• Field Notes 29.01.2014 2 Comments

    Consumer electronics are famous for planned obsolescence, in which companies know the new smart phone you buy today will be replaced by their latest model in six months. But, the same with buildings?

    In college in 1980, a professor required one of my classes to do forensic studies of how several new office buildings had been constructed. He asked us to evaluate what worked and didn’t work – from constructability and how occupants used the space to how utilities were distributed and various facets of the mechanical systems.  My group was assigned the new 16 story addition to Northwestern Mutual’s corporate headquarters in downtown Milwaukee. Now, just 35 years after the building was built, it’s going to be demolished  and replaced with a new building.   One of the reasons given for the demolition is the existing building’s lack of energy efficiency.

    When doing the onsite review of the plans and specifications of the then new building, my group asked the cost of construction.  We were told that information was not for public consumption.  Our professors, being wise to the ways of the world, told us the NWM policy holders would not be happy had that figure been published. We estimated the cost at $80-100/sq.ft., at a time when Class A office space was being built for $35-50/sq.ft.

    The 1979 building was built as the U.S. was realizing that oil embargos and utility bills with rates that changed from month to month were going to change the way we consumed non-renewable resources.  The emphasis on better performing buildings was just developing, but hadn’t reached nearly as far as it has in the past 40 years.

    Part of that same class examined the construction of a new federal office building planned for Milwaukee.  The GSA was seeking prospective private developers to lease space back to the government, The winning developer told us the feds wanted a long-term lease that included utility costs.  Gas had gone from $0.55/gal to over $1.00/gal in those years (ah, those were the days!), and no one knew where energy costs were going, so the developers did what we all do when preparing estimates –  they shot the moon on future energy costs.

    Even so, it’s astonishing that just after 35 years, the NWM building will be demolished and replaced.  But, I guess those of us in Philly, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh aren’t too surprised.  Those cities built multi-purpose stadiums in the 60s and 70s for their baseball and football teams.  If you ever attended games at the Vet, Riverfront, or Three Rivers near the ends of their lives, you know part of the reason they were replaced.  Granted, they weren’t built to outlast the Roman Coliseum, but shouldn’t we be building better, more durable buildings? What’s wrong with building buildings that last hundreds of years, rather than just a few decades?

    On the good news front, you no doubt heard that last week ASHRAE backed off its proposed reduction of the window-to-wall ratio prescriptive limit. Fortunately, Tom Culp got a lot of support from the industry.  Those opposed to the amendment included 13 industry groups, including GANA, AEC, AAMA, IGMA, WDMA, and several others representing more than 2,500 companies. 126 individual companies, independent of their membership in industry associations, supported the opposition, as well.  Opponents included architects, universities, and people outside the glazing industry associations.

    So for now, we’re safe from mechanical engineers limiting how much glass goes on a project.  I fear the fight isn’t over; the watch must be as vigilant and as diligent as before.  I hope you paid attention and know who helped support our industry in this fight.

    Beyond this win, we all need to get smarter in helping our customers, the general contractors and architects, design and build more energy-efficient and higher-performing glazed assemblies.  We can’t stand by and let planned obsolescence creep into the industry in any form.  I trust you’ll take whatever action you deem necessary.


  • Happy New Year, one and all!  Even though the Eagles lost, the year’s not a complete loss, yet!  And, 2014 seems to be looking especially busy for insurers and lawyers in the architecture industry. Here’s the latest on several high-profile projects they’re engaged in that will impact the glass biz.

    The Nasher Museum’s battle with sunlight reflecting off the nearby Museum Tower is still in the news.  The tower’s owner asked the Dallas City Council to broker an agreement for a fix, but there has been no apparent progress, according to ENR.

    As you’ll recall, there have been several other buildings with reflective “death rays “in the news: one reportedly melting cars in London and the Vdara in Las Vegas roasting sunbathers.  These cases bear watching as they could set legal precedent for designs that cause reflective “hardship” on neighboring properties.

    The Harmon demolition in Las Vegas was in the news again, recently. A judge pulled the demolition approval so the construction insurer can complete its in-house investigation.  The insurance policy is the owner’s, and could impact the pending lawsuits, as the investigation will “…impact the case by adding expert testimony,” ENR reports.   While not party to the lawsuits themselves, the insurer is obviously an interested party, so it remains to be seen if it can be objective.

    The construction contract required the owner, MGM, to pursue insurance relief before suing GC Tudor-Perini.  The insurance company thinks it has discovered “new issues” that haven’t been part of the lawsuits to this point, and that could impact the case or bring future action.  Again, this probably will take years to go through the courts, but the outcome is worth watching for the precedents it sets.

    Beyond the lawyers and insurers, tech continues to chug along and will affect the architecture biz in huge new ways. Notably, 3D printing is moving from prototype/part development to actually constructing buildings.  NASA is looking at it as a way of using materials on the moon to make a form of concrete, with which to 3D print buildings on site.

    A USC professor is already doing this with small-scale structures, and has offered it as a way of building economical low-income housing in developing countries.  One of the attractions is the reduced need for skilled trades to build the structure.

    Can you see the day when a curtainwall contractor further develops a BIM or other 3D model, wraps the actual jobsite in a hi-tech scaffold that has a continuous track running the full perimeter, and on that track, a 3D printer produces the building’s wall?  A few questions to ponder: Would anchors already be in place, or would they be printed separately, with a stronger material?  Would they be welded or fastened to the structure?  Would there be one printer for the framing system (with integral finish/color), including gaskets, and another for the infill, be it glass, metal panels, etc.?  Just think about all the technical issues we deal with every day, and how to automate all the various factors into a printed wall.

    And, who’s to say the building structure itself wouldn’t be built using a large 3D printer.  One question if using concrete:  if the concrete can be set WITHOUT formwork, wouldn’t that be enough of an attraction for a general contractor? I think the answer would be yes.

    Like the learning process most glazing contractors went through in the past, maybe the way to develop these systems is to start with simple storefront wall assemblies, and apply that knowledge to the next type of system, say stick curtainwall, then on to high-rise, high-performance curtainwall.

    As is always the case, experience of past events (Nasher, Harmon) teaches us how to move forward or to incorporate other criteria in design or development of new projects.  Somewhere there is someone who dreams, who takes new technologies and applies them to a new way of doing something that we take for granted can only be done the “old way.”  3D printing may be that, or it may lead to a new or different way that nobody’s thought of yet.  As smart as Leonardo De Vinci was, did he foresee that his self-propelled air screws would one day turn into helicopters?  I doubt the Wright Brothers could see, just 110 years ago, that 747s and Concordes would one day be possible.

    Someone’s going to push the building envelope “envelope” (curtainwall construction)?  Where do you see it going?

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