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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.

The Birch Could Evolve as a Construction Material

Posted May 15, 2017 3:30 PM by MaggieMc

The silver birch (Betula pendula) is one of the major trees for forest products in the Northern Hemisphere, according to biologist Victor Albert, who just co-led a Finnish-funded project that hoped to illuminate the evolutionary history of the birch. Birch is among the more widely used woods for veneer and plywood worldwide. Silver birch, which was the focus of the study, is used in everything from plywood and interior trim to boxes and turned objects. According to Albert, “[o]thers, like spruce, pine and poplar, all have genome sequences, but birch did not—until now.”

The research team, including Jaakko Kangasjärvi, Ykä Helariutta, Petri Auvinen and Jarkko Salojärvi of the University of Helsinki in Finland, discovered gene mutations that could prove quite valuable to multiple industries.

Together they sequenced about 80 individuals of Betula pendula, more commonly known as the silver birch. The silver birch is native to Europe and southwest Asia, so the team sampled populations of the species “up and down Finland, down to Germany, over to Norway and Ireland, and all the way up to Siberia.”

Thanks to the 80 genomes sequenced, the researchers were able to identify genetic mutations that could potentially benefit multiple industries. To do this, the researchers searched for distinctive stretches of DNA within the genomes called “selective sweeps” that identify genetic regions that are critical to the survival and development of the species.

The team found sweeps that influence tree growth—important for increasing production—in addition to selective sweeps associated with environmental conditions. “The selective sweeps we identified may be the basis for local adaptation for different populations of birch,” Salojärvi stresses. “Trees in Siberia are under different selective pressure from trees in Finland, so genes are being tweaked in different ways in these two places to allow these plants to better adjust to their environment.”

The researchers hope that, as Helariutta said, “[a]n understanding of these natural adaptations can facilitate genetic engineering and artificial selection,” making their research “very useful for forest biotechnology.”

Image credits: The Woodland Trust and Marcye Philbrook

15 comments; last comment on 05/22/2017
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Five Reasons to Become a Civil Engineer

Posted May 08, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Bridges, roads, dams, canals — each of these landmarks are built through the efforts of a civil engineer. Civil engineers have a unique opportunity to build structures that allow them to leave their mark on the world. If that appeals to you, consider these five reasons to become a civil engineer.


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6 comments; last comment on 05/13/2017
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Wasteland—From Waste to Architecture

Posted April 24, 2017 11:00 AM by MaggieMc

The Guess the Architecture post for last week was of a rather unique house by Lendager Arkitekter. The Upcycle House, as it’s called, was an experimental project “aimed at exposing potential carbon emission reductions through the use of recycled and upcycled building materials.”

This house was built by the Lendager Group, the same architects who recently curated Wasteland – from waste to architecture, an exhibit at the Danish Architecture Center (DAC) in Copenhagen. The exhibit, like the Upcycle House, is comprised of used building materials. The Lendager Group describes the exhibit as “showcasing the not so distant reality where residues and wastes are no longer seen as waste, but as the primary building materials in the development of our cities, homes and communities.”

The Lendager Group takes this stance in response to the fact that “right now, the built environment accounts for a large share of the global CO2 emissions and resource and energy consumption.” They see this as a problem that is going to grow exponentially since (using their statistics) the global population is currently growing by:

· Five school classes per minute,

· One packed metro train every two minutes, or

· An entire village with 10,000 inhabitants per hour

The exhibit itself is more than the pile of carefully arranged rubble that it appears to be, according to ArchDaily. The exhibit also contains a laundry list of information regarding the planet and the waste that we, as humans, produce. Wasteland is also a tactile experience, allowing you to move through the exhibit more freely, able to appreciate the components with all of your senses.

There are four main themes to Wasteland: cement, plastic, metal, glass, wood, and brick. Paired with each of these categories is a building project—one of which is the Upcycle House that started this post. Regardless of what you think of the style of this architecture—I know, I know, it’s modern—it does make you think about the waste produced in the building process, which is something engineers and consumers alike can appreciate.

For an old house kind of person, I’m surprisingly fond of the corkboard floor; perhaps one will show up in my home someday (albeit in a very, very tiny room). Feel free to donate a cork or two.

Image Credit: ArchDaily—I suggest taking a look at the full gallery!

15 comments; last comment on 04/27/2017
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Dizzying Heights

Posted April 12, 2017 11:00 AM by MaggieMc

There are varying views on the skyscrapers that dominate urban skylines, from proponents who cite the superiority of new structural techniques, to other ardent opponents of the dense, hulking structures. Whatever your opinion, a new study being conducted by the Universities of Bath and Exeter may give you cause to ask: could skyscrapers cause motion sickness?

An ailment once relegated to boats or facing backward on a train, could now require little more provocation than sitting in your office building, according to researchers.

Previous field studies revealed that “wind-induced building motion” can cause fear when perceived, or contribute to early onset motion sickness, which may present itself as tiredness, low mood, difficulty concentrating, or even a lack of motivation.

Considering “humans spend 90% of their lives in buildings which vibrate nonstop,” there is an increased need for “reliable information about the effect of structural vibration,” according to Alex Pavic, a professor of vibration engineering at the University of Exeter.

This research prompted this five year project and the creation of the £7.2 million ($8.6 million) government-funded national research facility. The facility will feature the high-tech VSimulator, installed at the University of Bath, that will utilize virtual reality to “not only recreate the structural motion people experience, but also the surroundings, temperature, humidity, noise, air quality, and even building smells.”

According to Dr. Antony Darby, head of civil engineering at the University of Bath, the surroundings are important because “just like sea sickness, our propensity to motion induced discomfort is situation and environment dependent.” Darby explains that concert-goers have a higher tolerance for noise induced vibration than those in a hospital operating theatre.

The multi-disciplinary team of engineers, medics, physiologists, and psychologists has the backing of industry leaders hoping to use the research to further improve structural design, especially on sites adjacent to vibration inducing infrastructure.

Image credits: Autodesk and the University of Bath

8 comments; last comment on 04/16/2017
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The Most Ambitious Tunnels Belong to Norway

Posted March 30, 2017 4:27 PM by HUSH

Scandinavia tends to have two things: happy people and healthy infrastructure. Speaking to the former, in the 2017 World Happiness Report, the four Scandinavian countries all landed in the top 5.

Speaking to the latter, consider the next-gen trash-burning power plant going up in Copenhagen I wrote about a few weeks ago. A 2017 survey found that four Scandinavian cities are on the list of the 21 cities with the best infrastructure. Norway is already home to the world’s longest road tunnel, and now consider two of Norway’s upcoming tunnel projects, both of which will be world firsts.

Up first for our scrutiny is the Stad Ship Tunnel, which is notable as it will be the first tunnel specifically designed for ships. Automotive transportation between the north and south of the country can be problematic due to rough terrain, inadequate roads in rural and remote areas, and immense snowfall during winter. Therefore, Norway remains heavily reliant on ferries to transport goods, people, and cars between parts of the country and the many, many islands off the coastline.

The Stadlandet is the only unprotected coastal landmass of Norway and is known for harsh weather. Not coincidentally, the Norwegian Sea off the Stadlandet is also particularly rough, experiencing more than 100 storm days per year, and regularly delaying ferries and shipping. Since the 1870s, Norwegians have debated the feasibility and economics of building a tunnel through the narrowest part of Stadlandet. Passage times will likely be unchanged, but the transit will be safer and more economical without the harsh weather and delays.

On the map, the red route represents the main traffic route for ships navigating around Stadlandet, and the white represents the route taken by larger vessels to avoid shallows. The green route is the new proposed route, with yellow demarcating the location of the Stad Ship Tunnel.

Pending the May 2017 conclusion of a study by the Department of Transport, construction on the Stad Ship Tunnel is expected to begin in 2019. Norway has already budgeted about half of the $265 million needed to excavate the 1.7-km-long tunnel, which is expected to be 37 m high and 26.5 m wide, with 12 m below water to accommodate ship drafts. It is expected that the tunnel could see up to 120 ships per day, with traffic direction alternating every hour.

As ambitious as the Stad Ship Tunnel might be, it’s got nothing on the semi-submerged floating tunnels Norway hopes to build.

Norway’s coastline is serrated by many, many fjords. If they were excluded from the tally, Norway’s coastline would be a mere 1,600 miles, but, with them, Norway’s coastline balloons to 18,000 miles. A 680-mile trip from Kristiansand to Trondheim takes 21 hours by car. But if there was a way to easily cross fjords, the trip could be halved.

The solution is, apparently, a submerged floating tunnel, also known as an Archimedes bridge. The idea is fairly simple: build a long enclosed tunnel that will have roughly the same density as the ambient water. Then, either anchor the tunnel to the seabed (if the tunnel is buoyant) or suspend it from pontoons (if the tunnel sinks) so the tunnel sits about 100-feet below the water’s surface. Ships can still bypass and the tunnel is sheltered from rough seas and weather, while drivers hardly notice that their route is underwater.

While it seems strange at first, it’s almost stranger that something like this hasn’t been attempted before. The project would ultimately borrow from infrastructure and industries that already exist. The current great unknowns of this project are if the Norwegian seabeds could handle the force of a tether, and how much deflection could be expected on the tunnel from waves and currents. Engineers would also have to devise a solution to alert submarines, however rarely they might occur.

Of course, the price tag for something like this is hefty: at $25 billion, it costs more than 90 times the amount of the Stad Ship Tunnel. And once it gets through technical and government reviews, it needs to be passed by politicians that are also considering traditional bridges and tunnels.

But sometimes, somebody needs to take a chance on new ideas. And when it comes to infrastructure, that somebody is frequently Norway.

3 comments; last comment on 03/31/2017
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