Smart Bricks: Giant Lego-like blocks for buildings

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The idea behind Smart Bricks is that giant Lego-like blocks could be used to build houses, building, and bridges. Video below. (via Smithsonian)

Soviet Ghosts: photographing the abandoned USSR

Abandoned soviet 10 Photographer Rebecca Litchfield's gorgeous and haunting photo series and book, Soviet Ghosts: A Communist Empire in Decay, documents abandoned towns, factories, prisons, hospitals, theaters, and military bases in the Soviet Union and former Eastern Bloc.

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Whilst some may look at the decay in these places as simply reflecting the destruction of the Soviet Union and the moral bankruptcy of a flawed ideological system. In reality they will cease to exist very soon and as the memories fade, these places and the communities who once gave life will be forgotten and deserve to be recorded for posterity too. This book documents the strange interval caught between modernity and antiquity.

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(via Huh)

Sunlight reflected by building melts car

A London man blames a new 37-story skyscraper under construction for melting his Jaguar. Apparently, sunlight reflected off the building, known as the "Walkie-Talkie," and melted parts of the car. According to the BBC News, the construction company left a note on the man's car and paid for repairs. The City of London has closed three parking spots as a precaution while the situation is under investigation. This reminds me of the Mythbusters' "Archiemedes Death Ray" episode which I happened to have just watched again yesterday!

Artificial mountain outcrop and picturesque villa added to top of Beijing skyscraper

A privately-built villa, surrounded by imitation rocks, is pictured on the rooftop of a 26-floor residential block in Beijing. Construction on the residence took six years, and the huge dwelling offers 1,000 square meters of living space. Residents in the building complained about the villa and its perch, according to the Xinhua News Agency, fearing that the agglomeration's weight may cause the building beneath it to collapse. The local bureau of city administration attempted to investigate the allegedly illegal construction, but the owner "has not shown up so far." (Photo: Jason Lee, Reuters)

De-frosting a building-sized refrigerator

The Fulton Market Cold Storage Company building in Chicago has been, well, storing cold things since the 1920s. But last July, the company sold the building and moved to a more modern facility outside town, leaving the old cold storage warehouse to be turned into offices.

But first, the new owners had to defrost it.

The Fulton Market Cold Storage building has ice-covered walls for the same reason a freezer can get covered in hard, packed ice. When you put something into a freezer — say, a giant slab of beef fresh from a slaughterhouse — that thing contains moisture. There's liquid trapped inside it. Over time, especially if it's not sealed very well, that moisture will turn into water vapor in the air. When temperature changes cause that vapor to condense back into liquid, it instantly freezes — turning to ice anywhere it touches.

In your fridge at home, that's just an annoyance. At the Fulton Market Cold Storage building, it was epic.

Besides the video above, you should really check out the amazing photos taken for the ice, pre-melt, by photographer Gary Jensen.

Via This Is Colossal

Defeating earthquakes, and more free videos from the American Geophysical Union

Remember when you had to build a bridge out of popsicle sticks in high school science class? The goal was to construct the miniature bridge that could withstand the most physical stress. Your materials were just sticks and glue. So the real challenge was to find strong shapes.

On the day of testing, we all learned very quickly what those shapes were. Bridges built out of lots of squares collapsed almost instantly. Bridges built out of triangles made the finals.

This is a pretty basic lesson, but it's not one that the global construction industry has learned yet, says the US Geological Survey's Ross Stein. Last week at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union, he began a talk on "Defeating Earthquakes" by demonstrating the difference between the cube-centric structures we build all over the world and how much stronger those structures can be if you just add triangles in the corners. It's a powerful demonstration of how simply having the technology to solve a problem isn't enough. You have to get people to use it.

This whole video is worth watching and easy for laypeople to follow. And it's just one of a huge collection of lecture videos from AGU 2012 that are now available online. They cover everything from the chemistry of lighting to the geology of volcanoes to the effects of space storms and solar flares. Very cool stuff!

Insane, true energy fact of the day

Exit signs are so ubiquitous that they're almost invisible. Every public building has them. In fact, they are so common that, taken together, these little signs consume a surprisingly large amount of energy.

Each one uses relatively little electricity, but they are on all the time. And we have a lot of them in our schools, factories, and office buildings. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are more than 100 million exit signs in use today in the U.S., consuming 30–35 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually.

That’s the output of five or six 1,000 MW power plants, and it costs us $2-3 billion per year. Individual buildings may have thousands of exit signs in operation.

To put this into a bigger context: This is just one small part of what makes buildings, in general, incredibly energy intense. In the United States, we use more energy powering our buildings—from the lights, to the heating, to the stuff we plug into the walls—than we use to do anything else. Because of that (and because of the fact that electricity is mostly made by burning coal or natural gas) buildings produce more greenhouse gas emissions than cars.

Read more about the energy consumption of exit signs and how we can use less energy, while still getting the same services, at Green Building Advisor

Take a look at some stats on energy use in buildings at the Architecture 2030 website

Via Jess McCabe

Image: Exit Sign, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mtellin's photostream

The facade of NYC's Metropolitan Museum of Art has never been fully finished

It sure seems like a completed structure at first glance. But look closer. Specifically, look at the piles of stone blocks stacked on top of the columns.

Those blocks were hauled up there during construction—around the turn of the 20th century. They were supposed to be carved into sculptures representing "Music", "Architecture", "Painting" and, ironically, "Sculpture". Instead, the stone has sat there for 110 years, through two major renovations, un-carved and largely ignored.

The Daytonian in Manhattan blog has the full story on this.

Via Amy Vernon

Happy birthday, air conditioning!

Yesterday was the 110th anniversary of air conditioning. The building pictured above—1040 Metropolitan Ave. in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York—was the first building in the world to enjoy the luxury of cold air blowing on a blisteringly hot day.

A junior engineer from a furnace company figured out a solution so simple that it had eluded everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to the naval engineers ordered to cool the White House when President James A. Garfield was dying: controlling humidity.

The junior engineer who tackled the problem was Willis Carrier, who went on to start Carrier Corporation. The solution he devised involved fans, ducts, heaters and perforated pipes ... Carrier’s plan was to force air across pipes filled with cool water from a well between the two buildings, but in 1903, he added a refrigerating machine to cool the pipes faster.

It's a neat technological story, and as the New York Times piece points out, Carrier's invention wasn't just about making people comfortable. In the beginning, it was about allowing a specific job to get done even when the weather was hot. In fact, air conditioning is still the tool that makes things like computers possible, by creating dust-free, low-humidity clean rooms where the parts can be manufactured.

Read the rest of James Barron's piece in the New York Times City Room blog

Destroying stuff for science

How do engineers know that the pillars supporting a bridge can withstand the force of thousands of cars driving over them for decades?

Read the rest

Inside the world's quietest room

Anechoic chambers are pretty damn awesome. Basically, they're rooms designed to be sound-proofed against outside noise, while, inside, sound is prevented from bouncing off the walls. There's no echo. There's a number of ways you can build this, but one system at the University of Salford in England, is actually a room within a room, with the innermost chamber actually mounted on springs, rather than the floor of the outer room.

Anechoic chambers are often used to test out audio equipment or to get accurate audio measurements on systems that are supposed to operate very quietly.

Minnesota Public Radio recently went inside the room that holds the title for world's quietest—an anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis.

To get into the anechoic chamber, you go through two bank vault-like doors. The floor in the room is mesh like a trampoline so there's nothing on the floor for the sound to bounce off of. The walls are lined with sound-proofing wedges that are a meter long so they absorb the sound.

...A typical quiet room you sleep in at night measures about 30 decibels. A normal conversation is about 60 decibels. This room has been measured at -9 decibels.

Listen to the rest of the story at Minnesota Public Radio's website.

Read about the history of anechoic chambers.

Image: Photo of an anechoic chamber taken at the Kyushu Institute of Design's anechoic chamber by Alexis Glass. Free to use under GDFL.

A thermite reaction on 9/11?

Still think that something other than a mere plane crash brought down the World Trade Center towers? According to a Norwegian materials expert, you may be right. Just ... you know ... not in the way most Truthers probably expect.

Christian Simensen thinks the Twin Towers were ultimately felled by a thermite reaction.

"If my theory is correct, tonnes of aluminium ran down through the towers, where the smelt came into contact with a few hundred litres of water," Christian Simensen, a scientist at SINTEF, an independent technology research institute based in Norway, said in a statement released Wednesday.

"From other disasters and experiments carried out by the aluminium industry, we know that reactions of this sort lead to violent explosions."

Given the quantities of the molten metal involved, the blasts would have been powerful enough to blow out an entire section of each building, he said. This, in turn, would lead to the top section of each tower to fall down on the sections below.

The sheer weight of the top floors would be enough to crush the lower part of the building like a house of card, he said.

I honestly don't know how plausible an idea this is. It sounds reasonable to a layperson, but I'm curious what those of you with more engineering expertise think.

The AFP has a write-up about the theory. There's also a more-detailed explanation on the website of SINTEF, the Norwegian research lab where Simensen works. Finally, this appeared in the trade journal Aluminum International Today, and they've got an email address where you can request a copy of the story.

Engineers to rappel Washington Monument

Some extremely awesome engineers will be rappelling down the side of the Washington Monument today, to inspect it for any structural damage that may have happened during last month's earthquake.