Enter your email:

Construction Topics




















Become a FB fan

Construction Network

Trades Hub


May 25, 2010

Ugly Is as Ugly Does
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

When I was visiting my brother and his family in Missoula, Montana, I saw a church building that made me shudder. Now I’m not some flighty design student and fully understand that everything isn’t going to be beautiful. Average means average.

I suppose to have beautiful and average, though, ugly just needs to be there to complete the series. When I walked past this church as I was exploring Missoula, I stopped and stared. I thought, “Seriously? Did some architect actually design and specify those materials? Could he or she really have gotten his or her head that far up his or her butt?”

Here are two photos for you to determine if I’m exaggerating.

I suppose what bothered me most about the design was the wasted money on expensive materials that look cheap. For example, the concrete block looks like the cheapest quality available but is actually a reasonably expensive colored block. Similarly, the material behind the cross looks like OSB board but actually is an expensive stone panel. Generally all the different materials, and the trades that had to stop and start to get them installed, screams poor design to me.

So let me know what you think of this work of art. If you have any photos of buildings you find particularly ugly, shoot them over to me.


May 24, 2010

I Love the Smell of Cedar in the Morning
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

An architect friend dropped off some prints at my office and included some design magazines he thought I’d like. I really enjoyed Metropolis: The Magazine of Architecture and Design. The photos were inspiring and the writing was solid.

After reading for a bit, I was motivated to grab my chain saw and head out to my shop to start chopping away on a couple of cedar logs I’ve had drying for years. I could see the cedar was split and rotting through the heart wood, but couldn’t tell how badly. I recently conceived a design to sculpt this log into a cool shape to sit outside my office door.

I got the log blocked up off the ground and started sawing off the ends, checking for rot. If you’ve never had the privilege, chain sawing cedar trees should be on your bucket list. The heavenly smell isn’t like anything else. Unfortunately, I kept finding rot and splitting wood as I cut off pieces. So I ended up without the cool piece of wood I was hoping to sculpt, just pile of firewood.

As is often the case, though, the thing I thought would be useless wasn’t. The stump piece that I assumed would be rotten was solid with a funky shape. When I set it upside down and chopped back a few roots, it started to look like a cool little end table.

The red cedar swirls are gorgeous, though I understand that the red fades with time.

As I walked over to snap the above photos, I saw two mortal enemies sunbathing together. The frog was on the upper deck while the water snake was just below.


January 27, 2010

Haiti: A Saga of Building Codes Ignored

I’ve worked in Haiti a couple of times and been broadened by the experience. The first time I saw children playing in the raw sewage stream running down the street, I was nauseated. After a while, I barely noticed. Yet the sights of the brightly colored culture and the roughly built structures stayed with me. Here are a few photos I took to provide a sense of place:

Haiti is poor, but functions. People work, figure ways to buy food for their families, build buildings and enjoy times of celebration. Of course, I have a particular interest in the build buildings part of the society.

It’s not that Haiti has no building code, but the code doesn’t get enforced. An earthquake won’t kill 150,000 to 200,000 people unless lots of buildings are falling down. It wasn’t just the shacks of the poor; the schools, hospitals, churches, hotels and government buildings collapsed like houses of cards. An ENR article explains the Haiti codes and lack of enforcement.

Let me make you a challenge. The next time you work with a Code Enforcement Officer. Take a moment to thank him or her for the job he or she does. Bring up Haiti and what happens when everyone just builds as they see fit.  We can become frustrated with building inspectors, but they protect the public, and us, when they do their jobs. So let the next inspectors you work with know that you are glad we aren’t in the free-for-all world of no inspections. Let them know you appreciate the work they do.


November 21, 2009

The Tale of St. Onge: or Don't Bet Against America
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

I love logistics. Back in 1990 Harvey Miller of Quill Corp hired me to design and build a 173,000 sf high-tech warehouse operation in Lebanon, PA. Harvey cared about every detail of efficiency. He and his two brothers revolutionized the office products delivery system by offering next day delivery of almost everything. They helped pioneer the efficient mail order concept that we all use today.

When a customer called Quill Corp, they measured and tracked how many rings till it was answered. Customers are happier if they don’t have to hear a few rings. They eventually got to about 95% answered on or before the first ring. When we walked their distribution facility in IL, Harvey knew everyone, but also stopped to pick up a piece of litter.

As we labored over every detail of the design, they taught me that the building was just a shell for the really important material handling system. I learned more from Harvey than he’ll ever know. His constant integrity also made an indelible impression on me. Integrity works, not just because it’s morally right, it’s simply the most effective way to deal with people. Integrity requires us to sometimes look past apparent short-term losses and understand the long-term gains of a consistent life. Harvey lived that life and reaped those benefits.

So what does Harvey Miller and Quill Corp have to do with the tale of St. Onge? I had the priviledge yesterday of getting a tour of the world class logistics consulting company, St. Onge Company. Located in York, PA, they help businesses manage the details of their operations, whether warehousing, manufacturing or operating room efficiency. This less than 100 person firm consistently ranks among the best in the world at optimizing solutions.

Mike Jones, the president of St. Onge and who recently hired me to help renovate his church, gave me the tour and showed me some of their amazing optimizations. For example, they completed a project with an online pharmacy that ships 1,000,000 orders per day with only 1 mistake per year. That’s a Sigma 7 level of efficiency, which is almost unheard of.

Mike talked about the founders of the firm and how they operated with such high integrity, selling the next generation of owners the firm at a price much lower than they could have gotten on the open market. The founders respected the contributions of the upcoming team and showed it. When you experience that kind of integrity, you never forget it. You want more of it and you want to act that way yourself. It’s a marvelously upbeat cycle.

No place on Earth better combines the love of efficiency and integrity than America. Frankly, I’m excited to see China and India push forward with their economies. Their populations are every bit as human as I am and I celebrate in the moving from poverty to wealth. They will do some things better, cheaper and faster than we do in America. Good.

The handwringers, though, seem to think that China and India and other Asian countries will do everything better than America. That’s where they are wrong. This American combination of efficiency and integrity will continue to produce more innovation and more stable social institutions (courts, legislature, places to worship, etc) than anyplace else in the world.

The world game is changing, no doubt. After my tour of St. Onge yesterday, though, I’m feeling pretty good about America.


September 17, 2009

The Joy of Getting Good Things Done
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

Herbert Hoover, US president prior to FDR and a mining engineer, spoke about engineering:

Engineering. It is a great profession. There is a fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standard of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege…..No doubt as years go by the people forget which engineer did it, even if they ever knew. Or some politician puts his name on it. Or they credit it to some promoter who used other people’s money…But the engineer himself looks back at the unending stream of goodness which flows from his successes with satisfactions that few professionals may know.  And the verdict of his fellow professionals is all the accolade he wants.”

I find the joy of helping build the projects just as satisfying (perhaps more) than the planning. We are fortunate to be involved in tangible work that let’s us be happy at the end of most days.


August 25, 2009

Cool Bridges that don't Meet HS-20
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

I never did much bridge design, but I remember something about HS-20 being the design standard. Some agency decided that trucks get modeled like the graphic below and that bridges shouldn’t fall down when the trucks drive over them.


I guess the tribesmen in Cherrapunji, India didn’t get the memo. They live in the rainiest place on earth and have lots of rivers to cross. They also have rubber trees that will grow roots horizontally when trained. So when they want a bridge, they just grow it.




I’ve never seen anything like this. I enjoyed the concept and thought you might too. You can learn more and see additional photos here.


April 3, 2009

The Design Part of Design/Build
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

I got one of those close call phone calls yesterday. You know the kind I mean, when a tragedy was just narrowly avoided. As I heard the details of the old stone wall falling 6′ to 12′, just missing a mason below, I instantly played the worse scenario in my head. How my cheerful buddy, who runs the concrete and masonry company,  now lies dead under a pile of loose limestone. How I deal with his wife and kids at the funeral. How I forever question myself about thinking the wall was stable on bedrock, rather than on some large boulders that just looked like bedrock.

When I worked as a consulting engineer 25 years ago, the wife of an engineer buddy of mine was a midwife to lots of Amish families. While waiting for the babies to arrive, they had plenty of time to talk. When these farm families asked what her husband did, she explained that he designed sewer systems. Often these simple folks just couldn’t get the concept of design. Building they could understand, but what does someone do that designs?

In China, stemming from Confucianism,  engineers “Build” rather than “Design”.  So the engineering profession doesn’t have the same status there. There are few engineering courses or books to study. Apparently, no general consensus exists for engineering ethics or how the profession should operate.

To design is to conceive in the mind or to create a plan. To build, one must first design, even if only with a fleeting thought. The Design Part of Design/Build, though, takes more than this fleeting thought. It entails a knowledge of the physical realities of the world combined with a sense of the most efficient way to solve a particular problem.

As I evaluated the fallen stone wall, I called Tom Zug, my friend and structural engineer, whose opinion I greatly respect. Tom came over and we stood at the bottom of an old (1754 and 1870) stone and brick 4 story building and discussed how to stabilize walls. We have both studied engineering (how the physical world works) and have varied experiences to pull from. We included the Mason (he changed his pants by then) and the Construction Supervisor in our deliberations. We arrived at a design, that now will be executed by the various contractors.

You may be more drawn to the design side of this business or perhaps to the build side. I encourage you, in either instance, to learn to appreciate the challenges and strategies of both design and build. Read through sections of the Construction Knowledge database and learn specifics. Commit to learn and grow, to advance in this great business by knowing more and executing better.


November 21, 2008

The Cost of Building Green
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

As Kermit the Frog reminds us, it’s not always easy being green. Are you hearing much about green, or sustainable building practices, on your projects? It seems to be at least a point of discussion from Owners these days. Though in Central Pennsylvania, most industry professionals agree that buyers, tenants and building occupants in general don’t seem too interested in green building. We often lag trends in our area, as I read that green building has become much more important in many parts of the USA.

An Engineering News Record blog notes that the US Green Building Council reports that green building practices only add 2.5% to building cost, on average. That seems like a useless statistic to me, as building costs vary so much, for a variety of design and construction reasons. I doubt a simple comparison of square foot costs would tell us much about green vs non-green building. So I’d recommend being skeptical of that statistic. As Mark Twain noted, “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.”

The facts of green building costs seem embedded in a given project’s design and construction. I always include many green building concepts simply because they represent good design. For example, the concept of “Build tight and ventilate right” costs little and has a great return on investment in energy savings and cleaner indoor air. On the other hand, I see things like roof gardens that add a large cost for little benefit other than bragging rights.

The blog article notes that people are building both low cost green buildings and high cost green buildings. That seems true to me. I’m amazed at how little Owners and Tenants typically care about potential variation of costs in their buildings that come from different design options. Both building first cost prices and building operational costs vary greatly depending on design decisions, but few Owners or Tenants really explore these options. That’s where the smart money goes, IMHO.


September 26, 2008

Building Green with Common Sense
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

Did you ever notice how a discussion about green buildings usually includes roof gardens? People seem to love that concept of growing plants on the roof. The reality, though, includes lots of extra costs for few actual environmental benefits. A few inches of soil on the roof adds almost no insulation value or lag time benefits, retains only modest sized rain storms and actually has to be watered in most cases.

On the other hand, a white roof with a rain water harvesting system can save 5% on the energy costs due to lower heat absorption, greatly reduce water use for landscape irrigation and retain a much larger rainfall. And the rainwater/white roof strategy costs much less than the roof gardens…but most buildings still go with the roof gardens.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) produces a magazine about sustainable building practices called High Performing Buildings which you can view free online. The current copy has an excellent article entitled Green on a Budget that lists 50 sustainable strategies that cost the same or less than conventional, unsustainable designs.  The article is definitely worth a read.

I liked the concept that one should start with some basic goals: saving energy, saving water, improving the indoor environment, saving resources in the construction, etc. Then the various green strategies can then be evaluated from a reasoned cost/benefit analysis. This common sense approach often doesn’t get used when making design decisions.

If you’re currently building a project and get an idea from the article above, suggest it to the Owner or Architect. The worst they are likely to do is laugh at you and tell you to shut up and don’t worry your pretty little head about such things. In the best case, though, they will look at you with admiration and wonder and demand you be given a substantial bonus for your caring and creativity.

If you think any of the 50 ideas could work on your project, post a note in the comments section here. I’m curious how practical the suggestions seem to you.


September 9, 2008

Building Your Own Furniture
Filed under: Design — Tags: — nedpelger

Most Construction Supervisors can build just about anything if given the time and materials. The accompanying photos show some cool, inexpensive furniture built for a simple house. I found the story of the house at the Desire to Inspire blog. The photos were originally posted in a great design site called Dwell.

So have you built some creative furniture for your house? I know some of you have, because I’ve seen it. Others fall into the “Cobbler’s kids have holes in their shoes” category and just don’t feel like doing at home similar stuff that you do at work. If you like to build things at home, but lack the creativity, check out the sites I hyperlinked to above. You might be inspired.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »