Masters Thesis Project

I've been neglecting this blog because I'm in the middle of my masters thesis project (architecture at IIT). I've partnered up with seven other students to do a design build project -- first you design it, then you build it, and somewhere in between you raise money, go through zoning and permitting, encounter unimagineable problems, redesign the building a million times, did I mention fundraising?, and have 5.97 x 10^24 meetings.

Our project is located on the South Side of Chicago at 43rd and a few blocks west of State St. at a place called Eden Place Nature Center. We're building them a school that looks out over their prairie. Here's our website and a video I just completed:


Denmark, Germany, and Europe in general is betting on a more pedestrian centric city by making it harder more expensive to own cars. It's a little hard to imagine if you haven't been there but the US is going the opposite direction which I think over time will prove to be the wrong decision.

I'm not a big fan of articles about how college is or is not worth the cost and time. It clearly is with some caveats. This article from the NYT does a great job of breaking it down. To put things into perspective:
[C]ollege tuition in recent decades has delivered an inflation-adjusted annual return of more than 15 percent. For stocks, the historical return is 7 percent. For real estate, it’s less than 1 percent.
Someone finally puts solar panels into window assemblies. (Hat tip: Hass)

Food label 1 & 2 design seems to be getting a lot of press lately. Problem - if I walked around the street right now and asked people very basic but entirely relevant questions about food labels/general nutritional knowledge most people, as in 80-90%, would utterly fail. Until people can somehow understand that there are three major sources of nutrition (carbohydrates/sugars/saccharides, fat/lipids, protein/amino acids) what does it matter if you show how many grams of fiber are in something? Conversely, when I visited Google in Palo Alto they have a simple and effective system. Everything gets a color: red is unhealthy, yellow is in between, and green in healthy. In a society where people think that lower taxes decreases debt levels I think that's more the level we need to be shooting for.

The Cost of Energy

I was working on a project for school that looked at the benefits of solar hot water heating equipment and I ran into something odd. Solar hot water heating panels look like regular solar panels but they're usually solid black and water is pumped through them. They're fairly common to see because unlike solar panels that produce electricity (in many cases, lets not get into it) they actually pay for themselves. But there is an interesting oddity to them. They are generally meant to replace the quantity of natural gas needed for heating water, but natural gas is cheap. So even though they save a large amount of energy they do not in fact save that much money. Here is why:

Here I'm showing the three most commonly bought forms of energy: natural gas, electricity, and gasoline.

Natural gas is sold in therms.
1 therm = 100,000 BTU's (British thermal units)
Cost per 100,000 BTU's = $0.86 (in Chicago currently, it's usually about a dollar)

Electricity is sold in kilowatt hours (kWH - 1000 watts for one hour).
1 watt = 3.412 BTU's so a kWH is 3,412 BTU's.
Cost = 12 cents per 3,412 BTU's
Cost per 100,000 BTU's = $3.52

Gasoline is sold by the gallon.
1 gallon of gasoline = 125,000 BTU's
Cost = $4.50 (in Chicago currently)
Cost per 100,000 BTU's = $3.60

So natural gas is more than four times cheaper than other forms of energy per unit. This is why heating my apartment with electricity is stupid. It was cheap for the contractor to put in electric radiant heat washes near the windows but it's incredibly expensive for me to run. The price of electricity is almost double on the west coast ($.025/kWH) and the east coast ($0.20/kWH). Say what you will but nuclear energy makes energy relatively cheap for the Midwest.

When you change the cost of an input, in this case energy, it changes behavior - not really shocking. Doubling the price of electricity causes people to buy more solar panels because it becomes cost effective.

In Chicago it can get up to 100F in the summer - about 30 degrees warmer than we'd like. In the winter it can get to -10F - roughly 80 colder than we'd like. Thus, it takes more energy to heat our homes than it does to cool them. From an environmental/ecological point of view we should live in a warmer climate, but monetarily an 80F difference divided by 4 times cheaper energy because we're using natural gas and not electricity means it's actually cheaper to heat our homes in winter than it is to cool them in the summer with electricity. This is how the cost of something can create perverse incentives.

What is shocking is that no one has figured out how to arbitrage this situation. Why don't any cars run on natural gas or why don't people produce their own electricity from natural gas? The answer is of course in the up front costs of doing such things. Generating your own power is expensive an inefficient. Most generators are roughly 20%-40% efficient...

Backlog of Readings

Stuff White People Like - #34 - Architecture.

The secret world of Trader Joe's.

Short mockumentary on plastic bag migration.

Letter grades for vehicle efficiency.

HP hold The Navy hostage to the tune of 3.3 billion (3,300 millions).

Apparently Microsoft thinks it's a good idea to let people pirate their stuff because, you know, it increases your market share. In fact, they didn't let people pirate Vista and it hurt Microsoft somewhat badly, or perhaps no one wanted to steal such a terribly designed OS.

The Chinese envision a double decker bus with cars passing underneath.

Young, single, childless women earn more than men their same age. So further proof that the vast majority of the wage discrepancy is due to the fact that womens' priorities shift after having a child.

Scientists have built a computer program that suggests potential research hypothesis after doing a complete reading of the relevant literature. Pretty awesome.

Short - it's actually quite hard to tell if someone is drunk.

Sustainable building at

Monday Reading

An interview with Bill Murray. I recommend reading the whole thing. He's a fascinating character.

"Last question. I have to know, because I love this story and want it to be true. There have been stories about you sneaking up behind people in New York City, covering their eyes with your hands, and saying: Guess who. And when they turn around, they see Bill Murray and hear the words "No one will ever believe you."

[long pause] I know. I know, I know, I know. I've heard about that from a lot of people. A lot of people. I don't know what to say. There's probably a really appropriate thing to say. Something exactly and just perfectly right. [long beat, and then he breaks into a huge grin] But by God, it sounds crazy, doesn't it? Just so crazy and unlikely and unusual?"

A new building to be built in China uses a thin layer of titanium oxide to remove air pollutants much like the white concrete on the Jubilee Church that I'm mildly obsessed with. The twist is that at night they cast it in a UV light that keeps the reaction going at night. Super interesting.

The irrational exuberance of the past decade or so has produced some similar architecture says the NYTimes.

A little late on this one - BMW uses cloth to build the skin of a concept car. The idea being that the use of steel is extraneous as it doesn't add to the strength of the car but rather only adds weight.

A new blog from Wired called Frontal Cortex which I'm starting to like. I keep getting this sense that there are a lot of people out there who have read, do read, and care about very similar things that I do... it's kind of strange considering the vast amounts of information out there.

Monday Reading

China becomes the worlds second largest economy (as measured by country) passing Japan. China's economy is still 1/3 the size of the US's.

Wind power manufacturing in the US is growing... fast. The cost of transporting the large components too far means that domestic manufacturing is here to stay and grow.

Portable lightweight housing that can be erected in a day with nothing but a screw driver. Here's a somewhat more established non-profit manufacturer, World Shelters, of a similar product that has humanitarian and individual sales in mind.

Roosevelt Island near New York has an island wide trash sucking system... no more garbage cans. Photos.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is slashing the Pentagon's budget which has increased unabated since late 2001 - in fact in nominal terms it has doubled in the last decade. This isn't small stuff. He's talking about almost trillion dollars over 9 years. Lots of this has already happened.

^ Speaking of a trillion only 21% of Americans knew how much a trillion dollars was relative to a million. It's a million millions. There are 1000 millions in a billion and 1000 billions in a trillion.

Greenspan calls for an end to the Bush tax cuts! But for all the wrong reasons... he thinks the deficit is too big and the (to use Krugman's coinage) the invisible bond vigilantes could strike at any time. Yet somehow bond rates hit a record low yesterday.

Best story ever? Wikileaks, after having embarrassed the military by releasing some 77,000 classified transcripts from Afghanistan, says it wants to release another 17,000. The military is coyly threatening them, so what did wikileaks do? It distributed an encrypted torrent through that has a large file size. They say the classified information in the torrent is much more damaging that what is already out there. So... if the government does anything, they tweet the encrypted torrent passwords and tens of thousands of people around the world unlock their classified torrent. Brilliant.

NYT story on purple martins - the bird that eats a ton of insects and relies on humans for its housing. We had one in my backyard when I was growing up that still exists.

All sorts of old people are missing in Japan, or rather lots of them have died and their children hide their death in order to collect their pensions.

Ecosystem engineering - I'm curious to see the results of this test. If it's at all promising it could mean huge gains for the natural world.

One of the most famous daguerreotype series recently went under restoration efforts which found that they have a degree of detail that is - utterly shocking. Basically at 30x magnification the plates don't lose detail. That means the series of 8 - 6.5"x8.5" plates could be blown up to 170' by 20' without losing any detail. The irony is that photography in its early stages often produced images that are in many ways more detailed, fine, and artistic than modern cameras are capable of producing. How powerful would your digital camera need to be? Oh, 140,000 megapixels.

Readings From Monday

This is a free movie produced by a group of two guys called the Yes Men. Basically they find ways to trick event promoters, journalists, and talk show hosts into believing that they represent some company. They then go on to embarrass the company by revealing truths, stating positions that make sense but that the company themselves would never agree to, or just straight up comedy. At the very least watch the first 10 minutes or so.

Economists View via Krugman (seem to be reading a lot of him lately... yet he's so accurate and great at representing data) - why the climate bill was killed.

The Big Picture explains why deficits don't matter much to bond holders which is kind of an explanation of what Krugman would call the invisible bond vigilantes. thirty year bond notes are still below 3%... Also, AMAZING graphic on federal income and expenditures.

(Explanation of what I'm talking about - bonds being below 3% means that EVERYONE is willing to lend the US government money because they view it as safe. This goes somewhat counter to the idea being promulgated by conservatives that as the government amasses more debt bond buyers will at some point be completely unwilling to lend the government money and bond prices will soar and we will be unable to finance our expenditures - i.e. Greece. My own addition to this is that the US government enjoys a position of lender of last resort to the world - that is - if we default the world we know will cease to exist. It will make the Great Depression look like a shallow recession. It's like the Supreme Court, it's not that they're infallible, they're infallible because they're the highest court in the land.)

The Big Picture on net worth on as percentage of disposable income.

Algae as a biofuel seems to be nearing the possibility stage.

The biggest story of the day - wikileaks published 77,000 reports from Afghanistan that give a different view of the war then what is generally portrayed.

This is a must read: Martin Wolf, a British economist, explains supply side economics or rather the failure of along with a host of other scientifically broken models that politicians love to tout. Scarey. Here's Krugmans simple take down of supply side economics.

Nanosecond market trading pushes the envelope of internet speeds for all.

Eco Cities

This is Masdar City in Abu Dhabi (Map). The idea is to build a 2.3 square mile city starting from desert based on zero carbon emissions standards. It's designed by Foster and Partners and is actually getting built. Some photos can be seen here (the better ones are near the end), and here's its wiki page.

Dongtan (great article) outside of Shanghai (Map). This is designed by Arup and looks like it isn't getting built.

Both of these cities propose to construct a more sustainable built environment by starting from scratch and avoiding the milieu of mistakes that generally plague typical development. It's a novel approach for sure, and the research done for Dongtan is incredible. Here's a bit from the Wired article on how density was determined for Dongtan:

"Their first decision was big. Dongtan needed more people. Way more. Shanghai's planning bureau figured 50,000 people should live on the site — they assumed a green island should not be crowded — and the other international architects had agreed, drafting Dongtan as an American-style suburb with low-rise condos scattered across the plot and lots of lawns and parks in between. "It's all very nice to have little houses in a green field," Gutierrez says. But that would be an environmental disaster. If neighborhoods are spread out, then people need cars to get around. If population is low, then public transportation is a money loser.

But how many more people? Double? Triple? The team found research on energy consumption in cities around the world, plotted on a curve according to population density. Up to about 50 residents per acre, roughly equivalent to Stockholm or Copenhagen, per capita energy use falls fast. People walk and bike more, public transit makes economic sense, and there are ways to make heating and cooling more efficient. But then the curve flattens out. Pack in 120 people per acre, like Singapore, or 300 people, like Hong Kong, and the energy savings are negligible. Dongtan, the team decided, should try to hit that sweet spot around Stockholm.

Next, they had to figure out how high to build. A density rate of 50 people per acre could mean a lot of low buildings, or a handful of skyscrapers, or something in between. Here, the land made the decision for them. Dongtan's soil is squishy. Any building taller than about eight stories would need expensive work at the foundation to keep it upright. To give the place some variety and open up paths for summer wind and natural light, they settled on a range of four to eight stories across the city. Then, using CAD software, they started dropping blocks of buildings on the site and counting heads.

The results were startling. They could bump up Dongtan's population 10 times, to 500,000, and still build on a smaller share of the site than any of the other planners had suggested, leaving 65 percent of the land open for farms, parks, and wildlife habitat. A rough outline of the city, a real eco-city, began to take shape: a reasonably dense urban middle, with smart breaks for green space, all surrounded by farms, parks, and unspoiled wetland. Instead of sprawling out, the city would grow in a line along a public transit corridor."

Why had no one done this before?

These cities are essentially huge experiments which require both a huge purse and some optimism that people will flock there. Which I think they will if they're done right, and of course if they're cost effective it'll be pretty incredible. My only reservation is that the cities are planned all at once which is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing being things like Masdar City's raising the entire city on concrete piers so that all transportation can take place underneath. This sort of design feature is only available if you plan everything beforehand, or at least it's many times cheaper to do so. The curse is a bit harder to explain, but it takes the same vein as a free market versus a socialist economic system type argument. It isn't easy to determine exactly what people are going to want in a city. Whole parts of it may fall into disuse if the preferences of future inhabitants aren't interpreted properly such as was the case with Boston's West End.It was demolished because it was considered a slum although not by residents. Yet it worked and people lived there in a functioning community whereas it was replaced by and urban renewal project that served few and was considered excessive.

I tend to think of cities as a sort of biological organism that is constantly growing, contracting, dying, and regenerating. The buildings are the cells, the streets the capillaries, the highways and subways the veins and arteries, and people the blood cells moving about bringing life to everything. I'm skeptical that any amount of planning can fully account for the complexity that time brings to the development of a city. Then again maybe if built small enough (Masdar City is not huge) it may be possible. Perhaps it can be expandable or maybe just the infrastructure could be built with zoning requirements similar to the New Urbanism ideas of Seaside, FL. Either way it should be interesting to see how these perform as they come online.