Part of the magic that separates Apple from being just another consumer technology manufacturer is the relentless pursuit of perfection. Steve Jobs famously describes lessons imparted from his adoptive father imploring him to make the unseen components of a product just as beautiful and carefully executed as those that are plainly visible.

Jobs’ final product, possibly his magnum opus dedicated to the company he loved so dearly, is in fact the Apple Campus 2 project, otherwise known as the “spaceship.”

The Verge’s Jacob Kastrenakes does a recap of a more in-depth article by Reuters pointing out the following nuggets:

One particular highlight of the report is Apple demanding that doorways be perfectly flat, with no subtle bump between the outside and inside of the building. A construction manager told Reuters that “months” were spent debating this, because they’d have to spend time and money figuring out a way to accomplish it. Apple reportedly wouldn’t give in because it worried that “if engineers had to adjust their gait while entering the building, they risked distraction from their work.”

But wait, there’s more!

  • No vents or pipes could be reflected in the building’s glass exterior
  • There are 30 pages of guidelines on how to use wood
  • Apple inspected “thousands of ceiling panels” to ensure they were “immaculate inside and out”
  • Debate over what doorknobs should look like went on for over a year and a half

Happy Friday, everyone! Today’s treat is a neat video that a builder made during the construction of his brother’s home.

The way he made this video is actually really cool. By programming a route for the drone, and then flying that exact route every day, Youtube user ChuckPPhotography then edited the video from around 32 to 34 of the passes together. The end result makes it look as if the entire home was constructed during a single pass of the drone.

My team and I have been working on something similar for our clients.

Check out the video below:

Ever since GoPro tried to launch their new line of drones for their adventure enthusiast market, problems have tarnished the normally stellar reputation for solid, quality-built imaging technologies. Forbes’ Ryan Mac wrote a thorough analysis of the saga, with the provocative headline, “The Sky Is Falling For GoPro.”

The article opens with a story of a disappointed customer’s experience:

Six days after the release of GoPro’s first-ever drone in October, Brian Warholak was itching to get airborne. As an employee at a Chesapeake, Va.-based government contractor, Warholak, 43, had few opportunities during the workweek to fly his new toy. But on Friday, he left his desk early, unpacked his GoPro Karma from its carrying case and set it on a manicured lawn near the company parking lot.

In the video of Warholak’s aeronautic excursion, the drone lurches upward, pausing for its master to pan the attached camera. What it captures initially is unremarkable: a nondescript office building and a mostly empty car park. Then, two minutes into the voyage, the device bricks. Its four propellers cut out and the drone begins a five-second, 170-foot freefall toward earth. It smacks a few tree branches on the way down for good measure and lands camera upward to capture its owner rushing to the crash. “F***, now where is the rest?” Warholak is heard saying on the video. “Son of a b****.”

Here’s the video in question:

A short while back, I had a chance to meet an extraordinary young man named Brandon Andrews. As he was transitioning out of the Navy SEALs, he launched a new company called Trident CM LLC, with the brilliant idea to recruit former SEALs to provide construction quality management on DOD projects.

In the built environment, from the Northridge earthquake, to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and other disasters, resilience has become an imperative. But what does that even mean? (more…)

On July 29th, the San Diego chapter of the Associated General Contractors (AGCSD) held its annual “Hot Summer Nights” event. Featuring dozens of restored/modified classic cars owned by members of the organization, the event is a fun way to see some of the toys that AGCSD members are so passionate about.

While I’m not a “car guy” per se—I don’t watch NASCAR or Formula 1—this was still a very fun event, as the majority of the cars I’ve owned over the years were at least 30 years old. My first vehicle, one that I was very sad to give up possession of, was a 1959 Jeep Willy’s pickup truck.

Side Note: I am one of a small number of people that can truly appreciate a line from the Grateful Dead’s tune, Sugar Magnolia:

Well, she can dance a Cajun rhythm, jump like a Willys in four wheel drive.

She’s a summer love for spring, fall and winter. She can make happy any man alive.

But I digress… Another reason I enjoyed the event so much, is the attention to detail that the owners of these vehicles put into them. Most contractors enter the trades to work with their hands. Restoring and modifying a vehicle that (in some cases) rolled off a production line nearly 100 years ago, requires dedication and craftsmanship—making this a very fitting event for the AGCSD to host.

Supporting the Local Construction Professionals

I was at the AGCSD’s event, with an assortment of some of my colleagues from Xpera, as a show of support for the local contracting professionals in the San Diego area. Like most anything Xpera does, we aren’t just passive participants, we take an active role. The Hot Summer Nights event was no exception.

Ted Bumgardner, Xpera’s president, was invited to showcase his meticulously restored 1957 Chevy pickup. To learn more about his truck, and to see pictures I took of it, read the write-up I did on it at the Xpera website.


Without further ado, here are some of the better pictures from the cars in the event:

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Concrete has been one of mankind’s most important building materials for thousands of years. Previously, we discussed efforts to crack the code of ancient Rome’s high-performance concrete, a 60-year lifecycle assessment of concrete homes by MIT, efforts to lower the carbon dioxide output involved with concrete production, and bacterially-infused concrete that repairs itself.

Science Daily reports that that a somewhat new flavor of concrete, steel-fiber reinforced concrete (SFRC), might have applications in conventional construction, in addition to some of the more esoteric and high performance situations where it has currently been used:

Reinforcing concrete with steel bars is a very common practice in construction. The industrial engineer and researcher Aimar Orbe-Mateo (UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country) has studied the possible use of a material that is normally used for other applications for these tasks: concrete reinforced with steel fibers. What the study shows is that this material has certain advantages over conventional reinforced concrete; among others, it is less prone to cracking, and it can be used for purposes like the manufacture of cylindrical holding tanks.

According to Aimar Orbe-Mateo, an engineer at the Faculty of Engineering in Bilbao, right from the start of the study it was clear that “it had to be something that had a practical application, not just any piece of research.” Sothe team produced a material for research purposes and which had the potential for being used in construction: steel fiber reinforced self-compacting concrete (SFRSCC)…

Alongside the laboratory tests, the team also tested the use to which the material could in fact be put.For this purpose, a wall three metres high and six metres long was built and divided into 380 samples on which various tests were carried out, destructive as well as non-destructive ones, “to determine the structural capabilities of the steel fibers and, in general, the toughness of the wall,” highlighted Orbe.

The conclusion that the researchers reached is that this self-compacting, steel-fiber reinforced concrete is more resistant to cracking and is also more sustainable. The researchers were also quick to point out that the biggest obstacle to widespread adoption is the slow pace at which builders adopt new practices.

Source: Science Daily

Maintaining the Quality of Steel-Fiber Reinforced Concrete

Due to certain properties of SFRC, researchers and contractors alike have struggled to produce consistent results using the material. Specifically, evaluating the matrix of the steel fibers (the distribution of the fibers throughout a given section of concrete) in a sample is problematic because the steel fibers are difficult to see using standard test methodologies. If the fibers are not evenly distributed and oriented properly, the resulting concrete’s strength is greatly reduced.

This factor has meant that adoption of SFRC is extremely low. The risk in using a product whose quality can’t be readily established is just too great.

Last Fall, researchers at Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics ITWM in Kaiserslautern, Germany reported success in faster and more efficient ways of evaluating SFRC:

Help has now arrived in the form of a new analysis method developed by mathematicians at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Mathematics ITWM in Kaiserslautern. It uses probability calculations to work out the distribution of all the fibers within concrete samples in a matter of seconds. Project leader Dr. Ronald Rösch and his team of experts use X-ray computed tomography in a way he describes as not dissimilar to how CT scans are used in medicine. “The only difference is that we use it to examine samples taken from finished concrete components, not people,” Dr. Rösch explains. Scientists take a core sample about ten centimeters in length from the concrete to be tested. The sample is then X-rayed using an industrial CT scanner at a resolution around a thousand times finer than that achieved by medical scanners. This system reveals even the finest micrometer-sized structures within the material, and generates a high-resolution 3D data set for the concrete sample that contains some eight billion pixels — a huge file. Rösch and his team then use their new software to analyze this image data. By assessing differences in contrast, the software is able to assign each pixel to a particular structure within the material, be it concrete, a small stone, a trapped air bubble or a steel fiber. As the software works its way through the data set, all the fibers gradually become visible in the image.

Sadly, this approach still is not “ready for prime time”:

It goes without saying that Rösch is aware of the system’s current limitations; a CT scanner the size of a small wall closet is simply too big for practical use on a building site. “But this is an obstacle we can overcome,” he says. “Our colleagues at the Fraunhofer Development Center for X-ray Technology EZRT in Erlangen have already developed a machine the size of a beer crate.” A prototype for practical application could be available in five years, Rösch estimates.

Source: Science Daily

Image courtesy Wikipedia

I am an outsider. Among construction defect and quality management professionals, my involvement with green building makes me stick out like a sore thumb. Among green building professionals, advocates and activists, my responses to claims that green buildings are better quality leads to some very awkward moments. Without adopting more sustainable practices, existing design and construction professionals will face irrelevance. Without addressing the increased risk inherent in high performance buildings, true sustainability will be unachievable.

Yesterday I was sitting at the park, flipping through the latest news stories on my iPad, while my daughters were playing. One article in particular caught my attention—in much the same way that a lightning bolt striking my head would have caught my attention—and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

Architect and writer Lloyd Alter, is a powerful ally in educating and informing people of both the importance and the beauty, that sustainable design and construction bring to the evolution of the built environment. He is an outspoken proponent of green practices in general, and LEED in particular. Any time that the “plastic people” (as Alter refers to lobbyists and others representing the interests of big chemical companies) try to smear LEED or green building for their own benefit, his column at TreeHugger is the place to typically find the most well-formed rebuttals.

In fact, Alter was clearly prepared for a fight in response to a piece I wrote analyzing the failure of the first LEED Platinum project. (He acquiesced after I replied to his comment, but boy was I worried about getting tarred and feathered at TreeHugger…)

Which is why when I read the following opening sentence from Alter, I knew something was up:

I am nervous about writing this post; no doubt the lobby groups that promote plastics and fossil fuel use and hate green building will jump on it.

Indeed, the story that Alter shared is astounding. Here is an excerpt from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regarding their findings associated with a fire at an office building in La Farge, Wisonsin:

Over the course of 18 hours, the officers and firefighters from La Farge, along with those from numerous surrounding departments, were faced with a growing array of challenges, including the location of the fire, the materials used in the building’s construction, the limitations of the town’s firefighting infrastructure, and more. The fire would eventually destroy a significant portion of building, resulting in an estimated $13 million in property damage and related losses.

After Chief Stittleburg contacted NFPA, and as more became known about the details and circumstances of the fire, the more it came to resemble a cautionary tale in the use of “green” or “sustainable” construction materials and what they can mean to firefighting efforts. The rooftop PV array, designed to reduce the building’s reliance on fossil fuels, also presented serious challenges to firefighters. In some respects, the La Farge incident became a kind of “perfect storm” fire, one that grouped a handful of challenges I’d seen elsewhere into a single event. NFPA accepted Chief Stittleburg’s invitation to visit La Farge and review the fire, and I was asked to travel to Wisconsin to see for myself how these factors combined to create an especially challenging fire situation—and to bring back the lessons learned at that fire.

Sifting through the ashes…

There were a lot of factors that contributed to not just the fire itself (although according to local news, the actual cause of the fire was never determined), but the manner in which the fire spread, and difficulties associated with fighting the fire. Here is a breakdown:

  • Solar photovoltaic panels on the roof caused numerous problems, especially because during the fire the panels energized the metal roof preventing safe access
  • Continuous concealed airspaces were probably the greatest contributor to the rapid and uncontrollable spread of the fire (more on that later…)
  • Combustible insulation fueled the fire, whereas fiberglass insulation is generally considered noncombustible and is often used as a firestop
  • A major factor in the rapid failure of certain structural components during the fire was the use of lightweight materials including engineered lumber products (also a factor in the failure of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Headquarters) and steel-stud framing
  • Due to the spread of the fire through concealed spaces, the fire sprinkler system was relatively ineffective
  • A rupture of the sprinkler system in the attic resulted in a depletion of significant domestic water stores for the region


The story of the fire in La Farge, Wisconsin is not an indictment of green building practices. What it is, is yet another illustration of just how important quality is throughout the built environment.

When you have a large area of a roof that doubles as a source of electricity, guess what? You have to take necessary precautions to avoid inadvertent discharging of that electricity, which could in turn cause serious threats to life-safety and health. If the circuits of PV panels do not automatically shut down when there is a short in the system, or fire is detected, then safeguards need to be implemented. Why do we have Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) required in bathrooms and kitchens? Because electricity and water don’t mix. Neither, apparently, do fire and energized PV panels mix.

Secondly, one of the first things I learned when researching and analyzing fire-resistive construction defects is the importance of managing concealed air space within wall cavities. Open air space within wall cavities allows fire (and the accompanying smoke and heat) to rapidly spread between building areas. In fact, a vertical open air space acts just like a chimney. It doesn’t matter if your building is “green” or not—the basic laws of physics and building science still apply.

Third, as Alter points out, why on earth would anyone use combustible materials for insulation when “green” noncombustible products are readily available? More frustrating for me personally, is the fact that the insulation in question is none other than recycled denim insulation. I was involved in the investigation of a project using this type of insulation. Not only was the insulation to blame for widespread mold (improper installation in a high humidity region), but the manufacturer refused to release any testing data related to the product’s fire resistive qualities. Let’s just say that that case did not end favorably…

Poor quality is still the biggest risk to sustainable design and construction

At one end of the spectrum in the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industry, there are folks like Lloyd Alter who continue to push for ever-increasing standards of building performance. At the other end of the spectrum, are people like firefighters that are just hoping that buildings will meet minimum standards of quality so they can go home and see their kids at night.

The fire that devastated the headquarters of Organic Valley in La Farge, Wisconsin doesn’t show the failure of green buildings. It shows the failure of our industry, once again, to meet basic standards of quality.


Last September, I shared an in-depth case study on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Phillip Merrill Center called, The LEED Platinum Case Study Nobody Wants You To Read. Summary: One of the world’s greenest buildings according to the USGBC was constructed with improperly sealed engineered wood components, leading to water intrusion that compromised the structural integrity of the building.

Unfortunately for the non-profit organization, after settling claims with the contractor and others, their lawsuit against Weyerhauser, the manufacturer of the Parallam products in question, was thrown out because the applicable statute of limitations had expired. The organization’s claim demanded over $6-million to cover the estimated cost of repairs. The building’s original cost of construction was around $7-million.

The lawsuit has gone forward, and is now over, according to Green Building Law Update.

This is another article written by architect and expert Peter Lattey. Cost is one of the biggest reasons that project teams use to justify not implementing effective quality assurance practices. But as Peter illustrates, effective quality assurance, in the form of third-party peer review, reduces the overall cost by reducing RFIs and change orders. [Ed.]

First off, I have to acknowledge that the perfect set of construction documents is found in the same place as unicorns. That is in a magic garden somewhere that nobody has actually seen. But although we may never see a real unicorn, we can try to get a set of construction documents that are a little less bad than the last set.

For the uninitiated out there in construction land, a peer review is a review of plans and specifications that takes place when documents are 95% or 100% complete. It is done by one or more design professionals who are not on the design team and have had nothing to do with the design. It can be done in-house by the same firm doing the design, or by outside consultants.

I recently took a quick poll of spec writers, project managers and people in design build. The results were unanimous. Peer reviews are a good thing. They save the client money. They save the design consultants grief. They reduce RFI’s. They reduce Change orders and they produce better buildings.

Many of the better architectural firms do them in-house as a matter of policy because in the long run it saves them grief, money and time. It also makes for happier clients and happy clients mean more work and more profit for the firm.

Here is something that everyone already knows. Even a simple building in 2013 is a very complicated critter. With energy efficiency, seismic requirements, smart building systems, etc., etc., there are a lot of bits and pieces that have to work independently and together. It is a challenge to actually design a building where all of the parts are correct and where all of the parts work together the way they should. With the time and cost restraints on the design team, it is amazing that buildings are designed as well as they are.

So why aren’t peer reviews standard operating procedure on all projects? Good question. There seems to be several answers to this. The Architect didn’t budget for it. The design team is working to a tight deadline and can’t spare the three or four weeks needed before going to bid. The design team thinks they are smart enough that they don’t need someone else checking their work. (Yes, Virginia there are some pretty big egos in the Architecture game.)

Let’s do a little cost benefit analysis here. The cost of an outside team of consultants to do a complete review of all disciplines can be in the ballpark of $110 per sheet. For a nice little project with 200 sheets that is about $22,000. The time to do it will be 3 to 4 weeks and this can be done at the same time that the design team is doing the last 5% of the documents. If the review team finds one error that is attributable to the design team which is worth $22K then the review is a bargain. If the mistake is charged to the owner then they will pay the extra amount and be less pleased. Honestly, I can’t think of a significant project that I have worked on that didn’t have at least one avoidable Change Order worth more than $22K and I have worked with some very competent teams.

So, what is a person to do?

As an Owner, you should budget for a third party review and contract this as a separate consultant or insist that the Architect include it in their scope of work.

As an Architect, when negotiating your agreement, you should request that the owner budget for and engage a separate review consultant. If you can’t convince the owner to bring on a separate consultant, then budget the time and money to do the review in house using staff that are not on the project. Another alternative is to partner with another architectural firm and each do reviews of the others’ projects at no or nominal cost. This should make both firms stronger.

As a Contractor, you can offer the owner to have a review done as an added service. You can also offer a constructability review as part of the package. But don’t just use constructors for the review. Engage design professionals. Their knowledge and point of view will be different than those of the constructors and just as valuable.

For all parties; remember, you can pay now or pay later. Putting quality into a project in the front end is always cheaper than trying to put it in later by fixing up mistakes.

About the Author

Peter Lattey is a licensed architect with over 35 years of experience on most building types. His experience encompasses both the architectural and construction management areas of construction. He has played in a key role in the construction of major institutional, commercial, residential and recreational buildings. He has practiced in the USA, Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Germany. He has provided expert witness testimony on numerous cases. He has been involved in the investigation of seismic, product defect, construction defect, construction delay, scaffolding collapse, water intrusion and fire cases. He worked in the both the original construction of the World Trade center and the investigation after 9/11.

In his spare time he is a sailor and an internationally exhibited wood sculptor.

Image courtesy Rob Boudon

A non-profit organization, dedicated to preserving the natural beauty of Chesapeake Bay, commissioned a breath-taking facility that would eventually become the first LEED Platinum building in the world. Improperly protected engineered wood components led to water intrusion and compromised structural integrity. The building cost $7-million to build. The estimated cost of repair, according to a lawsuit filed by the organization, is $6-million.

“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation Headquarters building is recognized as one of the ‘greenest’ buildings ever constructed.” – USGBC


  • 32,000 sf office building completed in December 2000
  • 1st LEED Platinum rated project in history of USGBC
  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental advocacy, restoration, and education
  • Made extensive use of sustainable Parallam® engineered wood product




The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is dedicated to saving the bay and its tributaries. According to their mission, they “restore, advocate, educate and litigate” to fight for strong laws and regulations aimed to improve the surrounding environment. In 2001, construction was completed on a new headquarters that, in line with their mission, would minimize impact on the environment. Here is their description:

The Merrill Center, which opened in 2001, is one of the world’s most energy-efficient buildings, incorporating natural elements into a fully functional workplace that has minimal impact on its Bay- and creek-front surroundings. The center and its sophisticated systems have won international acclaim as a model for energy efficiency, high performance, and water conservation.

The Merrill Center is an interactive model that educates and inspires people, including hundreds of businesses, organizations, and government agencies. It is extremely cost effective and operates in harmony with the land, natural resources, and the Chesapeake Bay, proving that “green” buildings work. Our facility also proves that it isn’t necessary to lose comfort or beauty to build responsibly.

All materials are made of recycled products or created through processes that don’t damage the environment. The Merrill Center is the first building to receive the U.S. Green Building Council’s Platinum rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

Good Intentions Aren’t Enough…

Shortly after occupancy, water intrusion was observed through the building envelope. Closer investigation revealed that not only was water getting into the building, but was penetrating key structural components made of the recycled and engineered wood product known as Parallam.

Engineers stated that the structural integrity of the building had been severely compromised, as a result.

The cause of this condition was due to miscommunication or misunderstanding between various parties including the architect, contractor, the manufacturer of the engineered wood components, and a subcontractor responsible for applying preservative to the Parallams.

Chesapeake2 copy

Over the next decade, the Parallams continued to experience damage, despite some efforts to reseal exposed portions. In January 2011, the non-profit filed a lawsuit against a number of parties including the contractor, architect/engineer, and the manufacturer of the Parallams. Settlement was reached with all of the parties except the Parallam manufacturer, Weyerhauser.

In 2012, the court issued a ruling regarding the non-profit’s claims against Weyerhaeuser. Unfortunately for Chesapeake Bay Foundation (whose mission you’ll recall, includes “litigation”), the statute of limitations had expired. This means that the organization waited too long to bring about its claims, and therefore was not entitled to receive compensation to make necessary repairs (estimated at over $6-million), nor any reimbursement for the cost of its litigation.

Still Available for Weddings (at your own risk…)

The Merrill Environmental Center is undoubtedly a very attractive building that sits on a location that is even more beautiful. In fact, the space is available for weddings and other events. If you’re interested in renting the space for your next event, contact them today.

But before you commit, you might want to note what the organization had to say about the “world’s greenest building” in its complaint:

“[T]he structural integrity of the Project is in jeopardy and the building is now at risk of collapse. Thus, the defective condition of the PolyClear 2000 has created a clear risk of death or serious injury at the project.”


Images courtesy CRC Career Development, Brad McDermott, and CRC Career Development again