Tag Archives: middle-path


ConX: Modular steel construction

ConXTech is a Bay Area company that has finally brought the steel frame into the 21st century.

Now, that phrase trite, but what they have mass-customized the design of steel beams and then greatly simplify the assembly. It reduces design time, reduces the amount of labor needed, reduces energy expenditures, and provides a sturdier and more flexible alternative to wooden frame structures. Those stick-built structures are the most common design of 1-5 story residential construction, however, ConXTech is looking to make 5-12 story structures affordable as well. To do so, they have approached the whole building process in a slightly different way.

With ConX, the architect must involve the manufacturer in the design process, as the company custom builds the structure offsite in a factory. ConXTech needs to schedule the amount of work and materials necessary, while the architect needs access to their computer components at the schematic design phase. Still, it’s really not unlike the conventional process in which plans are sent to a structural engineer for engineering work, just that the engineer is the manufacturer too. Integrating the manufacturer reduces overhead, while entering the design development phase with a working model of the structure keeps the building lean and reduces the number of design changes that result from unexpected structural revisions.

So, once the project does reach construction, the CNC robots cut out pre-designed structure members to specification, as each piece is needed on the job site, delivering the product only as necessary. The system consists of vertical and horizontal beams, joining elements, wall panels, whole flights of stairs, and various other parts for specialized situations. Because the factory environment allows for meticulous control and use of accurate cutting, the frame and all other elements are extremely precise, resulting in better quality and speedy assembly. The frame itself is put together using snap-in-place fittings that a steelworker then bolts into place to meet code.

It’s a persistent myth, perpetuated by traditionalists, that steel is not a sustainable construction material, due to its embodied energy, which is around eight times that of wood. However, embodied energy, that is, the amount of energy required to make the materials and then assemble them on-site, rarely exceeds 20% of the total energy required for a building torn down after only 50 years. Steel frames overwhelmingly outlast that timeframe (steel-framed buildings from the 1880s are still around, and we have no idea how long they will ultimately last), so the percent of energy the frame requires diminishes in relation to heating, cooling, and interior renovation costs. They also use much less material, allow for greater density, and when they are torn down they can be wholly recycled, but I’m digressing here.

Architecture Other

Out-of-District Experience: New Orleans, Louisiana

jackson square and St louis cathedral

Toward the end of his career, Pablo Picasso lamented that he had stopped being creative and was merely “doing Picasso.” New Orleans has followed suit sometime in the past fifty years, becoming the image of the idea of itself. That doesn’t mean the jazz or the culture has disappeared, just that a simulacrum of itself has been interpolated into the French Quarter in such a way that a visitor can’t get a sense of the beast for all the taxidermy. I only had a morning to spend in the area due to nuptials elsewhere, but my perception was that there was a very livable area there, but what I saw did not inspire me to live there. I’ll need to go back and give the whole city a better look. read more »


Middle path density gets some news

Option A
Option A (by nydiscovery on flickr)

This  past weekend, the East Bay Express (a paper in Oakland), wrote a fairly balanced article about the battles over densification in Oakland and Berkeley. Although it took as its subject a particularly acerbic debate over local development projects, the scenario is the same everywhere. The article presents three largely oppositional theses: tall buildings are environmentally sound, all density is environmentally unsound, and that density can mean Paris as well as Manhattan. Each one is given a fair voice, but ultimately only the middle path comes out looking informed.

Of course the commenters jumped out of the starting blocks and onto their respective causes: the electric car, renewable energy, zero population growth, THE IMPORTANCE OF WRITING EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS, planting “subsistence” gardens in quarter-acre lots, and obviously the meme that developers are profiteers and gentrifiers. But what none of these people seemed to see was that the options of a pleasant human environment and a limited footprint on the natural world are not mutually exclusive.

Option B (from baslow on flickr)
Option B (from baslow on flickr)

Read the article; take a look at the section on pages 3 & 4 in particular, where Mike Pyatok, an architect with decades of experience, drops the usual truth bombs.

In an environment with artificial scarcity by way of outdated and strict zoning, the costs of land allotted to tall development, prices will be too high, even for luxury development. 5-8 story buildings are cheaper, more comfortable, and more energy efficient on a regional scale. Similarly, the need for a large footprint to justify the vertical costs means a less refined urban grain and less human-scale detail and fewer potential owners.

As long as cities are lusting for the skinny towers of 1920s New York, opponents will only see a superblock grime of the 1970s. Unfortunately, those skinny towers never made much money and definitely won’t nowadays. So, many opponents are simply reacting to unreasonable visions of the future with equally wrong visions of dystopia. Expect to see knees jerking until city councils and armchair planners ask for middle density.