and so it isn’t. While some things really have improved--modern heating systems, for example, are vastly superior to those of years past--the sad fact is that many building products are mere wisps of their former selves. 

The euphemistic “economic pressures” that corporate types like to talk about--put plainly, “greed for fatter profit margins”--are the real culprit behind the declining quality of so many building items. The practice of outsourcing to cheap labor overseas means many name-brand products are now manufactured in places with indifferent or nonexistent quality control, regardless of what manufacturers claim to the contrary. The fact that many venerable American brands are now haphazardly manufactured in Third World countries may do wonders for corporate profits, but it won’t do wonders for your home. You’ll merely be replacing things that have lasted twenty-five, fifty, or even a hundred years with new ones that’ll break in four or five.

Therefore, before you replace any item in your home in the interest of sweeping renovation, ask yourself two questions. First: Does it still serve its purpose well?  If so, it shouldn’t be high on your renovation agenda--certainly not for reasons of fashion alone. 
Second: If it no longer serves its purpose, can it be fixed? Here’s where many stalwart Americans seem to have lost their Yankee grit. We’ve slowly come to believe the fallacy that throwing things away and replacing them with new ones is easier and cheaper than fixing them. In the case of many items in a house, however, this is just plain bull.

Windows, for instance, are a frequent candidate for ruinovation, due mainly to cunning marketing by window replacement companies. Many people are talked into replacing their windows to save on utility bills, but the truth is that, in an average house, heat loss through windows makes up a relatively modest fraction of total energy use. Therefore, upgrading your home’s attic insulation or even replacing your furnace would probably be a much more cost effective way to conserve. 

Moreover, no matter what the problem with a home’s original windows might be, chances are it would take less money, effort, and resources to have them repaired by a local window shop than it would to replace them wholesale with new ones. The fact that this approach also best maintains a home’s original style is just icing on the cake.

But whether we’re talking about windows, doors, flooring, hardware, or plumbing fixtures, there’s little to be gained by replacing sound original items en masse just to experience the briefest thrill of newness. On the other hand, there’s much to be lost: As often as not, you’re actually be downgrading the quality of your home, and spending good money to do it.

Monday, August 5, 2013


A century ago, Henry Ford’s canny use of mass production put the automobile--a former plaything of the wealthy--within reach of the average American. Since then, mass production has made complex products from clocks to computers affordable to pretty much everyone. 

In the same hundred years, however, the way we build houses has hardly changed at all. In fact, if you set aside niceties like electricity, telephones, and central heating, basic building techniques have actually changed very little in a millennium. Whether we assemble houses with oaken pegs or pneumatic nails, they’re still largely handmade from laboriously cut and fitted individual pieces, and put together one at a time.

Over the course of the twentieth century, there were many attempts to bring mass production methods to the building industry. The Aladdin Company began selling precut houses in 1906, and two years later, retailing giant Sears Roebuck began offering houses by mail order. Each Sears Modern Home came in a 25-ton kit consisting of precut lumber and virtually all the other materials required to complete the building. Prices ranged from $650 to $2,500, and twenty-two styles were offered. Precutting the lumber not only made the houses cheaper, but also reduced onsite construction time by some 40%. Over 70,000 Sears Modern Homes were sold before the program ended in 1940, a victim of the Depression economy and vexing differences in local building codes.

Inventor Buckminster Fuller began pondering the concept of mass produced housing in 1927, and by the close of World War II, he’d arrived at his Dymaxion House, a futuristic circular structure slung from a central pylon. The house used aircraft-style aluminum skin construction, allowing it to be mass-produced in aircraft plants left idle by the war’s end. It also incorporated a slew of visionary conservation features we’ve yet to see in today’s homes. Yet only two Dymaxion houses were actually built in prototype form before the venture’s commercial failure. 

By far the most ambitious attempt to mass produce complete houses was the Lustron House, developed by inventor Carl Strandlund and introduced in 1947. Although the house featured a sleek porcelain enamel exterior, its design cleverly evoked a traditional cottage, and the company quickly piled up more than 20,000 orders. Strandlund’s one million square foot factory, built with 32.5 million dollars in Federal loans, was laid out like an automotive assembly plant and was widely presumed to augur the future of the housing industry. Yet Lustron was ultimately able to produce only 2,498 units before declaring bankruptcy in 1950.

Since that time, other attempts at mass producing houses--or at least sections of them--have come and gone. A number of companies continue to furnish kit houses of various kinds, from log cabins to domes, but true mass production remains elusive. Ironically, the much-maligned “mobile home” industry--whose products were once known as house trailers but are now more politely dubbed manufactured housing--probably comes closest to offering a truly mass-produced house. Alas, the industry hasn’t yet managed to shake the public image of its products as flimsy, lookalike boxes. 

Time after time, it seems, ambitious and sophisticated housing ventures have been torpedoed by the vast startup costs inherent in any mass-production enterprise, as well as by the equally vast resistance of both the public and the building industry to radical new ideas.  Yet as the need for broadly affordable housing increases, the disconnect between how we build houses and how we build everything else will only become more glaring. If the previous century couldn’t offer a viable solution, we’d better hope that this one can.