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The Building & Design Blog is the place for conversation and discussion about building projects, tools and equipment, materials and hardware, and environment & energy. Here, you'll find everything from application ideas, to news and industry trends, to hot topics and cutting edge innovations.

Hardening the Infrastructure: Flood-management Controls

Posted February 22, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Engineers must tackle both technical and human-related complexities to ensure the integrity and safety of dams and levees across the country, especially in light of the exceptional pressure put on the Oroville Dam by winter precipitation in mid-February 2017.

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1 comments; last comment on 02/23/2017
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'The Boring Company' Could Change Infrastructure Investment Forever

Posted January 26, 2017 11:27 AM by HUSH

Have you played Cards Against Humanity? If not, time to crawl out from under your rock. The game is an adult version of Apples to Apples. It is best played with a handful of alcoholic drinks and none of your family around. I bring it up because the game’s publisher, Cards Against Humanity LLC, has an annual lampoon for its fans.

(Wanna play? You can download the game for free and print it out.)

In 2013, CAH had an anti-Black Friday sale, where they increased the price on that day (and actually sold more than usual). In 2014, they sold a game called Bull$#!7, which was a box filled with nothing more than the game’s eponymous name. 2015—they sold more than $71,000 of literally nothing (though much of it went to charity). In 2016, they streamed the Holiday Hole online. All $100,000+ donated went toward digging a big hole in the ground for no reason at all.

It’s relevant because at face value, that is what tech tycoon Elon Musk plans to do beginning in February. Last December, Musk was stuck in Los Angeles traffic before announcing on Twitter his idea to build a big tunnel underneath LA so that through-traffic isn’t delayed by the overcrowded LA freeway. At first, it seemed like his new idea was a joke; he had the company name and slogan all teed-up.

But he ended the morning with a tweet that his intentions were genuine. This week, he announced on Twitter that The Boring Company was springing to life, and that it would begin boring near SpaceX headquarters beginning next month. Initially, he plans to build a roadway between SpaceX and the nearest airport, LAX. LAX lacks rail linkages, so all airport arrivals occur by automobile.

Such a tunnel would reduce the typical drive time by only about 10 minutes, but if it bypasses major LA gridlock, the time savings could be more substantial. TechCrunch notes that Musk regularly flies between SpaceX HQ in LA and Tesla HQ in Silicon Valley, near San Francisco. This is also made possible by scales of economy in boring machines.

At first, it seems like a billionaire’s pet project so that he can get home a little quicker. Yet the repercussions could be greater. It can be the first proof of a concept for underground LA highway plans that have long been proposed, but never come to fruition. It will also be a litmus test for private infrastructure investment.

This article from Kellogg Insight, a publication of Northwestern University, notes several potential advantages, including larger initial capital for infrastructure projects, better project management, and the likelihood that a private company would build a better highway, as they’ll be responsible for maintaining it. (Compared to traditional highways built by consortiums and then handed over to DoTs.)

Of course, there are drawbacks—namely, there needs to be a profit somewhere. It could be tolls. It could be that a city or state government pays rent on the highway. Perhaps the company has exclusive development rights on land adjacent to the highway. Many state governments forbid private infrastructure projects, and others have no experience with them. Also, the potential for corruption and cronyism remains quite high.

Yet, in an era with a trillion-dollar infrastructure budget shortfall, something needs to change. And Musk’s boring tunnel may not be such a joke after all.

11 comments; last comment on 01/30/2017
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Sea Sponge Spikes Could Lead to Stronger Columns

Posted January 24, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Brown researchers discovered the shape of rib-like structures in sea sponges help the soft-bodied creatures withstand multiple pressure sources, including underwater waves and tidal forces. This discovery could inform structural design for slender structures like building columns and bicycle spokes.

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The Nature of Structure

Posted January 19, 2017 11:00 AM by MaggieMc

The other afternoon I was reading about how sea sponge spicules could inspire stronger columns, and it reminded me of a structures course I took in college. Let me set the scene for you: 25 terrified first-year students and an ancient ex-Turkish military man with an accent so strong you couldn’t make out a word, a beyond-intimidating reputation, and a beard the length of his chest. The first day he assigned us a project in which we were to design a structure based off of nature, and then he proceeded to explain compression and tension using a basswood board and his beard as “the force” inflicted on it.

No one knew what was going on in that class, and I learned far more about design than I did structure, but I was forever instilled with the idea that nature was our best design precedent.

Today, in honor of my professor and sea sponge spicules, I’m going to share with you a few examples of biomimicry (“the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes”) in architecture that have really stuck with me.

The Eden Project, which looks like something out of a science fiction movie, was inspired by “a range of biological structures,” which include soap bubbles, radiolarian, and bee hives. Located in Cornwall, England, the design was for the Humid Tropics Biome—and as you can hear in a TED Talk by Michael Pawlyn, had to be created in such a way that it could adapt to the changing surface of the quarry it was in. In the process of creating this structure, they managed to create a superstructure that “is less than the weight of the air that it contains”—a pretty significant feat when compared to the average greenhouse.

Image Credit to

“The Gherkin” (technically named 30 St Mary Axe) was inspired by yet another sea sponge, the Venus Flower Basket Sponge. This sponge, in contrast to the orange puffball sponge that has the spicules we were talking about, is a “glowing creature that thrives in the inky depths of the sea.” The sea sponge roughly inspired the shape of the building, but the influence stemmed from the Venus Flower Basket’s ability to filter water and nutrients through a self-created grate-like exoskeleton. The building copies that ability to maneuver water though its “lattice-like exoskeleton,” instead “direct[ing] the flow of winds from street level and open windows along its spiral body, funneling it through the building’s offices naturally” and most importantly, this passive system of cooling reduces the energy consumed to half of that in a “conventionally air-conditioned office tower.”

Taipei 101, or really the bamboo that inspires it, is the precedent I remember most clearly from that structures course. The tall, slender skyscraper lends itself to the form of bamboo, but the flexibility of the structural characteristics also benefit the structure during high winds and typhoons. Taipei 101 is composed of separate segments, much like the individual cavities within bamboo. In some species of bamboo, the internodes, or cavities, appear to fit within each other ever so slightly, so the segments act as a cohesive unit. Taipei 101’s flared modules are said to have the same effect. Taipei 101 is not the only building to incorporate bamboo-like structure into its design, but I would argue it does attempt to pull in more of the bamboo’s symbolism than other buildings as the architects believed that evoking bamboo helped them “[express] upward progress and prosperous business.”

13 comments; last comment on 01/21/2017
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Moving Walkways: An Urban Alternative to Cars?

Posted December 29, 2016 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Could moving walkways provide a feasible alternative to automobiles for transportation within cities? Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have analyzed the potential of fast-moving sidewalks in an urban setting and believe that the concept may be viable.

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18 comments; last comment on 01/03/2017
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