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June 4, 2013

Structurally Sound, But Not Redundant
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

An AP article leads with the headline, Thousands of U.S. Bridges at Risk of Freak Collapse. Apparently, almost a quarter of US bridges are now deemed structurally deficient. That means the bridge has been inspected and a portion is in bad repair or deteriorated. These 66,749 bridges are on the books for needed repairs.

The Freak Collapse idea, though, comes from another sort of design problem. Many bridges were designed to work only if each of the components works. In other words, they don’t have a redundancy in their design, allowing one component to fail but still keeping the bridge from falling.

For example, the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River north of Seattle recently collapsed because an oversized truck clipped one of the trusses. The photo below shows the dropped span. A redundant design would prevent the complete failure if one component fails.

Of course, redundant design costs more to construct. So many efficient engineers designed and constructed the lowest cost structures that met the design code. They call these “Fracture Critical Bridges” and many states still allow this type of design.

The fascinating question, “How cautious do we want to be?” needs to be answered again and again. We need to address it as a society and as individuals.

I’m designing a 90′ high building right now and contemplating how much redundancy to put into the steel beam hanging grid just below the roof. I want to keep the cost low, but what if one of those welds fails in a few years. 90′ drops don’t end well.

We all need to consider how we live our lives. How much do we move to security and how much to efficiency/freedom? Where do you tend to land?


May 6, 2013

Government and Good Design Decisions
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

On May 2nd, the EPA announced they will award over half a billion US dollars to water and wastewater treatment plants hit by Hurricane Sandy. Now that may seem laudable (if a bit slow), but further understanding exposes the silliness.

The plants that will get the awards either lost power or were flooded during the storm. These aren’t funds to repair damaged plants, for the most part, but to help plants in these areas of NY and NJ be better prepared for the next 100 year storm.

As you may know, under conditions of extreme flooding, most wastewater treatment plants don’t work well. They are designed to overflow in the worst flood situations, knowing that raw sewage gets so diluted in a huge flood that the actual pollution level is about the same as normal operations. That seems like reasonable design to me, when we understand we only have limited resources to solve our many societal problems.

The Federal Government, though, instead awards huge projects to plants that happened to be in the path of a certain storm. The next 100 storms will likely take different paths, so awarding all these upgrades based on geography just seems silly.

When governments make decisions to help certain projects for economic development, I sometimes see real value added. Projects that otherwise wouldn’t get done sometimes happen with a little government stimulus. Even these projects are hard to evaluate, since it’s impossible to know the project outcome had the government incentive not occurred.

So I think governments have a place to play in helping some construction projects, I just don’t like poorly made decisions.


March 13, 2013

Solar Canals
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

My buddy Kneal sent me this photo about some creative building occurring in India.

I don’t know where the photo came from, so I can’t credit it, but I’m intrigued by the idea. While I’m not a big fan of solar photo-voltaic panels, this application seems to be one of the best for them.

The canals aesthetics improve with the panels, the land value doesn’t decrease and water evaporation reduces. I love to see design solutions that solve several problems in an elegant way.

TBW has been tormented by a series of vacuum cleaners that don’t suck. She finally stumbled upon the Dyson, which James Dyson engineered amazingly well. The James Dyson Foundation exists to encourage young people into the STEM fields. They produce great videos that strive to explain the excitement in design engineering. Check this one out.


I love encouraging young folks to move into the STEM fields. I get to solve tricky design problems every day and understand I’m blessed to have work that I so enjoy.


September 18, 2012

Architect Sues School District for $41M
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

Claiming racial discrimination, Tony Udeagbala of Machisa Design Services filed a $41M suit claiming he was fired from a $26M Ohio school renovation project because he was black and from Nigeria. The project has been cancelled.

The suit claims Columbus’ facilities chief, Carole Olshavsky, “sabotaged Machisa at every opportunity” and was “meddlesome” and that the board changed the scope of work on the school-building project “at a whim.”

Gee, a meddlesome owner that changes design on a whim…I thought that was their job.

While I certainly don’t know the facts on this case, a perusal of the Machisa Design Services website surely doesn’t show an impressive firm. The fact that they were already paid $680,000 before the contract was terminated and were not the lead architect tells me the District spent a fortune on design fees.

What’s the takeaway? Be careful with professional design service procurement. Between copyright violations and wrongful terminations, it’s tricky to change architects in midstream.


March 9, 2012

Adaptive Reuse: Plastic Thatching
Filed under: Design — Tags: , — nedpelger

Gizmodo featured a hand cranked machine that slices plastic bottles into roof thatch. The photo below shows the machine and the finished product.

In Ecuador, the traditional thatched huts were getting more challenging to build with the loss of grass lands to farming. By utilizing this machine and gathering 1600 two liter soda bottles, a permanent thatched roof can be installed. Along with being a long life material, the plastic allows light to pass into the hut. This daylighting reduces the reliance on candles and other harmful light sources.

I love to see creative adaptive reuse. In this case, Dr. David Saiia, a professor at Duquesne University, sketched the idea on a napkin when it came to him. As an associate professor of strategic management and sustainability, Dr. Saiia was investigating sustainable enterprises for the small farmers in Ecuador. As he applies for patents on the machine, he’s also investigating ways to automate the process and create business opportunities.

When I see someone grab a new idea, I’m inspired to keep pushing the boundaries on my own projects. I want to keep improving what we do. Success follows those who understand their processes and strive to constantly improve them.


January 9, 2012

The Perfect American Map
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

Maps are important in design and construction. During the project conception, we compare various locations and alternatives. We travel to places without addresses and consider the complexity, cost and value of building something. During construction, we struggle through the logistics of getting things from where they are to where they need to be.

From the time I was eight years old, I remember loving maps. As our family of seven drove to Florida in the station wagon, I was following our progress on a AAA map marked with a highlighter. That was before Rt 95 was completed and we’d go through little shack towns on Rt 301 in SC. I’d find the town we just left and the one we were entering next.

I loved finding where we were and knowing where we were going. I was surprised to hear others complain about not being able to fold the map correctly…it was so simple and logical. It’s said that to torture an engineers, tie them in a chair and incorrectly fold maps in front of them.

Maps are more than just information for getting somewhere. Well-designed maps clearly show multi-dimensional levels of data that improve the journey. Lex recently showed me such a map, the “The Essential Geography of the United States of America” which won the best of show award at the Cartography and Geographic Information Society.

This masterful map was lovingly created by David Imus to show the many aspects of the geography of the USA in a clear way. He spent two years designing and detailing the map (not using the teams of low paid drafters and checkers most big firms use) and thought through every piece of info on the map. It helps you visualize the physical arrangement of the country by clearly showing the following 10 elements: Global position, relative elevation, landforms, land cover, water, political units, city populations, landmarks, transportation and time zones.

You should have a copy of this map on the wall of your home or office. Children should be able to see and study this map regularly. I bought a copy for my ten year old grandson and one for me. If the topic interests you, read this free 12 page pamphlet written by David Imus that explains how the map was designed and works. Buy a copy and put it on your wall. Understand the USA better. Give your brain a workout.

On a related note, the drawings we produce for construction projects should benchmark from this map. Imagine if we struggled to have more useful and easy to understand info on prints, rather than the same notes copied over and over by draftsman who don’t understand what we are building. This map motivates me to push for better drawings on my projects. If we accept the crappy drawings produced and don’t push for higher quality, then we’re part of the problem.


November 21, 2011

The Unfolding Apartment
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

Eric Schneider, a 3rd grade teacher in Manhattan, bought a 450 sf studio apartment for $235,000. To put the area in context, it was basically a 15′ x 30′ room with a tiny kitchen at the end. With the innovative design shown in the video below, that little studio apartment was transformed into having a cook’s kitchen, bedroom and guest room with some privacy, a home office or a reasonably large entertaining room. Sounds like magic, doesn’t it? Watch the video.

By choosing the compact way, Eric trades some time pulling down and folding up for utility of a much bigger and more expensive living space. I appreciated the line by the designer in the video about working in a scale between furniture and architecture. They embedded electronics, lighting and plumbing all together. Good design and good construction pulls these items together in improved functionality.

With all the apartments being designed and built these days, perhaps we should consider the value of some smaller footprints with model units showing how to maximize the space.


July 3, 2011

A Genius Inspired
Filed under: Cool Projects,Design — Tags: — nedpelger

By 1902, Frank Lloyd Wright had dropped out of high school, dropped out of college, worked as a draftsman for a structural engineer, began working as an architect under Louis Sullivan at Adler and Sullivan, and then started his own firm. At 35, he began his move into the Prairie style buildings that would make him famous.

On our road trip, we stopped last Wednesday for a day in Chicago. I’ve wanted to visit Oak Park for years, to see more of Wright’s work. As I strolled from the hotel early one morning while the others slept, I came across a stunning house that I knew Wright must have designed. The Heurtley House, near Wright’s Oak Park Home and Studio, enchanted me. I later learned the house was one of his first fully developed Prairie style designs.

The fundamental characteristic of Prairie style are all present in the 1902 Heurtley House. Wright raised the major spaces  above the surrounding grounds, ceilings are tight to roof rafters (eliminating attics because Wright hated junk storage) and the fireplaces are in the center of the house. The exterior features overhanging eaves, a large central chimney, horizontally grouped windows and terraces and balconies.

My photos don’t really do this beautiful house justice, but at least give you a sense of what stunned me.

FLW was a unique individual. He was in court many times, either from his creditors or his extra-marital affairs. During one of these appearances, the judge asked him to state his name and occupation. He replied, “Frank Lloyd Wright, World’s Greatest Architect.”

The judge commented that this seemed an extravagant claim, to which Wright replied, “Remember Judge, I’m under oath.”

Here’s one of my favorite FLW quotes:

Early in my career I was a very arrogant yound man.. I was so sure of my ground and my star that I had to choose between an honest arrogance and a hypercritical humility… and I deliberately choose an honest arrogance, and I’ve never been sorry.

I don’t promote arrogance (probably because I’m so far from being a genius), but I love to see when a person has a good idea and the gumption to see it through. I think I’m working on one now that I’ll share with you next week.


January 7, 2011

A Question from China: US Firms Providing Structural Engineering in China?
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

Dear Ned,
I wanted to thank you for taking the time to organize your blog.  I have very much enjoyed the posts.

If you have a moment, I am currently trying to do research on the activities of American firms in China, particularly relating to structural engineering consulting done (mostly in the design phase) by U.S. firms for Chinese companies in first and in second tier Chinese cities.  There is a fair amount of information on U.S. firms working on major projects (such as the Olympic bids), but I can find very little about lesser projects.  This may be because they do not exist.  Anyway, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the matter, or ideas for people I could talk to or places I could go to for more research on the matter.

Anyway, I am sure you have better things to do than answer such a random request, but I thought I would try.   If you have managed to read all the way through this email then I thank you just for that!

Kind regards,


I’m drawing a big old blank for this question. Generally, I always have an answer, even if it’s wrong, but not this time. Can you help Sieren? Please just post a comment or send me an email if you have any thoughts on this topic. I’ll forward to Sieren.

I’m including a photo of the 2008 Olympic Wrestling building in Bejing because it’s a great looking project and, hey, it’s in China.


October 22, 2010

Building Clothespins
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

I recently got a note from a fellow who was a carpenter and took one of my Construction Supervisor training classes. He’s now finishing up his Mechanical Engineering Technology degree and wants to talk about ways to make a living with that. He’s worked on some patents and is a sharp guy. The age old question, though, how to translate skill and effort into cash.

My son sent me this Pinching Earth photo of a clothespin sculpture in Belgium that got me thinking.

The world is full of niches where creative, hard working people make their mark. Think of the guy who first designed the clothespin. He found a niche that worked well for him. The folks that designed and built the sculpture above (and the Philadelphia Clothespin below) also found niches that worked.

In my own experience, I found a rational way to solve the problem of how to make a living. First, struggle to understand the things I like to do and have aptitude. Next, look at the world and see where money changes hands, try to understand where cash flows. Then I try to see a way to add value somewhere in that cash stream. Finally, the last and most important step, think hard and long about how I will find someone to pay me to add that value (selling).

That process may sound obvious, but I think few people use it. If you are transitional, or want to be, I encourage you to work through the steps in writing. You’ll likely be surprised with what you learn.

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