Little Known and Useless Facts

  • No one really knows what the fuck “the whole nine yards” means.
  • The perception that “boss” is an American word and not an English one probably comes from the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.
  • Teddy Roosevelt’s clearest statement of his manly, interventionist, manly view of the world was made at the Sorbonne.
  • The man who arguably dominated Irish politics from independence into the 1970s was born in the Bronx.
  • There’s a decorative masonry pattern known as a diaper and architects train for years to say that with a straight face.


The demolition of a building with an interesting lattice-truss roof got very ugly today. The remaining portion of the building collapsed this morning, killing one man and injuring two others. There had been at least one violation on the demo work but no stop-work order. I’m not going to second-guess the Department of Buildings here. The simple fact is that demolition is difficult to perform safely and even more difficult to police.

The professor who taught me steel and concrete design (four semesters total) worked off-campus as a forensic engineer for insurance companies. In addition to giving him an endless supply of stories perfect for terrorizing student engineers, it gave him an interesting perspective on design. His position – which twenty-five years of practice has convinced me is my position – was that nothing collapses until several things are wrong simultaneously. We have safety factors built into everything we do, so one mistake, even a bad mistake, is unlikely to get the safety factor down below 1, which is failure territory. But if a few things are wrong, you’ll get failure. To use a well-studied example, the failure at the Kansas City Hyatt was a combination of a poor weld detail, a poor hanger design, a mistaken change in shop drawings, and a failure in review of the shop drawings. Four errors led to the failure.

Buildings are, obviously, destabilized during demolition. So the mere fact that a building is undergoing demolition may be enough to provide one or two or three contributing problems that help cause a collapse. Lateral bracing support may be removed from beams, columns, or walls; the weight of debris may exceed the design load of a floor; vibration may loosen old masonry; and so on.

It’s possible someone screwed up and that’s what caused this collapse. It’s possible corners were intentionally cut. But it’s also possible that the unknown – and to some degree unknowable – structural capacity of the building being demolished was less than it should have been. I have no reason to believe that the NYC DoB forensics unit won’t succeed in finding out what went wrong, as slight a comfort as that may be in the circumstances.

Art, Not Mine

My office administrator, who shall henceforth be known as G__H, works on a lot of art projects whenever she is unchained from her desk long enough to go home. Her picture from Monday, from the graveyard at Trinity Church, next door to our office:

The building on the left is 100 Broadway, AKA the American Surety Building, AKA one of the first steel-framed skyscrapers. The sun is flaring over One Wall Street. And for the corpse-fuckers economic-theory necrophiliacs out there, Alexander Hamilton’s grave is nearby.


One of the least known portions of the original IRT subway is its powerhouse. In 1904, in made sense for the IRT to make it’s own DC current just as it made sense to put the powerhouse next to the river for easy deliveries of huge amounts of coal and just as it made sense to have McKim, Mead & White – one of the premier NYC architecture firms of the day – design the powerhouse.

The end result? A huge building with a very fancy American Renaissance facade in terra cotta.

When the zompocalypse comes, this is where I’m going to hide.


I occasionally need a compass while working. I find myself in places where I usually don’t bring my cell because there’s no cell reception and where I’d like to be certain which way I’m facing. (Labeling field drawings correctly gives some credence to the conclusions I’m selling to clients…) I’ve been using a cheap piece of shit and managed to break it, so I decided to get one with some history.

W. & L. E. Gurley of Troy, New York, was founded by Rensselaer alumni brothers and I know their old factory building inside and out. Gurley made the U. S. Army compasses during World War II and, as of an hour ago, ebay has made me the owner of one.

Also: Gurley Precision Instruments. Hehehehehehe.