A very nice article published recently by Dr. Gerald Mulvey of Incarnate Word University on the history of adobe brick in San Antonio was recently published and featured one of our projects: http://www.uiw.edu/sanantonio/adobebrick.html
Readers of my blog know that I am a vault and dome fan...ok fanatic! And for all the right reasons! I had the distinct pleasure of meeting the Spanish architects Fernando Vegas and Camilla Mileto recently at an historic technology preservation conference in San Antonio. (http://resarquitectura.blogs.upv.es/?lang=en) They are doing fabulous work in Spain with the traditional tile timbrel vault style of building known more widely in the U.S. as Guastavinos.
It was too good to not share with you, so I will stop writing and simply post eye-candy. Bravo!
It's been almost 8 years since the Lehman collapse triggered the Great Recession. Who would have thought that at this point we would see negative interest rates on government bonds over the horizon, both East and West? Who would imagine, in the midst of the longest economic recovery albeit the weakest, that we would see 10 year US Treasury yields hovering in the 1.50% range? And all of this in the midst of massive monetary stimulus, dramatic central bank balance sheet growth, and a fiscal policy debate that is, well, non-existent.
I'm not qualified to expand upon those topics beyond my own readings and my own opinions. But I do live, sleep and breath investment analysis on a daily basis. The search for safety of principal, nominal yield and a sense of direction dominate conversation. We live in a time of distorted markets that make planning for the future difficult.
Looking at the seven year forecast for returns on major asset classes, we see a bleak outlook where NO major asset classes reach the 6.50% long-term historical US equity return. I do not believe that the traditional capital markets, as engaged over the last 30 years, will serve investors well over the next decade. I believe more active, tactical management of capital markets assets will be required, and that the inclusion of sensible, opportunistic alternatives will provide the returns necessary to support spending goals for individuals and organizations alike. I also believe that sensible allocations to income producing real property will help provide higher yields and hedge against the threat of inflation given massive monetary stimulus.
This is new economic territory for all of the world's actors. This is the backdrop against which we have and continue to apply The Opportunity Map for success.
One of San Antonio's beloved historic structures, The Southwest School of Art, was designed and built in 1848 by French-trained architect named Francois Giraud using a technique called pise de terre. This technique was a rammed earth process compressing rock, straw and native clay by hand. While adobe buildings are not uncommon in San Antonio in structures dating back to that era, rammed earth is....until today!
Phase II of the 3050 Eisenhauer project builds on the success of Phase I's use of compressed earth blocks by using a different means of placement, rammed earth, and a material mix design leaning heavily on native limestone.
With an 18 inch thick wall assembly consisting of tightly compacted engineered limestone, the buildings are designed for outstanding energy performance as well as providing excellent sound attenuation between units.
With a healthy dose of innovation, an attention to detail for code compliance and opportunities to fuse the ancient with the modern, 3050 Eisenhauer looks to provide superior dwellings at market rates for both construction and rental.
This is a nice article discussing the European construction industry's continued efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings. With the 2030 Challenge drive driving towards carbon neutral buildings, the article is further support for the Urban Earth focus on improving the process of integrating low carbon, local and low tech materials for superior building envelopes: http://isobioproject.com/news/back-to-the-future-with-natures-own-construction-materials/
As the climate change dialogue continues to heat up (pun intended,) I've noticed the shift in conversation from sustainability to resilience. My common sense view says that sustainability implies engaging in practices that lessen if not eliminate impact on climate, and represents best practices when considering the COMPLETE equation when undertaking real estate development. Resilience in my mind means the damage is done, let's stop while there's still hope of not triggering yet further irreversible damage and prepare for the inevitable that we have already set in motion.
Consider the following as a concrete example. In developing a 10,000 square foot primary care/urgent clinic, I want to mindful of healthy building materials for occupants as well as impact on the planet. I want to understand and manage the amount of energy and water consumption. I also want to create feedback loops that allow me to monitor and refine operating systems and the building envelope to optimize the building as it's commissioned and put into service. That, to me, is a sustainable approach to development.
Reflecting on resiliency issues brings another set of criteria to the table. Can I lessen dependence on municipal water supplies by incorporating rainwater capture and use in both the interior and exterior environments? What about new advances in drawing moisture from the air? Can I introduce renewable energy sources to ensure the clinic can operate even when power supplies may be knocked out either through a weather event or terrorist act? Are there black water treatment strategies that lessen dependence on centralized systems? What formulas are most appropriate for calculating true cost impacts over the lifecycle of the clinic as an operating entity and the building as a service platform? Does the increase, decrease or perhaps have a "net zero" impact on my pro forma?
Consider this map recently released by climatologists forecasting the impact of climate change on regions of the world: http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/media/pdf/j/k/HDCC_map.pdf. It's a sobering forecast of where we may be in 90 years. Even more sobering is the notion that this is a process...does anyone know how fast or slow this unfolds? How accurate can a 90 year forecast be? Too much? Too little? If we know that these dynamics are baked into the cake (no pun intended this time) what elements should we begin to consider as necessary design features to include in new construction? Do larger rain events as oceans warm imply that we should increase building and site drainage to accommodate the heavier flow for instance?
My opinion is yes to all above. Sharpen pencils and tighten up formulas to consider not only sustainability but also resilience particularly for longer term occupants of real estate. Extend the time horizon over which we can expect these buildings to serve our needs by incorporating resilience thinking into design.
The 200 was a special project developed as part of our earthen building technology initiative. It was, in fact, a 100% earthen building constructed with cement stabilized compressed earth blocks. Built as part of a workshop exercise, it featured the following initiatives:
- 10 inch thick compressed earth block wall sections
- an experimental ventilated cavity wall section
- a compressed earth block barrel vault roof
- traditional lime plaster
- rubble trench foundation
The 200 opened up plenty of opportunities to learn and experiment with earthen building assembly, block production and construction sequencing. It also gave us a rare opportunity to log data over an extended period of time to track building performance. I was successful in logging data over four seasons both inside and outside for comparative analysis. I will update this post with that data shortly. In the meantime, adios 200!
I don't wax on too often about stock trading charts anymore. Not since I hung up my spurs many years ago as a long/short hedge fund portfolio manager. But I do keep an interested and watchful eye out for things that I think are worth noting.
One such tidbit caught my eye today. I'll illustrate with a couple of charts below. These is daily charts of basically the S&P500 (the market to some) in a bar and point and figure chart formats, and they are flashing some interesting hints with today's closing bell.
Here's what I see. A nice uptrend has been in place illustrated by the blue line. However, a 21 day moving average (21 SMA) of daily prices (my favorite trend line for trading) has begun to rollover due to recent price action. The dated green trend line (a 10 day moving average, 10 SMA) has already crossed the 21 day alerting us to a possible weakening of our trend. The 21 SMA looks like it may cross the blue line which is an even long term moving average. We call this type of setup a bow tie crossover. Watching price action unfold with moving averages that move at different rates can mean a lot and also mean nothing! More important to me is we had a classic swing trading short setup off of the 21 SMA. I labeled an orange price bar 1, indicating the bar that tells me that, exceeding the previous day's low against a slightly negative trend, there may be downward price action ahead. What caught my attention today was the green bar labelled 2. I was watching to see if the trading short signal given was negated by today's price action exceeding the orange bar before bar 1. (I know, I should have labelled the setup bar 0 or something!)
In any event, I now have a short sale setup on "the market," moving averages crossing and possible indicating weak proces ahead, a failure to breach the setup high and a beautiful short sale entry point with very little risk. You short here around 164, set a stop to cover around 166.50 or so, and risk $2.50 to make ??? Now enter the point and figure chart!
Thankfully we have the internet so I can provide you with a link to the wikipedia entry on point and figure charting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Point_and_figure_chart. I'm a long time fan and user of this methodology for giving me great 30,000 foot visibility over price action without the influence of time. Here's the p&f chart of the "market" with some notes.
In point and figure charting we're simply measuring supply and demand. When prices go above a level they previously "couldn't," we have a new high and higher prices are likely ahead. This is illustrated by one column of x's exceeding a previous column of x's height. When prices drop below a level they previously wouldn't, we have a new low and possibly lower prices ahead. This is illustrated by a column of o's exceeding the low point of a previous column of o's. Just look at my notes I drew, you'll get it! The market rallied up to about $169 as illustrated in the last column of x's. But we've had some price movement lower recently. Enough of a reversal to register on the p&f chart. When I look at my nearest column of o's for a support indication, i.e. a level to which the market COULD drop and STILL technically be bullish, I find it WAYYYY down at $133! That's 19.11% below where the market closed today.
Now remember, I identified a nice short sale setup a couple of days back that has held so far. I had an entry point identified that had me risking $2.50. If the market dropped back to its p&f support at $133, I'm risking $2.50 to make......about $33! That's almost 15:1 odds on my trade. I love that kind of opportunity...risking less than 2% of capital to make about 20% on my money.
Ahhh...but who's short? Are you? Can you? This kind of trading takes real discipline and iron guts to make the "whale trade....," that trade that can make your year. (J.P. Morgan anyone?) But for most mere mortals I serve this up just as a reminder that the market can have pretty severe corrections within the context of an uptrend. Paying attention to these types of signals can help investors to scale back risk, take profits, park cash in anticipation of lower prices.
Just a tidbit that a felt compelled to share. Make some quick notes, put them in your calendar and let's see how that short trade would have worked out!
Order: Sell Short ______shares of SPY @ market for the day. Don't forget to set your stops!
Marlboro man? No! It's plaster man! One of the outstanding features of our Eisenhauer project is the two coat natural lime plaster. No lathe or wire involved, the plaster consists of lime, sand, fiber and nopales cactus water (nopales cactus steeped in the sun.) Cactus?! Mais oui! The nopales imbues the plaster with a flexibility and water repellent quality due to a natural latex found in the nopales.
This exposed section of wall is a great view into what lies beneath the plaster .As you can see in the photo, we have the compressed earth blocks properly stressed to accept and hold the plaster. This is a remarkable effective plaster system, both in terms of performance and in terms of cost-effectiveness. On each site visit, I go over wall sections looking for cracks in the finish as would be typical with even a cement based stucco. I've yet to find one. And most importantly, this plaster system allows our walls to continue to "breathe" which contributes to the building performance. Maybe the "old" way is truly superior.
While the Central Bank of Japan continues to play with matches, threatening the global economy with unbridled quantitative easing and the exporting of deflation, our Eisenhauer ceb project rounds the corner with an eye towards the finish line!
Anyone spending more than an hour around me these days will likely get an earful on vaults and domes! My fascination for Guastavino vaults and domes in particular keeps me riveted and even brought me to the recent Boston Public Library to see some of the original work of the master himself.
I'll fault Jim Hallock of Urban Earth for triggering this interest. Little did he know that his early comments to me would result in me bombarding him and other members of the Urban Earth team with my global search for information!
What a happy exploration it's been. I get Jim's points about the value of masonry vaulted roofs/ceilings. The Guastavino family dominated this space for over 60 years, building some of the most amazing structures across the United States. Marvels of engineering to this day. In my search for those reviving and/or using similar techniques today, I was fortunate to run across Lara Davis's blog on the SUDU. I highly recommend her blog as a well-documented exploration of an earthen building featuring not only timbrel vaults, but a stairway using a vault technique. Lara is a great voice out in the world not only speaking and teaching, but putting her words into action. I'm fortunate to have made a connection with her and we are already benefiting from her wisdom and guidance in our work with vaults. Thanks Lara!
One last note. If you are as fascinated by the topic as I am, then you must see this. I spent quite a bit of time studying this booklet and found it to be a "jaw dropper." Exquisite photography, well-documented and put together, and a true testament to the advanced skill and knowledge of the masons of the past. Are there people who know how to build such things today? They are few in number if so,
That brings me, finally, to today's post and the sharing of visuals. The recent Urban Earth workshop, The 200, featured a segment on building a barrel vaulted compressed earth block roof. Exciting stuff for us all, never mind yours truly, the newly minted vault geek. What began at the workshop is being completed this week. Here are some great images to share.
Yesterday saw the first building at 3050 Eisenhauer dried in. The framers started working this morning on setting the interior wall partitioners. It was a little chilly outside but the carpenters were loving it inside the first building. With no insulation in the roof and no door to close it was still about 15 degrees warmer thank outside. They also reported that when it was 80 degrees on the job site the afternoon before, it was cool and comfortable inside. We knew this...but now we can walk 'em in the door!
Below are some images from the job site as building 2 gets stacked, receives electrical and buildings 3, 4 and 5 are prepped for the foundation.
It's an exciting day when walls start rising from the slab! It may also be a bit of an historic moment. Time was when buildings in San Antonio were primarily adobe structures. We've seen evidence of this in a series of paintings dating back to the 1830's that illustrate the four views of military plaza, North, South, East and West. I'll try to capture those images and upload them to the blog. So it's been almost 200 hundred years since any significant structures were built in San Antonio out of earth (adobe.) The Eisenhauer project is comprised of a total of five buildings arranged courtyard style. The building pictured is the first of three one bedroom cottages.
We're using six by twelve blocks on this project. You can see quite we've laid them up for a 12 inch wall thickness. More progress pictures to come!
One of the misconceptions I encounter in conversations about earthen building construction is understanding that dirt isn't just "dirt." There's good dirt and bad dirt, easy dirt and hard dirt, dirt with heavy clay, dirt with light clay, expansive, nonexpansive...and so it goes.
As retaining walls go up and foundation pads are prepared, our site crew hits a "gold mine:" a patch of fabulous looking dirt for block production a mere 3 inches under our deepest excavation to date. Having a site crew that knows dirt makes all the difference. In fact, this site crew has extensive experience in rammed earth construction. A few phone calls...dirt collection...test blocks and shazaam we realize that the best site dirt lies just where we want it between two building slabs.
This creates the opportunity to excavate the dirt we want, replace it with dirt that is not as optimal and not disturb our pad sites in the process. The goal, after all, is to build the building out of the earth it sits on!
It's been months since my last posting. A decision to focus energy on getting our first earth architecture project off of the ground which included not saying a word until ground was broken. Well it's now official! We broke ground on our 15 unit multi family project design with stabilized compressed earth blocks. I'll be posting more regular updates as the project progresses, along with other research items of interest.
A quick nod to BBVA Compass bank for not only providing financing for the project, but for performing to their word on timing. That's impressive in today's banking environment.
Our first task at hand is to begin clearing the site for foundation and retaining walls, as well as to harvest dirt for our first test blocks. Our preliminary tests indicated not only good clay soil for blocks but also a nice mix of gravel caliche as well. You can see Jim Hallock and one of our leads, Aurelio Sanchez, making the first lime stabilized test blocks.
The intial blocks are resting comfortably as they cure and are headed for compression tests in the coming weeks.
I've taken same flak here and there for some of my "far out" ideas about construction techniques and how we build the buildings we do. But I've take the most flak over my opinions about sheetrock.
Now my dislike is nothing scientific. It just doesn't make sense to me. Sure it's relatively inexpensive, easy to put up, yields a continuous smooth surface, easy to repair etc. But I've seen so much bad sheetrock work, seen what water does to it, what fists can do to it! I've seen the dust from sanding, the tape, the mud...layers of complexity and monitoring.
It just seems to me that it is what it was meant to be: a cheap way to simulate a plastered wall! If you stop and consider how many sheetrock repairs you may have made over the life cycle of your house, the acoustic downside to such a wafer thin product, the dust associated with it all...you might start agreeing with me.
And to all of that, we add this tidbit from GreenSpec:
"Virtually ubiquitous in our buildings, gypsum board is widely seen as an innocuous building material. However, in the last decade, Chinese drywall has been linked with indoor air quality problems, while concerns have cropped up around waste from coal power plants and its links to drywall.
Domestic manufacturers are quick to point out that gypsum board manufactured in the U.S. has not been linked to indoor air quality problems, but potential leaching of heavy metals and biocides included for mold resistance are among the issues that need to be addressed more thoroughly by the gypsum board industry."
Earth architecture gets my vote for all of the reasons mentioned above. It doesn't burn, doesn't harbor mold, bugs don't eat it, it dampens noise and for pete's sake will stop a .50 caliber round!
I say no to sheetrock, and yes to earthen walls!
It's been a while since I last posted as we've allowed the ceb test building to cure a bit. And we certainly learned a lot worth sharing in the process. For one, we produced unstabilized blocks and stacked them in the wall "green" right out of the machine. No worries there EXCEPT that we didn't factor in the small shrinkage that would occur in the drying process. No thinking of that prospect, we moved on to plastering the walls. That led to two lessons: 1. make blocks, allow them to "cure," then set blocks! 2. plaster only after blocks have cured.
The best part of all, however, is the forgiving nature of this building process. Yes, our first plaster coat popped and chipped as everything dried. No problem. Enter Jim Hallock and his crew and 20 years of ceb and natural building experience was at our fingertips!
Jim graciously offered to lead a replastering effort after our team chipped off the first plaster layer.
Robbie, Jesus, "nooner," and Jorge applying the new scratch coat. This batch of plaster was fabulous with some tweaks from Jim and I now pronounce this crew "experts" in natural plaster!
Martin and David hard at work screening sand.
Jim surveying the half-naked building before he jumps up and details the door and windows.
And for the record, we're an "equal opportunity" plaster crew. A pregnant Lucia Blanco on the site, hawk in hand. No one loves natural plaster more than Lucia who is an architect with extensive experience in natural building techniques in France and Africa. Whisper the word plaster, click your heels three times....and basta! Lucia will be there!
We've hung plastic around the building while we "endure" copious amounts of Spring rain. No complaints about that after last Summer's drought. We'll be tackling a new finish coat, inside and out, in the next week or two.
Once again, our experience in ceb construction has shown us the value in the medium and the value in the spirit of community that exists. I have been grateful to have the input and guidance from so many experienced professionals like Jim, Lucia and Stephen Colley (local San Antonio architect.) I hope this is a great start to a new building tradition in our area. Our climate is perfectly suited for it to help manage heat and humidity.
Our test building has been complete for a couple of weeks now. I've been busy digesting some of the lessons learned. No doubt, some experienced adobe contractors (few if any in our neck of the woods) might say, "of course, we knew that!" I can fully appreciate that. And there's certainly no substitute for carrying the "thinkin'" to the "doin'" on your own, and that was more than true in this instance.
We learned a great many lessons on material prep, staging, handling...a great deal on block "tweeking," etc...and even more on the plaster phase. I think it might be instructive for those of you following the blog for me to give a debrief in outline form on lessons learned. More to come on that.
I will have more pictures posted soon but will start with the set below. You can see our finished structure as it stands now. The deep overhangs gave us a nice framework for protecting our still-drying plaster from rain with plastic sheets. The roof design mimicks the multi family project specifications and has a big impact on our energy modelling. We get the added bonus of great protection for the walls from rain. The front (eastern exposure) has a 4 foot over hang, 3 feet on the back (western exposure) and 2 feet on either side (northern and southern exposures.) These orientations do not match our project site which will be 4 feet to the west, 3 feet to the east, and 2 feet to north and south. We're spec'd for exposed rafters etc. as you can see by clicking the thumbnail below which is a google sketch up model of our multi family project.
click thumbnail above for full size image
One huge lesson learned (and I dare say I was told as much but just didn't quite snap to) was how much more efficient our build would be by not integrating CEB into our door/window sections. That one front section seen in the photo above that included the door, window and polycarbonate panel infills had a multiplier effect on our time on the build that I feel will dramatically impact the economics of our future projects. Part of the goal was to learn, which we did, but also to start demonstrating the cost efficiencies and energy efficiencies (costs going forward) of using earth construction techniques like CEB. We have already started modifications to our plans to fit to the design and to reflect our build experience.
You can see Daniel hard at work here working out the details on the door and window section. Again, huge drag and inefficiency on this element. But then, that was the purpose right? To learn, calculate and reconfigure!
While my intention with the photo above was not to be artsy in any way, my unique angle does serve the purpose of illustrating several interesting elements. First was the tile Aurelio selected which I thought looked rather "cheesy" in the box....but ended up looking great on the floor. Just goes to show why I don't pick design elements and he should be nominated for some future Earth Architecture Design show!
One item of note is how the guys figured out that by rotating the blocks on their side, we ended up with a more stable wall section between the door and window that was just right for a 2 switch panel for lights. The opening for the box was created by cutting a block short to match the depth of the box, something they repeated in the walls to practice for electrical conduit and junction boxes for outlets. If you look closely at the photo above you can see a plaster variance about a foot off of the floor on the left hand wall surface. By cutting blocks 1 inch short on that course, and 3 inches short where junction boxes would be installed, we were easiy able to provide the necessary cut outs that could be plastered and hidden.
All in all a very worthwhile experience. Modifications ahead on this structure for demonstration purposes include removing sections of plaster inside and out and replacing with alternative treatments, completion on the passive ventilation design (worthy of a full blog post when completed) and the installation of data loggers by John Morony. We're all excited about the future data stream which I will figure out how to graph and keep updated.
....not a George Thorogood song, but it is the final push to inspection day! What was expected to be an easy and quick roof framing turned into quite the work of art featuring a 4 foot overhang to the front, a 3 foot overhang to the back and 2 foot overhangs to either side. Excellent for pasive cooling what already figures to be a very "cool" building to begin with due simply to thermal mass and walls that breathe. It wasn't as easy as it looked on paper but the crew did a great job.
You might notice the wall section half dark, half light. The dark section is where they sprayed the wall with water. Sprayed with water?! That's right...the lime plaster won't adhere to the building without a moist surface.
Speaking of plaster...here's a picture of David preparing a batch of traditional lime plaster. Beautiful stuff, really, comprised of sand, lime, marble dust, hay and, of all things, nopales cactus juice.
Someone needs to supervise the material prep...might as well be the boss!
Nopales cactus-infused water renders a natural and very effective latex. Sometimes I wonder if we invented solutions to problems we never had and materials that already existed!
And, finally, the plaster goes up. Beautiful in color, remarkable in texture and extremely effective in not only protecting the walls from the elements, but in maintaining the ability of the walls to "breathe." Referred to as latent heat flux, or the ability of the walls moderate temperature by absorbing and giving up moisture, this "breathing" is credited with a healthier interior air quality and with helping to keep the building cool.
And as the sun sets, the guys are still at it. In fact, they are STILL at it as i write. It's a great crew on the project with real commitment to a quality outcome. Sourcing materials, making and stacking blocks, plastering...all phases very labor intensive. I asked Robbie, the crew boss, if he had it to do all over again, would he prefer to go back to stick and stucco construction. His answer? NO! "This is a superior way to build...and results in a much better building...it's worth it." Amen!