Only by analyzing the failures of our past can we learn how to prepare for a better future. This is one of the core principles behind forensic science, and candidly, it is what personally drives me forward every day.

InterestingEngineering.com compiled a list of “25 Extremely Embarrassing Architectural Failures,” although I would like to clarify that many of their chosen examples have little to do with failure on the part of the architect. In fact, many of the examples are failures on the part of a trade contractor, the owner/developer’s miscalculation of the market, poor understanding of existing soils conditions, or in some cases, just plain bad taste.

Here is the intro:

Welcome to our list of 25 incredible architectural failures throughout history. The following collection of architectural failures is an eclectic mix. They range from the most poorly designed, ugly or downright dangerous architectural projects throughout history. Our list is far from exhaustive and not intended to be definitive. They are also in no particular order. Enjoy!

Some familiar projects are featured:

  • The “Leaning” Tower of Pisa
  • Galloping Gertie (featured here recently)
  • The Kemper Arena roof collapse
  • several Gehry projects
  • The John Hancock Tower

One of the projects featured is the Lotus Riverside Complex in Shanghai, which you can learn more about in the video below:

Denver Post’s Brian Eason writes:

Declaring that the measure “will help make our housing more affordable,” Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday signed into law one of the most hard-fought compromises of the 2017 session — a bill that will make it more difficult to sue builders for shoddy condo construction.

Business leaders for years have been seeking wholesale reforms to the state’s construction defects laws, blaming the state’s dormant condominium market on a legal environment that they say enables an excessive amount of lawsuits against developers. That, they argue, drives up insurance costs, leading developers to avoid building condos entirely in favor of rentals.

House Bill 1279, which took effect immediately when the governor signed it Tuesday, requires a majority of a condo complex’s unit owners — rather than just its homeowner association board — to consent to legal action against a developer for poor construction.

In a previous article at the Denver Post, various parties weighed in on the then-pending bill and the reasons why such legislation isn’t a panacea for creating more housing.

Astrophysicist and author Ethan Siegel, writing for Forbes, just helped to expose a longtime myth about good ole’ Galloping Gertie, a bridge that (in)famously collapsed just a few short months after opening to public traffic.

To help jog your memory, here is footage uploaded to YouTube of the bridge twisting and bouncing around:

The story we learned in Physics class back in school was that Galloping Gertie’s fatal flaw was related to “resonant frequency” — the same phenomena responsible for wine glasses shattering when exposed a tone of specific frequency. Siegel proposes an alternative explanation:

But it wasn’t resonance that brought the bridge down, but rather the self-induced rocking! Without an ability to dissipate its energy, it just kept twisting back-and-forth, and as the twisting continued, it continued to take damage, just as twisting a solid object back-and-forth will weaken it, eventually leading to it breaking. It didn’t take any fancy resonance to bring the bridge down, just a lack of foresight of all the effects that would be at play, cheap construction techniques, and a failure to calculate all the relevant forces.

This wasn’t a total failure, however. The engineers who investigated its collapsed began to understand the phenomenon quickly; within 10 years, they had a new sub-field of science to call their own: bridge aerodynamics-aeroelastics. The phenomenon of flutter is now well-understood, but it has to be remembered in order to be effective. The two bridges currently spanning the Tacoma Narrows’ previous path have shorn up those flaws, but London’s Millennium Bridge and Russia’s Volgograd Bridge have both had “flutter”-related flaws exposed in the 21st century.

Don’t blame resonance for the most famous bridge-collapse of all. The true cause is much scarier, and could affect hundreds of bridges across the world if we ever forget to account for, and mitigate, the fluttering effects that brought this one down.

Read all of Siegel’s piece for the details…

Financial Times’ Matthew Klein has proposed an interesting alternative theory about the skilled labor shortage in the US that has impacted all sectors of the construction industry, but especially the residential market.

He posits that by looking at homebuilding data in Japan, the implication is that the US isn’t facing a labor shortage so much as it is dealing with sub-par productivity. Despite the fact that Japan’s population is less than 40% of US population, only 14% more homes have been built in the US since 1992.

Surely an aging society without a reservoir of cheap (and often illegal) immigrant labour would have fewer builders as a share of the labour force than a relatively youthful and foreigner-friendly country such as the US. Unsurprisingly, there has been a glut of articles over the past few years warning of “labour shortages” due to the combination of aging and falling immigration rates, with the implication that this has been restraining construction and inflating house prices.

Reality is the other way around. Despite radically different demographics and essentially no immigration, Japan has consistently employed a much larger share of its workers in the construction industry than the US, although the share has dropped over time. Even at the peak of America’s housing bubble, only about 5.5 per cent of workers were employed in construction. In Japan last year, more than 7 per cent of employees worked in construction — and that’s a lot lower than in the early 2000s…

Another way of putting all of this is that America built about the same number of housing units in 2016 as in 1992, but somehow required about 46 per cent more people to do it. Japan built 31 per cent fewer houses in 2016 than in 1992, but its construction workforce had fallen by 19 per cent. Productivity deteriorated in both countries, but productivity fell much further in America than in Japan.

Patrick Sisson, writing for Curbed, wrote a wonderful article: How air conditioning shaped modern architecture — and changed our climate. He states:

Air conditioning enabled our great modernist buildings to rise, but it’s also fueled today’s energy and environmental crisis. AC helped create a new building typology, one that environmentally conscious architects and designers are trying to move beyond with new designs and passive-cooling techniques.

“Modern buildings cannot survive unless hard-wired to a life-support machine,” says University of Cambridge professor Alan Short. “Yet this fetish for glass, steel, and air-conditioned skyscrapers continues; they are symbols of status around the world on an increasingly vast scale.”

Interestingly (at least to me), the development and implementation of air conditioning and mechanical ventilation was not primarily driven by a desire for improved occupant comfort. Instead, the focus was health:

The new class of white-collar workers who occupied these upper-level offices suffered through humid summers not just because they didn’t know any better, but because Victorian social mores didn’t place much stock in personal comfort. In fact, the adoption of mechanical ventilation systems, which were invented by Benjamin Franklin Sturtevant in the 1860s and became more common in taller buildings towards the end of the 19th century, was due in large part to the problems of heat and light—coal- and gas-powered lamps and heaters quickly filled rooms with toxic smoke—and the belief that poor health was caused by miasma, or dirty air.

Still, at the time, ventilation was less about a comforting breeze and more about sanitation—removing humid, fetid air from crowded workshops and workspaces. By the mid-1890s, designers and architects in New York needed to file their building plans with the Bureau of Light and Ventilation. The 21-story American Surety Building in New York, built in 1896, included a ventilation system, but only for the lower seven floors. Workers on these levels couldn’t open their windows due to the dirt, muck, and grime of the city streets.

I find it amazing that a little over 100 years after Carrier installed the first building air conditioning system that we have seemingly come full circle.

Earlier this week, I shared an article that touted all the amazing benefits to be gained from prefabricating some assemblies offsite. So how long will it be before the entire construction industry shifts to a paradigm in which building consists primarily of assembling prefabricated components?

FMI, a management consulting firm that specializes in nonresidential construction, recently conducted a survey of 200 firms on their knowledge, use and strategy for implementing Building Information Modeling (BIM) and prefabrication. ENR’s Jim Parsons shares some insight from one of the study’s authors:

Right now, it is hardly surprising that contractors’ opinions and results are mixed, Hoover says. “We’re in a messy transition of baby boomers who want to hold on to old ways and new people coming in,” she says. “The better companies are luring younger workers who can deal with technology and understand change, and they’re the ones who will make prefabrication happen.”

Indeed, Hoover says prefabrication’s growth in construction may well be inevitable as its advantages continue to overshadow current work practices. “If you’re not willing to do things that will reduce schedule by 50%, reduce risk and improve safety, you’ll be out of it,” she adds.

Ultimately, what may attract more GCs and specialty contractors to understanding, adopting and improving their prefab mind-set is the same trend that affects other aspects of the industry—labor.

In other words, the “this is the way we’ve always done it” mentality is still a major driver of key construction strategic decisions.

Upper floors in skyscrapers have incredible views, but with those views comes the occasional unnerving sensation that the building is swaying in the wind. The Ladders’ Jane Burnett writes:

In a University of Exeter statement on the study, Dr Antony Darby, Head of Civil Engineering at the University of Bath, commented on how well people tolerate movement in different situations: “Just like sea sickness, our propensity to motion induced discomfort is situation and environment dependent. For example, people at a concert in a grandstand will accept completely different level of vibration than those in a hospital operating theatre.” […]

According to the statement, “despite looking rigid in appearance, tall buildings can flex in response to external forces, and strong winds can make them vibrate or sway at low frequencies, sometimes with bursts of motion at random intervals,” adding that studies have shown that some people can detect the movement, which can at times result in “motion sickness and causing fear.”

Building sway is one thing, and having experienced it personally, it is a strange and disconcerting sensation — one does not typically expect a multi-million dollar luxury residence to shift with the wind, unless one is at sea and said residence is in fact a boat. But I must admit I was caught a little off guard when the article veered off in the direction of “sick building syndrome” — a phenomenon more typically linked to indoor air quality and HVAC system performance:

A 2008 article by the Air & Waste Management Association called “Linking Noise and Vibration to Sick Building Syndrome in Office Buildings” said that “in recent years, several studies have linked excessive noise and vibration in the office to illnesses, such as headaches, dizziness, irritability, and stress. This is similar to the more well-known indoor air quality triggers associated with sick building syndrome…”

As I tell my kids, “you learn something new every day, if you allow for the opportunity…”

Marriott is going modular in a major way. By prefabricating portions of hotels off-site in controlled environments, and then assembling the modular components, the hotel chain sees numerous advantages. With one prefab modular hotel already operational, the company is now planning to pursue the process on up to 50 more.

Clayton Moore, of Digital Tends, has more:

“As construction costs are at a peak, it’s a real challenge to find good, qualified subcontractors based on the general building boom that is happening throughout the United States,” explained Jacobs. “We ‘re on pace to approve another 400 to 450 hotels this year and we think we can influence ten percent of those projects with modular construction. If we can cut four to six months off of a typical development timeline of 12 to 14 months, that’s a significant savings for our owners.”

Jacobs explained that the package that arrives at a build site contains two fully finished rooms and a finished hallway, as well as all the accouterments one ordinarily finds in a hotel room. Subcontractors on site then finish the electrical and plumbing connections.

“From a staging perspective, our waste goes from four to six percent down to two or three percent,” Jacobs said. “The big takeaway from this process is that we can completely control the quality of the product. Much like the industrial assembly lines used in other sectors, we can identify quality issues right as the rooms come off the assembly line, and find solutions before they ever get shipped to the site. It’s a pretty impactful way to produce a furnished building at the end of the day.”

Here’s a time-lapse video of the construction — perhaps “assembly” is a more accurate term — of the Pullman Courtyard Marriott:

Britain has a problem. Chances are, the problem that Britain is facing also affects many jurisdictions in the US. What is this problem?

Energy modeling — the process of using sophisticated software to predict future building performance — isn’t as accurate as some industry professionals would like to believe. In other words, the supposed energy efficiency gains that should be realized by implementing specific strategies are not matching real world performance results. And since energy modeling is often tied to various financial and other incentives, as well as driving major design decisions affecting thousands of recently constructed buildings, this is causing quite the controversy, and should be a real cause for concern here in the US.

The Telegraph has more on a study by researchers at the University of Bath:

The researchers found that the building modelling professionals could not agree on which aspects were important and which were not, or how much difference to the energy bill changes to them would make. A quarter of those interviewed were judged to be no better than if a member of the public had responded at random.

[…]

Co-investigator and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Dr Ian Walker added: “Given our findings about how the level of relevant education and experience don’t separate the good modellers from the bad, we are calling on the government for educational and policy change to work with industry and universities to increase efforts in improving building physics education.

The UK Green Building Council, the British counterpart to the USGBC, added the following:

John Alker, Director of Policy & Campaigns at the UK Green Building Council said: “ “There is no doubt that the majority of buildings do not perform as they were designed to do. This is widely known in the construction sector, and it is something that the industry needs to get to grips with.

“The so-called ‘performance gap’ occurs for a variety of complex reasons, and needs action by all those involved in the property life cycle – such as architects, engineers, contractors and facilities managers – not just building modelling professionals.

Jennifer Hermes, writing for Environmental Leader:

Risk management professionals should be leading the charge to help their companies understand how disruptive technologies will affect business strategies and operations – and those risk managers who don’t lead the way will be relegated to a support role, according to the new 2017 Excellence in Risk Management (PDF) report. Disruptive technologies as defined in the report – for example, telematics, sensors, smart buildings and the Internet of Things – are those that either purposefully displace existing products or that introduce groundbreaking ways of doing business. The report, created by Marsh & McLennan Companies in partnership with Risk & Insurance Management Society (RIMS), suggests that risk managers may be focusing, to their detriment, on current rather than emerging risk.

Companies that integrate such technologies early on are generally able to stay ahead of their competitors, but they also face a significant challenge: while innovation allows companies to keep their business models fresh, it also disrupts an organization, making risks more complex. Risk management professionals need to adopt a proactive approach to these technologies, understand the risks and rewards, and educate executives on how those risks and rewards will impact business strategies, the report suggests.

What are some ways to approach risk in a more proactive manner? Excellence in Risk Management states the following:

  • Engage key stakeholders, from senior leaders to operations employees and even suppliers, in looking at risk and bringing their insights to the decision-making process;
  • Invest in the use of data, analytics and technology;
  • Educate about risk management across the organization;
  • Integrate risk management into strategic planning.