Recovering forgotten methods of construction

After feasting on audio podcasts for years, I realized that I don’t always want somebody else’s voice in my head while running, biking, and hiking. So I went on an audio fast for a couple of months. But now I’m ready for more input, and I’m once again reminded how wonderful it is to be able to bring engaging minds with me on my outdoor excursions.

One of my companions on yesterday’s hike was John Ochsendorf, a historian and structural engineer who explores the relevance of ancient and sometimes forgotten construction methods, like Incan suspension bridges woven from grass. One of his passions is Guastavino tile vaulting, a system that was patented in 1885. Although widely used in many notable structures — including Grand Central Station — Ochsendorf says that some of these structures have been torn down and rebuilt conventionally because modern engineers no longer understand how the Guastavino system works, and cannot evaluate its integrity.

This theme of forgotten knowledge echoes something I heard in Amory Lovins’ epic MAP/Ming lecture series. He describes a large government building in Washington, DC, that was made of stone and cooled by a carefully-designed pattern of air flow. The cooling system wasn’t completely passive, though. You had to open and close windows in a particular sequence throughout the day. Now that building is cooled by hundreds of window-mounted air conditioners. I’m sure our modernn expectation of extreme cooling is part of the reason why. But Lovins also says that air conditioning became necessary because people forgot how to operate the building.

I love the idea of recovering — and scientifically validating — forgotten knowledge. That’s what John Ochsendorf’s research group does. One of his students, Joe Dahmen, did a project called Rammed Earth — a long-term experiment to see if that ancient construction method could actually work in present-day New England. John Ochsendorf says:

Historical methods of construction that are very green, very local, may create beautiful low-energy architecture, we’ve forgotten how to do them. So we have to rediscover them, and do testing to prove to clients and building owners that you can use these methods. And it’s a good example of MIT’s motto of mind and hand. We don’t like to just read about rammed earth walls, we like to get dirty and build them.

Very cool. I think the MacArthur Foundation invested wisely in this guy.

10 thoughts on “Recovering forgotten methods of construction

  1. The “John Ochsendorf” link points to Alison Gopnik: ‘The Philosophical Baby’ and a search for John Ochsendorf didn’t return anything.

    Does he have his own podcast?

  2. And I should have said: this is a tremendously thought-provoking post! Sorry to only ask a demanding question..

  3. “We often have a bias that “new == better”, but sometimes “old == better”.”

    And sometimes new == worse, as in architecture when it became OK for a while to not care about the orientation of the sun and the prevailing winds. Except that was never really OK, so now we need to remember what that not being OK entails.

  4. Jon, I loved the Amory Lovins series. His advice to layout the pipe first then put the equipment where the pipes are was so obvious in hind site. I hope all building engineers listen to this stuff.

    We’ve heeded his guidance that you can’t improve what you don’t measure and are designing an energy monitoring system for our building & data center.

    Can’t wait to hear this talk and just found SpokenWord! Thanks for the tip.

    I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from podcasts in the past 3-4 years. Your IT Conversations series and others like it keep me growing & learning.

  5. Jon, What a great talk by Ochsendorf. Actual building, even vicariously, is a nice break from the virtual. Keep up the good work.

  6. Wow, structural engineering and Amory Lovins in the same post! What a fascinating lecture.

    Just last week, I listened to the whole MAP/Ming lecture again, and it is just as inspiring as it was the first time.

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