Sunday, April 30, 2006

Lovely Images, Part VII: Fuji's Finest

Meet the new addition to our family. It was born into our lives yesterday thanks to a bit of plastic credit. It weighs 24 pounds. It has 24 speeds. Not sure if there's a connection between the two, but it sure can scoot.

My best girl -- who is the "official" owner of the new bike -- and I went for a 30-mile ride today. We were going to ride into the foothills and nearly kill ourselves with endorphine-soaked exhaustion.

Architects always have a plan. The plan was that she would ride her new bike while I rode my 40-pound squeeker. Hopefully, our "abilities" would then be evened out somewhat.

However, when my brakes broke during pre-ride maintenance (don't ask), we decided that she would ride her old & busted purple bike and I would ride the new sweetness.

Oh, yeah, and instead of riding into the foothills where certain death awaited us, we decided to ride 15 miles south and then return back home again.

Except for a "chain coming off" event, it was a nice ride. And except for a troublesome front derailler, the Fuji is a nice bike.

I'm now thinking I may take my time fixing the broken brakes on my 40-pound squeeker. Just don't tell her...

Update: Here is a link to the bike I now have my eyes on -- the Fuji Touring bike -- if I can take my eyes off my best girl's bike first. Us guys can be such dogs...

How Do You Like Your Eyes?

Video from one of my favorite films as a teenager, Three Days of the Condor [click here]:

Is it any wonder that we've heard administration leaks that tactical nuclear weapons have been considered as part of an attack on Iran? These leaks were duly dismissed as a part of "games. what if? how many men? what would it take?"

Although Three Days of the Condor was made in the 70's and the cryptic predictions were off by at least 15 years and counting, we may soon face that fateful day predicted by the movie. How will we react? Hummer bumper sticker: "Nuke their ass, I want gas" ...or... Bicyclist bumper sticker: "I like empty tanks" Of course there are many more choices for the vast space in between. These are just two [hopefully] humorous extremes.

The Key Scene from Three Days of the Condor:
[Turner]: Boy, what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?

[Higgins]: No. It's simple economics. Today it's oil, right? In 10 or 15 years-- food, plutonium, and maybe even sooner. What do you think the people are going to want us to do then?

[Turner]: Ask them.

[Higgins]: Now now. Then. Ask them when they're running out. Ask them when there's no heat and they're cold. Ask them when their engines stop. Ask them when people who have never known hunger start going hungry. Want to know something? They won't want us to ask them. THEY'LL WANT US TO GET IT FOR THEM.
If the cynics are correct, then we either prepare for the crisis with eyes wide open or back into it by default with eyes wide shut. What say you? What DO you?

Friday, April 28, 2006

Lovely Images, Part VI: Machu Picchu

Three friends recently took a trip to Peru and spent some time hiking to and visiting Machu Picchu, an ancient Incan city built at 8,000 feet altitude in the Andes Mountains. I have to admit that I've seen lots of photos of the place -- as my architecture professors made sure of that -- but there's something extra eye-opening about seeing a place like this with your own eyes, or in my case, seeing it through the eyes of friends. Click on any of the photos to see slightly larger versions, of course.

Machu Picchu, which means "manly peak", was built as a royal estate and religious retreat between 1460 and 1470 AD by
Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, an Incan ruler. There are approximately 200 masonry buildings, most being residences, although there are temples, storage structures and other public buildings. About 1,200 people lived in and around Machu Picchu, most of them women, children, and priests.

The buildings were planned and built under the supervision of professional Inca architects. Most of the structures are built of granite blocks cut with bronze or stone tools, and smoothed with sand. The blocks fit together perfectly without mortar, although none of the blocks are the same size and have many irregular faces; some with as many as 30 corners. And my architecture profs made sure to emphasize that the joints are so tight
that even the thinnest of knife blades can't be forced between the stones. For some reason, everyone always uses knife blades as the gauge for tight joints. Machu Picchu's got 'em.

The Incans planted crops such as potatoes and maize at Machu Picchu. To get the highest yield possible, they used advanced terracing and irrigation methods to reduce erosion and increase the area available for cultivation. The photos of this terracing are some of the most remarkable and dramatic that my friends sent. How Incans managed to cut such huge terraces so squarely, leaving plenty of topsoil to grow in, while avoiding tumbling to their doom is a puzzle to me.

Invading Spanish conquistadors never encountered Machu Picchu, but they DID manage to devastate the rest of the Empire with smallpox. 50% of the Incan population, including Machu Picchu, was killed by smallpox by 1527. The resulting loss of "institutional memory" rendered Machu Picchu forgotten, barren, and desolate. Doing the math, the useful life of Machu Picchu lasted only about 60 years! All that work to build a city for 1,200 people that only lasted 60 years...

By 1532, when Pizzaro invaded South America, Machu Picchu was completely forgotten by all but a few local natives. It wasn't rediscovered again until 1911 as a professor from Yale came across it while looking for another Incan stronghold whose legend had managed to survive. Machu Picchu was a complete mystery and surprise!

By the way, in the interests of full disclosure, these friends of mine are really friends (and groomsmen) of my oldest son. I coached them at baseball when they were in high school. But since they sent the photos directly to me, they have officially been upgraded to MY friends as well. Keep the photos (and stories of adventure) coming guys!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Where's Great National Purpose When You Need Some?

In 1996, Atlantic Monthly excerpted a portion of James Howard Kunstler's great architectural opus, Home From Nowhere, and I instantly became a disciple.

Kunstler -- nowadays considered a first-rate crank and gadfly to conventional planning departments across America -- espoused a new home and city design paradigm called New Urbanism. Although not the originator of this new way of thinking about our built environments, he was certainly its most vociferous and articulate proponent. After reading the Atlantic Monthly article, then reading Home From Nowhere, and then his earlier city planning opus, The Geography of Nowhere, I began to research other sources on New Urbanism. What I found were very small and vocal groups of cranks and ne'er-do-wells including architects, developers, and newly baptized city planners who had to struggle like hell just to get the tiniest communities built displaying New Urbanist ideas. I never joined their official organizations and never attended any of their meetings, but I believed nevertheless.

Since then, I've just been working as a lone wolf architect, believing what I believe but not trying to convince anyone else about those beliefs. Until I started this blog. And while I've many times pondered the construction of great manifestos here to vanquish mine enemies and hold up the light of reason and hope to the downtrodden, even then, I've kept many of those most sacred beliefs quiet and hidden in the background neurons of my timid mind.

However, the official website for New Urbanism has now published a list of 10 solutions, some quite shocking, intended to soften the blows of Peak Oil and Global Warming for the next generation. Without interruption, I present it here:

By Andy Kunz, from the New Urbanism website

10 SOLUTIONS to the peak oil and global warming twin crises that are feasible, healthy, and sustainable:

1. An immediate and permanent moratorium on all new road construction and expansions.
2. An immediate and permanent moratorium on all new airport construction and expansions, as well as an end to all aviation subsidies.

3. The immediate construction of a nationwide new train network across America connecting every city, town, and neighborhood with an efficient, state-of-the-art electric train network comparable to what is currently operating all across Europe and Japan.

4. An immediate tripling of minimum vehicle miles per gallon standards for all vehicles produced in America - accomplished by a quick and complete conversion of all factories to the building of only hybrid, solar, and fully electric vehicles.

5. An immediate moratorium on the construction of any new coal fired or nuclear power generating plants.

6. The immediate construction of massive new solar and wind power generating capacity all across America, including small windmills that can be incorporated inconspicuously into the roofs of buildings.

7. The immediate installation of full roof solar panels on every building in America.

8. An immediate moratorium on the building of any additional sprawl.

9. A major focus of federal, state, and local governments on the densification and revitalization of all existing cities and towns across America, with pedestrians and bicycles given top priority over automobiles. Included would be millions of affordable housing units and high quality neighborhood schools located so all children can walk or bike to them.

10. The immediate installation of major organic farms at the edge of every city and town across America.

The article finishes with references and this appropriate quote from architect Daniel Burnham:

“Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir humanity’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical plan once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency."

I, along with most architects, have used the first part of that quote. I even quoted, "Make no small plans," on this blog. But I never read the rest of it before. It's appropriate for this blog and I may in time stick it up on the masthead. But back to the big plans of

I don't think this list is as feasible as they state. But what it lacks in realpolitic, it makes up for with boldness and clarity of intent.

I don't think all of these solutions would be healthy. But only in the sense that the harshest medicines can be destructive to the patient, bringing him or her to the very brink of death before the healing can begin.

And I don't even think the emphasis on solar power would be as sustainable as hoped since the current technology required for the manufacture of solar panels requires tremendous inputs of hydrocarbons while the return on energy investment is relatively low. Wind provides much better returns on investment. And nuclear is better still, despite the insurmountable political and environmental hurdles that must be overcome to build a new nuclear power plant. The list's emphasis on electrical power generation as part of the solution, while shutting down new coal and nuclear power plants -- the technologies that are the most significant generators of mass electricity available to us today -- can't fall entirely on the shoulders of wind and solar. Just not realistic.

Still, I haven't read a list like this, one that would actually do substantial good if approached with the seriousness of Great National Purpose, since first reading Kunstler's Home From Nowhere exactly ten years ago. Of course, none of this will happen in the way that putting a man on the moon in the 60's or attacking the Axis powers in the 40's was done with similar Great National Purpose.

So I fear the fabric of society will gradually fray and erode and disintegrate as the world's infrastructure frays and erodes and disintegrates. Still, a boy can dream. And remember, when you look back at these good old days and wonder what might have been, that you heard some of those solutions here first.

Note to Self: In the future, resist the urge to blog during late night hours when cynicism is rampant and uncontrollable.

I'll Show You Mine If...

If you are familiar with the Not So Big House concept based on the book series by Sarah Susanka, then you'll understand my goals with this house. Although it'll contain 3,600 square feet of finished space (kinda not so small), including a walk-out basement, and will also have a detached three-car garage that isn't visible in this photo, all those square feet have a very high level of finish to them. Bamboo floors. Radiant floor heat. Natural wood trim everywhere. Exposed ceiling joists. Spectacular kitchen. The owners could have built bigger if they had been willing to sacrifice some quality, but they chose quality instead. Which meant they needed an architect -- me.

Lots of surprises still coming. Large 2x12 cedar fascia boards coming. High quality Pella windows coming. Arts & Crafts detailing coming. Decks galore coming. Stone plinth/wainscot and cedar siding shingles coming.

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Wouldn't Even Know Where To Start

On the Google Groups newsgroup Alt.Architecture there recently appeared the strangest posting:
Hi All,

Architecture as a business seems to have some serious problems within it's existence in the universe.

Architects all over the world seem to complain about the lack of money in their line; the lack of a proper business structure (marketing by word of mouth)

Architects also work hard and face extremely challenging working conditions with clients changing their minds too often, surprise elements on site and tight deadlines.

Architects also lead highly stressed lives that lead to alcoholism, drug abuse and high divorce rates.

I would like to form a forum of free lance and employed architects to meet and deal with these challenges with the goal of fixing them with a scientific approach to business development, lead generation, order possessing, client negotiation and timely delivery without killing the architect.

My name is Arul Baliah. I live in Bangalore Vivek Nagar. I work for Microsoft in Evangelizing Business Enhancement and Partner Relations

I wanted to change tracks on my career to become an architect but I thought this might be a better way to be a blessing to the architects' community.

Please mail me at if you are interested in joining me or networking with me in this venture.



I'm speechless. Maybe I'll have something later...

Update: The comments pretty well cover it. Thanks.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Location, Location, Location

I know I've strayed far from the Land of Blogitecture, but I recently came across a comparison of the transportation costs in major American cities, and I just had to share.
Here goes...

2003 Household Expenditures on Transportation by Metropolitan Area:
Rank | Metropolitan Area | Percent of Household Income Spent on Transportation

1 Houston 20.9%
2 Cleveland 20.5%
3 Detroit 20.5%
4 Tampa 20.4%
5 Kansas City 20.2%
6 Cincinnati 20.0%
7 Anchorage 19.9%
8 Dallas- Fort Worth 19.7%
9 Phoenix 19.6%
10 Miami 19.6%
11 Denver 19.2%
12 Seattle 19.0%
13 St. Louis 18.7%
14 Atlanta 18.7%
15 Los-Angeles 18.4%
16 San Diego 18.4%
17 Honolulu 18.0%
18 Boston 17.2%
19 Minneapolis- St. Paul 17.2%
20 Chicago 16.9%
21 Milwaukee 16.6%
22 San Francisco 16.6%
23 Pittsburgh 16.6%
24 Philadelphia 15.9%
25 Washington D.C. 15.4%
26 New York 15.4%
27 Portland 15.1%
28 Baltimore 14.0%
United States 19.1%
Source: Selected metropolitan statistical areas: Average annual expenditures and characteristics, Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2002-2003.

Two points I would like to make:

1. The cities at the top half of the list have relatively poor public transportation systems and also feature textbook examples of sprawling metropolitan suburbias that are dependent on extended automobile travel. The cities at the bottom half tend to have much better public transportation and have been built with much greater population densities and urban efficiencies. Although Baltimore at the bottom of the list is a bit of a mystery to me.

2. This study was conducted in 2002-2003, when the price of gasoline was at or below $2.00 a gallon. Since then, transportation costs have increased 50% or more, with no end in sight. Assuming wages haven't increased substantially (they haven't), and since the median household income is about $44,000 before taxes, then the median household cost of transportation has increased from $8,400 to $12,600 annually (assuming the percentages given are pre-tax income; if not, then reduce accordingly). If gas were to continue to rise, perhaps even straying into a temporary gasoline crisis with lines at gas stations and worse which might send gas prices over $5.00 per gallon for a period of time (BTW, that was the price of gas in the UK last summer), families in cities at the top of the list will suffer in ways only the experts might predict. Still, I'll give it a shot: How would you feel if nearly half your annual take-home pay went for the gasoline just to be able to earn that annual income?

Sorry for the continued gloom and doom, but our future lies before us.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Happy Earth Day, Part Deux

Howard's Strategies for Surviving,
If Not Thriving,
During The Lean Years:

Basic philosophy: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Some future events may be equally predictable and awful, yet we can take prudent measures to be prepared for them, such as earthquakes and rapid escalations in the cost of energy, transportation, and food. Other exceedingly unlikely events, such as instinction-grade comets and asteroids striking the planet, we cannot. While my previous post came across to some as apocalyptic and hopeless, I believe we'll experience few of these world changes in suddenness and horror, but rather as the frog in the pot of water that is being gradually heated over time. The trick for us--as for the frog--is to recognize what is happening and jump before it's too late.

1. Nutritional self-sufficiency: Plant a garden. Environmental researcher and author John Jeavons has determined that it only takes 4,000 s.f. of biointensive garden beds to produce enough food to feed one person for a year. Commercial farms take well over 80,000 s.f. -- two acres -- per person! Most city residential lots have at least 4,000 s.f. left over after subtracting out the footprint for the house. This method of gardening, though highly organized, would require little to no industrially-produced fertilizers, one eighth to one third the water, and 1% of the energy consumed by commercial agriculture per pound of vegetable grown. If this proposal sounds provocative, if not outright impossible, check out Jeavons' book, How to Grow More Vegetables at this link. I bought a copy for myself AND one for my dad a few months ago, and we're both giving it a try this summer.

2. Transportational self-sufficiency: Get rid of your gas hog while you still can and buy a high-mileage compact or hybrid if you must have a car. If you are a North American, society has been designed and built so we all need a car. But also buy a bicycle and get into the habit of using it regularly. You'll be surprised how quickly, easily, cheaply (and virtuously) you can get around town on the most energy-efficient means ever invented by mankind. Becoming a cyclist is easy. Doing the following is easier said than done, but do it anyway: ride a bus or light rail or your bike or carpool or telecommute to work. Organize your occasional car errands in geographical order to get the most benefit when you absolutely positively must use the car. Change your car's air filter regularly and keep the tires filled at or above the recommended pressure levels to improve gas mileage. Every little bit helps. If possible, live closer to your work (or talk your boss into letting you occasionally telecommute) to reduce travel distances. If you live outside of town or on the edge of town, consider moving into town.

3. Energy self-sufficiency: Consider installing a wood-burning high-efficiency stove or fireplace insert in lieu of that soon-to-be-piece-of-sculpture that used to burn natural gas. Although the selection is growing every year, you might start here with Regency Wood Stoves. Other products worth considering include Swedish Ceramic Stoves, which are one of the more efficient means to heat a house throughout a winter day. Also install a programmable thermostat, which will automatically turn your house's thermostat down at night, up during weekday mornings and evenings when you are home, and down again during the middle of the day if you and the family are off to work and school. Programmable thermostats cost only $30 or so, but can easily save that much in a month's time. Wrapping your hot water heater in an insulation blanket can save hundreds of dollars a year. Adding caulking around your windows and doors can save money by cutting down air leaks and heat loss. And of course there are standard well-known ideas for the abundantly well-cashed among us such as adding extra insulation for your house and attic, and installing high-efficiency low-E argon-filled windows. Finally, if you live in a region of the country that receives direct sunlight more than 250 days a year, building a $20,000 solarium or green house on a southern exposure of your house can provide most if not all of your home's warmth via passive solar insolation through most days of the fall, winter, and spring months. A nice layer of dark bricks on the floor and/or back wall located in direct sunlight of a 200-square-foot solarium can absorb enough warmth to heat a 1,500 square foot home throughout the day and night in all but the coldest days of the year. Plus, it's a nice place to hang out and grow your herbs, you hippie you.

4. Live green: Install bamboo floors in your new house like I'm doing with the million dollar mansion. Bamboo is a fast-growing grass that reaches maturity in four years, so it's a sustainable product. Also, it's grown without pesticides or chemicals, though the laminating glues sometimes contain formaldehyde, so be watchful of that. Eat organic. Patronize green merchants. For example: Drink green beer. Not the kind made up for St. Patrick's Day, but the kind made by New Belgium Brewery that is 100 percent wind-powered. New Belgium also recaptures and reuses its water, the brewery is partially lighted by daylight, reuses heat produced by the brew house, and they recycle just about everything else. New Belgium Brewery's most famous beer is Fat Tire Ale, but they produce many others as well. In many states and provinces, one has the option of signing up for wind-powered electricity as opposed to electricity produced by coal or natural gas. Typically it only adds a few dollars to a monthly electric bill, but the bragging rights it gives are worth much more. One more idea to consider is to frequent farmers' markets and locally-owned grocers that sell local produce, breads, meat, and even coffee and desserts. If the cost of oil increases substantially, the days of the national grocery chains will be finished due to the high cost of distribution systems. This means that increasing dependence on locally-grown foods will be a necessity. Best start the habit of buying local now and avoid the Christmas rush.

5. Financial self-sufficiency: Like most of the strategies mentioned here, this one is also easier said than done. Start by setting something, anything, aside into a savings account each and every month. And you know that being absolutely mercenary about it is the only way it'll ever get done. Unless you have large credit card or charge card debts. If you do, it makes more sense (and cents) to pay much more towards that debt than the monthly minimums. Don't be a grasshopper flitting away his or her summer. Be an industrious ant and take the long view. If you own, or worse yet, are making monthly payments on an SUV or pickup, and you aren't a contractor with need of that gas hog, sell it before exponentially expanding fuel costs render it unsellable. Better yet, if you live far from everything and can sell your house to take advantage of the wonderful renter's market in town, do it before the real estate bubble bursts, rendering your exurban castle unsellable. Pocket the equity into a higher interest savings account providing some degree of liquidity, or put it into gold or silver, or even better still, be a fat cat and put your home equity into oil stocks and sit back, secure in the knowledge that you have the flexibility, options, and liquidity that a disruptive economy favors.

6. Disaster preparedness: Store at least a few weeks of food supplies, medical supplies, batteries, a bottle of bleach, pet food if necessary, and have candles and a good radio on hand. All will be necessities in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster. Plus, if somewhere in the world, gas supplies are drastically disrupted, grocery distribution networks in North America could be temporarily disabled leaving some regions of the country without their daily resupplies and food stocks. This is because most grocery stores substantially restock their shelves every night. Cut those supplies for a day or two or for a week, and life in the 21st century could suddenly get mean -- only temporarily, one would hope. But our new motto is "hope for the best, be prepared for the worst", right?

7. Physical Fitness: Finally, if humans, even in the industrialized world, are, by forceful necessity, going to become more self-sufficient in their own food production, transportation, and even keeping the stoves stoked to avoid paying painfully high food, oil, natural gas, and electric bills, then too many of us are going to have to get into better shape than we're currently in. Lose that weight now and exercise now. Once again, easier said than done! I know. Believe me, I know. But if you can make exercise part of a daily routine -- for example, 15 minutes of pushups, tummy crunches, and squats before jumping into the shower -- then it can quickly become part of your typical day and you don't have to "remember to make time for it." This is exactly what I did, along with riding my bicycle at least five times a week for an hour each session, until I lost 45 pounds in six months and developed muscle definition and cardiac fitness that few 46-year-old men (let alone architects) can boast of having.

Hope this helps, and I hope your Earth Day was a pleasant one. No, really!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Happy Earth Day!

"This order [i.e. capitalism] is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with the economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt."
—Max Weber, 1905
In case you missed it, Saturday, April 22nd is the 36th Annual Earth Day and boy do we have problems. For this we'll need a list (with a little help from the book Powerdown by Richard Heinberg):

1. Resource depletion, notably oil and natural gas. Oil went up to $75/barrel on Friday and some gas stations on the east coast ran out of gas (something about MTBE). The price of gas has "unexpectedly" risen in the past ten days and the media seem clueless as to why. Howard's Prediction: Gas will soon go over $3/gallon to stay when the travel season picks up in May, and within a year these will seem like the good old days. But in addition to oil and natural gas depletion, we're also facing depletion of fresh water resources, wild oceanic fish stocks, phosphates (used for agriculture), and topsoil loss.

2. Continued population growth. In 1998, the world's population was six billion, and in eight years since we have added 500 million more -- equal to the population of North America. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, which made the case that world food production couldn't keep up with population growth, which would lead to massive die off. At that time there were 3.5 billion people on the planet. However, food production grew tremendously, fed by enormous inputs of oil (mechanical efficiencies) and natural gas (fertilizers). The day of reckoning was deferred. Which leads us to...

3. Declining per-capita food production. For nearly the entire 20th century, food production outpaced population growth. However, world grain harvests for the past seven years show that the trajectory of per-capita grain production has leveled off and may be beginning to fall, probably due to loss of arable land due to urbanization, fresh water shortages, and increasingly bad weather. As prices of oil and natural gas increase in coming months and years due to increasing demand exceeding production and supplies, food production will begin to fall. In nature, when a habitat's food supply grows, animal populations grow. When the food supply dwindles, populations dwindle as well. Are humans immune from nature's laws? We'll soon find out.

4. Global climate change. Civilization will surely suffer due to less favorable, less stable, and less predictable weather patterns. Melting Greenland glaciers are raising sea levels, and may soon inundate coastal cities, particularly Bangladesh where millions would be left homeless. Also computer modeling suggests that glacier melting could soon halt the Gulf Stream which tempers weather and fish production for the northern Atlantic and Europe. Ironically scientists are predicting that global warming could thrust Europe and much of North America into a new ice age. A new documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, will be released in theaters in May featuring Al Gore telling us all the things about global warming that Al Gore has been saying for decades. I sense the beginning of a re-election campaign. As well as great gnashing of conservative teeth as Al Gore is proven right all along.

5. Unsustainable levels of US debt, a potential dollar collapse, and the bursting of the real estate bubble. The current level of American debt--internal and external--is unprecedented and unsustainable, and US Treasury officials have made efforts since 2003 to gently lower the value of the dollar in relation to other currencies. However, if the dollar is devalued too much, other nations (including China and Japan) may decide to cease investing their savings in American stocks and Treasury securites, triggering a dollar collapse. Additionally, real estate prices have escalated so much since the late 80's--the time of the last real estate price "correction"--that many economists and real estate experts are telling us we've begun another bubble busting. When prices tumble, millions of Americans newly upside-down on their mortgages and second mortgages and debt-consolidation loans and credit card debts, will be financially devastated.

6. International political instability. Iraq is already in a low-grade civil war, but the real tripod of vulnurable nations include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan. Attacks on oil production facilities in Saudi Arabia and the threat of invasion in Iran loom on the horizon which would guarantee worldwide oil market panics, threaten Israel, and increase the likelihood that any or all of the tripod nations would collapse into anarchy, vicious ethnic cleansing, and micro-nuclear weapons use.

7. Natural and man-made catastrophes on an unprecedented scale. The San Andreas fault zone and New Madrid seizmic zone are overdue to devastate, respectively, portions of the California coast and the central Mississippi valley north of Memphis, extending over five states. Damage from such earthquakes could eclipse that experienced by Hurricane Katrina. FEMA would be helpless and impotent. Again. And speaking of hurricanes, it is theorized that global warming will spawn ever larger and more devastating hurricanes. The threat of terrorist attacks on American targets using much deadlier weapons than jet airliners grows. Comets and asteroids flit about the solar system, occasionally plunging to earth and if large enough, potentially striking with enough force to cause global extinctions. For example, the Bible Codes as cooked up by Hebrew mystics based on analysis from ancient Torah texts state that such a devastating comet will strike the earth in 2012, which is also the last year of the Mayan calendar -- December 21st, 2012 in particular. Not much we can do about that, I suppose. But perhaps everything else I list might be preventable or tempered.

Wow. Sucks to be us, huh?

If you believe any of this (and I think you should believe some of it), what to do, what to do? [coming in another post soon]

Happy Earth Day!

Friday, April 21, 2006

21st-Century Nomads?

How would you like to see this every day outside your office window? I know someone who does...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Burden of an Architect

It's time -- time for an update on my projects, my workload, and my state of mind.

I'll start with the last: My state of mind. Mine has not been a healthy mind. It has even been a troubled mind. Why? I thought it was because of the number of projects I was carrying and the resultant workload. You see, everything is One Big Kahuna with me --> lotsa projects --> lotsa workload --> troubled mind --> stress. Everything inside my brain-like brain is tied together with invisible threads that create real or artificial complexities and stresses in my life. And none of it is healthy.

Yeah, I've been riding my bike like a maniac. Emphasis on maniac. Distraction is good, to a point. But those kinds of distractions only helped divert focus away from the major points of stress in my life that I really should have been addressing better.

So what were those major points of stress? Like I said, I thought it was the overall workload. But it was actually a bit more simple than that. There was really ONE project that was causing all my mental constipation -- the Death To the Great Room Project.

If you will recall, two months back I signed a contract with a nice couple to slice their great room into a living room on the first floor and a new master bedroom/bathroom on the second floor. I wrote about it here. I was excited by the idea of doing a "pop-top" to their great room, which wasn't very great to start with. A pop-top is where one tears the roof off a house and adds a second story of new space. Very messy. Very challenging. Very disruptive. Very expensive. But one resorts to such extreme measures of expanding vertically in lieu of expanding outward. I proposed the idea of dividing a large, uncomfortable, useless, and difficult to heat space into two spaces. Not bad, I figured, patting myself on the back. I knew that the structural issues of providing support for a new floor upstairs would be costly and difficult. But I was excited by the new paradigm of Death to the Great Room! If I could do it here, I could do it anywhere!

But somewhere along the line, the project lost its lustre for me. It became hard work in the same soul-crushing way that serving as President of the United States can lose a certain appeal for certain frat boy types as the work and stresses overwhelm the Thrill of Absolute Power.

Everything else fell to the wayside for me. Deadlines began to slip for all of my projects. Excuses began to get creative and convoluted. I even began to lose sleep. And when I lose sleep, you know that something poisonously saccharine has invaded Howard's land of purest sugar.

Until yesterday afternoon... when the clients of Death to the Great Room contacted me and said that they had reconsidered. They no longer want to pursue the idea of adding interior square footage to their existing house. They now want to build a whole other house separated from the original, one to be used as Home Office. But they don't want to start on it right away. Maybe in another year or so, they said. So could I please figure out how much they owe me and send them a bill?

Hallelujah! I couldn't be more pleased by this turn of events. My other projects: The million dollar mansion, my foothills hippy house with the miserable floor plans soon to be joyous and wondrous, and two new and exciting projects (which I haven't mentioned here yet) will all now receive my loving attention.

The burden has been lifted. Long live the architect's burden!

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Simplicity Made Complex

I love studying and analyzing creative solutions.
I am fascinated by all things Japanese.
And I love clever smart-ass trouble-makers.

This post satisfies all three weird cravings.

A long long time ago for most of you -- more than 40 years ago, which puts us solidly before the 1970's -- a creative Pulitzer Prize winning soul named Rube Goldberg drew cartoons illustrating absurd machines that solved the simplest tasks using the most complex, absurd, and vaguely predictable methods imaginable. I was fascinated as a child by some of the bizarre "solutions" he drew up. When I grew a bit older, I learned that his drawings had artistic meaning behind them -- that they represented
symbols of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results. Rube believed that there were two ways to do things: the simple way and the hard way, and that a surprising number of people preferred doing things the hard way.
With that in mind, I present a link to something truly remarkable -- a series of Japanese commercials made by God-knows-who to promote God-knows-what. There must be about two dozen of these commercials and contraptions, and all of them feature some virus-like musical ditty and a printed Japanese phrase at the end of each that means nothing to these uneducated gaijin eyes.

The Japanese call these Pythagorean Machines. I don't know why, although the Pythagorean Theorem is the one that tells us the hypotenuse of a right triangle squared equals the sum of the square of the other two sides. Not that that explains anything about the Japanese use of the name in this instance. It's just fun to act all smart and stuff.

I can only imagine how many times some of these Japanese Pythagorean Machines had to be re-started and re-filmed until they worked properly. Some are better than others, of course. But when presented together, the effect is overwhelming and sort of numbing. Not a bad feeling to begin a new week.
Check out these incredible machines by clicking here.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Brief & Granitic Update

Remember the granite installer who was given a copy of the drawings and specs to bid on the Lapidus granite install for the million-dollar house? You know -- the one who substituted cheap granite in his bid, didn't clearly note the change on his bid form, and then when informed that the owner would "no way in hell pay for your mistake" blamed it on the contractor saying he bid what the contractor told him to bid? Well, after talking to the weasel, the contractor decided to dump him, go find another granite installer who will probably cost a lot more to do the work, but not charge the home-owner for the extra cost.

This honorable decision will probably cost the contractor $2,000 to $3,000, and I suppose he could have tried holding the weasel's feet to the fire. But he decided that life is too short to deal with weasels any longer than absolutely necessary. So there.

What was it I once wrote about this contractor -- being an honorable gentleman and all-around likable chap? I rest my case.

He is, of course, the rarest of exceptions. Most contractors have a bit of weasel lurking within their mongrel DNA. The question is usually a matter of how much is too much. The answer usually involves something about how life is too short...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

What's Your Superpower?

Everyone has superpowers. Yes, it's true. However, while possessing the abilities to self-immolate or fly through the air or even fly an invisible jet are exceedingly rare, most of the superpowers that the rest of us have are totally inconsequential.

Some can beat eggs and measure flour with absolute molecular precision. Some have an uncanny ability to anticipate the stupidity of other drivers and pedestrians and cyclists. And some can look at a dog and know that it has to go pee. That's a nice superpower to have.

My best girl, who is quite gifted, has two superpowers: 1) The ability to instantly recognize and solve problems within the fast-food industry, and; 2) The uncanny ability to sense the lurking yet unseen presence of cop cars up to no good. Perhaps both superpowers would never receive proper respect from the general public because most of us think we possess them. But this is sooo not true. If is was, then the fast-food industry would be nearly flawless in its execution -- which we all know is not true. Plus, judging by the sheer numbers of participants in the traffic court industry, it's clear that nearly all drivers are clueless in the battle of wits with the law enforcement industry.

My best girl, on the other hand, has proven her worth by making many recent predictions regarding the means and methods that food service people would or should use in unique circumstances -- predictions proven to be spot-on. She also routinely senses the presence of cop cars, slows her own driving, and is rewarded seconds later with the scenery of armed officials in white Buicks nabbing scofflaws driving neighboring vehicles. But never hers.

Fortunately for us, her second superpower is not entirely inconsequential.

I used to think my superpower -- an anti-superpower really -- was the ability to predict the outcome of an election and be completely and utterly wrong. I don't think I've ever been right once. My family still hasn't forgiven me my 2004 Presidential Election miscue.

So in the same way that George Costanza finally learned to do the opposite of his natural inclination if he wanted to succeed, my superpower was also finally recognized and hailed as universally and predictably wrong.

However, my real and most useful superpower is the ability to recognize a brilliant architectural concept amidst scores of conceptual chaff. Some architects can churn out ideas by the boatload, but they are completely incapable of discerning which ideas have potential and which deserve quick death. So everything goes into their designs. I, on the other hand, must pound my head on my keyboard for hours on end, generating precisely one idea every six or seven pounds -- and that's if I'm lucky. After generating about twelve to fifteen ideas (which works out to about 90 head pounds on average), I'll finally come up with something good. And I, who now goes by the superhero name 'RKtect', know it instantly. And 'RKtect' is always exactly right. Genius can reside in the recognition as equally as in the generation.

That's a nice superpower for an architect to have. Although I sure wish it didn't have to hurt so much.

What is your superpower? And is it inconsequential or occasionally useful?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Why Waste Your Time With Me?

So you think architects are supposed to be cool and culturally literate? Ha! Some of the worst know-nothing disconnected, oblivious, out-of-the-loop nitwits are architects. Fear not. Howard's not one of those. But still...

Cultural literacy is so relative.

Case in point: Today's James Wolcott blog. I've never seen a Fassbinder film. Although I've heard of him and I do recognize certain names being dropped about like so many pretty little bread crumbs of Greenwich Village legitimacy such as Joyce Carol Oates and Halle Barry and Tina Weymouth. Can't say I ever watched a movie with the Talking Heads bassist though. And who knew Ms. Barry's middle name is Maria?

The rest of the essay is purest mystery -- like walking the streets of suburban Paris (do Paris suburbs bear any resemblance to American suburbs? -- that's how out of it I am) hearing verbal floralities mascarading as philosophical profundities, but not knowing for sure one way or the other.

I'm so uncool. In my favor, I did see the Sam Peckinpah film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The rest of Wolcott's literary minuet? Either pretty words entertainingly composed or Deep Deep Thots. I can't decide. And I don't know why I love reading him so.

Yes, I am so uncool. But then I have to wonder: Why are you reading me? Could it be that cultural relativity thing?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Lovely Images, Part V -- My Lead-Plated Squeeker

"Cycling is a sport that embarrasses youth, rather than rewards it." --Lance Armstrong

We once lived in the foothills of our majestically western state, but I never took up cycling until we moved into town. [Excuses, excuses: Because our car climbed some of the steepest hills in the county to get to our house, and because I was overweight and outta shape, I would have had to endure months of absolute hell trying to get into shape to handle those steepest hills in the county with a bicycle. SO not worth it, I wisely calculated.]

Instead, I poked fun at all the other cyclists who rode those county roads, saying, "there goes another Lance." Every cyclist fancied him- or herself a budding Lance, you see. By poking fun, it kept me safely at a distance from contemplating The Pain of the Train.

Then we sold the foothills house and moved into town. No more excuses.

First thing I did was buy the Raleigh Passages 3.0 pictured above. As I said in a previous post, it weighs 38 pounds and squeeks. I have since learned ways to de-squeek it. I gradually lowered the handle bars as I lost weight (think about it), and I raised the seat because your Howard is not a small man. I have also since learned to make this 38-pound puppy move. I once had it up to 41.5 mph. Honest. Scarily honest. Lance Armstrong wrote a book, titled It's Not About the Bike, which I am currently reading. I have learned to scoot like the big boys in their $3,000 carbon-framed speed monsters, despite my mediocre old guy's bike. That endurance and strength comes from willpower, as Lance's book teaches, not technology. Along the way, I also got into great shape. LiveStrong.

Late at night (which is when I do some of my best thinking) I imagine how good I could be, and fast and far I could go on a $3,000 carbon-framed speed monster of my own...

I lost 40 pounds of weight curing the past six months, replacing rolls of jolly chubbiness with rippling musculature. (I can hear you chuckling, Ace & Slick... stop it!) But now I have the prototypical chisled cyclist's calves. I've also avoided the dreaded nickname "Rex" by doing my pushups. Seriously competitive cyclists are notorious for having hugely huge leg muscles and shrivelled pecs, shoulders, biceps, and delts, and whatever, hence the nickname "Rex". Which is short for Tyrannosaurus Rex. Think about it. It'll make sense in a second or two.

My best girl and I have been in training for the Ride the Rockies bike tour in June -- this year stretching 413 miles through southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. Yesterday, we rode 45 miles. Today, we went another 28 miles. And fast-type speeds, not geezer-wheezer lolligaging. While we're still not quite ready, we're making good progress. The first weekend in June--two weekends before the start of the six-day tour--we will ride 65 miles north to a small city in another nearby state, stay the night, and then return home the next day. When we can do that without suffering horribly, we'll be ready for Ride the Rockies. A month later comes the Tour de Wyoming in July -- another six-day ride to challenge our geezer-like bodies (well... at least MY body, not my best girl's, who still has the body of a 20-something.) You believe me, don't you? I hope she does.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Framers Keeping Busy

Just another quick update to show that the framers are making rapid progress. This photo above is taken from the same location as the photo below from my previous post, only now we have stud walls and trusses overhead. And lots and lots of shadows!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Let the Tasting Continue...

"Busy, busy, busy" is fast becoming my new motto and usual lack-of-fresh-blogging excuse. I shook another new project loose from the bushes this morning: My largest and most ambitious addition/renovation so far. This gives me four active projects right now, and since I am a staff of one and do everything myself, I'm pretty well maxed out for now. Fresh blog meat may be infrequent for a while. Sooooorry. I'm away building independent wealth. But I'm sure that's a piss-poor excuse to those of you who depend on Why Howard Laughed for intellectual sustenance.

In the meantime, here's another photo of framing progress on the second floor of the million dollar extravaganza. Those strange windows will be stuffed with glass block in the master bathroom, and a roofline over the front porch will extend below and beyond the trio of openings. The floors will be covered with gypcrete covering radiant floor heating coils. With bamboo hardwood or porcelain tile over that.