Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vesica piscis

Masonry is so full of tradition and long established practice that many of its features are taken for granted or hardly noticed.  One such feature is the common form of a pointed gothic arch, ubiquitous throughout gothic structures: as familiar as a brick wall.  This seemingly unremarkable form is actually worthy of a few remarks, so today I’ll talk about the vesica piscis.

The vesica piscis, or fish’s bladder (Latin: bladder of fish) is a geometric construction derived from two circles of the same size that overlap each other by the distance of their radius.  This shape is said to be in the form of –you guessed it- a fish’s bladder.  It is also said to be in the shape of an eye, or a vagina, or an almond.  It is said to be a representation of common understanding; the overlapping area of two different circles being the common or shared area between them. 

This shape has been imbued with deep meaning since medieval times (even earlier) and is still found in its mystical context today by freemasons who use this form in their seals and in the collars of the freemasons’ ritualistic dress.  It is said to represent the joining of god and goddess to create offspring, or a symbol of Christ himself.  In several depictions of medieval art, Christ is pictured within the vesica piscis, and is said to be Christ within the womb or vagina of the virgin Mary.  It is also said to be the shape of the wound Jesus suffered at his crucifixion.  It is taken to represent an aureole, or radiant light around the head or body of a sacred person.   It can be the basic motif in the flower of life, or an overlay of the tree of life.  It can also be used to show the formative power of polygons, or a geometrical description of square roots and harmonic proportions, or simply a source of immense power or energy.

Many of the interpretations described above are wholly embraced by the New Age movement and those who ascribe to sacred geometry.   This blog and my work are not about sacred geometry, so instead we’ll take a closer look at what the vesica piscis means in terms of masonry.

Before the advent of gothic architecture, the Roman vault or arch dominated much of European and Mediterranean masonry architecture.  This rounded arch form required much thicker walls below the arch to provide adequate support to resolve the thrusting forces resulting from the round arch, as demonstrated in analysis of catenary thrust force lines, as discussed several times on this blog.

The form created by the vesica piscis is closer to a true catenary than a semi-circular (round) arch.  This means that the arch itself and the walls upon which it rests can be made much thinner, requiring less material and less work to build.  This form still uses round segments, so it was a ‘partial’ shift away from the true round arch, and was readily accepted and adopted by architects, masons, and (perhaps most importantly) the church: whose cathedrals were built using this form.  The pointed arch is aesthetically pleasing, being close to an equilateral triangle.  It also seems to point to heaven and to God, so that one’s experience in a church can be ‘closer to God.’   Finally, we recall (as discussed several times earlier on this blog) that all masonry structures are scaleable.  This means that the vesica piscis can be made any size, as long as the proportions remain intact.  Thus this architectural motif is found throughout gothic structures, of all different sizes and scales, from small entry arches and alcoves to main structural arches and great halls.

Since my own masonry system can be used to build cylindrical sections, it can be used to build gothic arches or the vesica piscis.  I have used the vesica piscis in some of my own buildings, as entryways and as reinforcing arches above windows and doors.  It is a form which we are used to seeing; it is familiar and evokes tradition, comfort, and regularity.  Or, if you prefer, it can be a vagina, or aureole, or a fish’s bladder, or…

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

It's lonely up here, but that's OK

While this blog is my personal record of some of my musings, thoughts, designs and ideas, I am generally not keen to make it about “me.”  Who cares about me?  Why should they?  It is not my intent to speak about myself, but sometimes it is unavoidable.  I have slowly realized that nobody else is doing what I am doing, and so today I write briefly about this as a personal experience and how it affects my work.

For over 25 years now I have been focusing my entire work on designing manufactured concrete block which are used to build roofs, including domes and spheres.  When I began this, I had no idea that nobody was doing this, it seemed so obvious: surely others must be engaged in this sort of work?  But no, I am alone in this odd pursuit.  Over the decades, in my extensive dealings with industry, manufacturers, contractors, block producers, working masons and others that inhabit this masonry realm, nobody else is working on this particular problem.   I have asked virtually everyone I’ve met in my journey through this technological development if they are aware of others working on this problem?  The answer has always been “no” (if anyone is aware of others working on manufactured block as I am, please let me know!).   

My unique vocation is made more curious because –since its early inception- I have chosen to focus on triangular concrete masonry units.  Again, nobody is remotely close to pursuing this sort of thing, yet it seems so obvious to me.  To make it even more weird, I have decided to pursue interlocking triangular manufactured concrete block.  The reasons for this are plainly evident (even self-evident) as I’ve attempted to describe repeatedly over the years that I’ve written this blog.  Yet nobody else is doing anything like this.

My ‘home base’ in upstate western NY is property populated with numerous models, prototypes, structures, finished buildings and so forth.  I have been visited by numerous friends and acquaintances over the years who have observed this work, entered these buildings, and inspected these structures with varying amounts of interest and curiosity.  The common response is “but it’s all so obvious!” which it is.  Yet nobody else has pursued this type of masonry.

The apparently obvious, simple, and clear reasons for these masonry designs and configurations become somewhat obscured as my designs have developed into articulated, detailed and specialized forms which have evolved to meet the very specific constraints and limits imposed by the method of manufacture (concrete block machines) and the demanding specifications of assembly and –finally- the performance requirements of the finished building itself (strength, toughness, low cost, design flexibility, etc ).  Upon close inspection this ‘obvious’ masonry unit design has features and properties which pique the curiosity of an interested observer.

Although this work has appeared as an obvious and simple solution, it is very different from the standardized practices and existing methods used by the masonry industry.  Standardized practices generally involve only straight walls, square corners and rectangular block or brick.  These parameters have defined the scope of research and investigation within the masonry industry and academic community.  Because my designs are not rectangular (they’re triangular), they make much more than straight walls, and they behave differently than regular manufactured concrete block and the structures assembled from rectangular block.

My experience with academia has been quite humbling.  My work is typically referred to (or rather dismissed) as “concrete igloos” by those academicians who encounter it.  These individuals usually fail to grasp the inherent benefits of these designs; I am usually embarrassed for them, and smile meekly or write stupid poems in which I join them and mock myself along with my critics.

I have scoured academia for anyone doing work within the field of masonry science which might pertain to my own work.  I have encountered some great minds doing wonderful work, but nobody really does any work which is akin to my own particular designs.  It has been a source of frustration for me.  All assumptions, equations, engineering models, failure mechanisms, and in general all ways of viewing masonry structures are not adequate or appropriate to describe my own work.  This frustration at the unique nature of my particular focus has also served as source of inspiration and motivation for me to continue in my development of ideas and practices.

When I am able to demonstrate my ideas by making them, some people look twice.  Slowly, deliberately and knowingly I have built a small yet growing and important number of believers in my pursuit.  In our current age of instant gratification seemingly personified by the internet, I realize that I am a weirdo.  I don’t know how many other people could pursue an idea without compensation or acknowledgement or other justification for over 25 years, alone and with the tenacity and perseverance I have come to know so intimately.  It’s a lonely place I occupy, yet I find solace in this solitude.  Yes, I am a weirdo.

Change is afoot in masonry design.  I shall continue this pursuit with the same passion that was sparked in me as a seven year-old boy entering the great cathedrals of Europe for the first time.   There is much more to come, just watch what’s next.  I am as eager as ever.

"Don't wait for the trends to develop. Instead, watch for people messing with the rules, that is the earliest sign of significant change." - Joel Arthur Barker,  'Paradigms, the Business of Discovering the Future' 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

European construction versus North American construction

Construction of houses varies significantly between Europe and North America.  European houses are typically built with masonry, while North American houses are usually made of wood.  Why is this so?
When North America was settled, the vast forests provided a free resource of building material, so wood was the primary construction material used.  This still holds today: compared to Europe, North America possesses large forests which are harvested and used extensively as construction material.  After a few hundred years, a tradition of construction has developed and persists, so that most contractors or builders know how to build a relatively inexpensive home using wood as their primary construction material.

By contrast, most large forests in Europe were clear cut several hundred years ago.  These original forests have never been allowed to return to their original state; the population density of Europe simply does not allow it.  By the law of supply and demand, wood prices in Europe are significantly higher than they are in North America.  There is also a tradition of construction in Europe which involves masonry, and which goes back several hundred (even thousands) of years.  Most Europeans are surprised when they visit North America and notice that the vast majority of houses are built primarily of wood.  Similarly, most Americans visiting Europe are frequently surprised that most European houses are not built with wood. 

The implications of these different approaches to construction have a particular relevance as we face the future and address the challenges posed by changing climate.  The scientific community shares an overwhelming consensus that man-made CO2 is a major contributing factor to our changing climate.  A new awareness of the impact of our activities on CO2 added to the atmosphere has put the practice of home construction into sharper focus by many in the construction industry. 

Research indicates that masonry construction is “greener” than traditional wood construction, for several reasons.  First, fewer trees are harvested, and more forest remains intact.  Trees are a major carbon sequestering force in nature: they remove CO2 from the atmosphere and create oxygen.  Conversely, cement production creates CO2, and the question must be answered: which has less impact on the environment, wood construction or masonry?

As discussed in this article, for a 2,400 square foot wood house, it takes approximately 750 cubic feet of wood to construct only the walls of the house, and requires 2.3 acres to produce that amount of wood.  This 2.3 acres of mature forest would otherwise remove 11,818 lbs. of CO2 per year from the atmosphere (5,200 lbs/acre).

By comparison, a 2,400 square foot masonry house requires 23,558 lbs. of cement to construct only the walls. During the manufacture of the required amount of cement, 11,779 lbs. of CO2 are released into the atmosphere – resulting in slight improvement at the end of the first year. However, concrete provides significant improvement from year 2 and beyond.

Another issue that is a factor is the area of disruption.  Cement production is relatively localized to a few square miles of quarries and mills, whereas lumbering affects thousands of square miles of land and requires considerable energy be expended to clear and transport a forest and convert trees in to lumber. Lumbering decreases the biodiversity of forest; it creates erosion and pollution problems. It also enters into the problem of forest fires.  Instead of allowing forest fires to occur as a natural function, forest managers prevent and put out fires, which robs the soils of the benefits of natural fertilization that occurs during burning.

This comparison does not take into account other factors of construction relating to sustainability, such as the fuel energy – even more if the lumber is imported.  A concrete house has a much longer service life than a wood frame house, lessening landfill burdens and creating the need to expend more energy to reconstruct the house. Europeans have traditionally built homes that last far longer than homes built in the U.S. The result is that with their reduced birthrates, the housing stock turnover is far less. This translates to a much lower percentage of GNP devoted to housing, 9% compared with over 12% in the U.S.

To build a 2,400 square foot house requires 2.3 acres of mature forest which absorbs 11,818 lbs of CO2 per year. Producing the 23,558 lbs. of cement required to build the same house with concrete produces virtually the same amount at 11,779 lbs. of CO2. The CO2 ‘payback’ when building with concrete is one year.  Considering it takes 50 years for a new trees to mature, the ‘ROI’ from using concrete is 2,290% by the time the re-planted forest fully matures.

In addition to the environmental benefits provided by concrete construction, significant savings in heating and cooling houses and other buildings are realized through more thermally efficient concrete construction.  These homes will also last much longer, have a higher resale value, will be able to withstand rot, termites, fire, storms, etc., and thus have a much higher value over their lifetime than wooden construction.

It is time for North America to reassess its construction practices and evaluate which form is better: wood or concrete?  Instead of imposing burdensome new government regulation on the marketplace, we should educate the new homeowners of tomorrow, and allow the lower cost of superior construction determine how homes of the future are built.  Wooden construction is often called “stick construction,” it is not a compliment, and it is accurate.  Just ask the third little pig or the big bad wolf.