Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Blobwall and Bricks

A team of designers, architects and engineers led by Greg Lynn has developed a unique modular construction system which they call “Blobwall.” This is an interesting construction method, so we’re taking a look at it today.

The Blobwall is comprised of unit shapes which are called “bricks.” These shapes are quite interesting, and fun to look at and arrange. However, they are definitely not “bricks” as known to masons and masonry. These bricks are “…low-density, recyclable, impact-resistant polymer. The blob unit, or “brick,” is a robotically cut mass-produced hollow tri-lobed shape formed through rotational molding, which is then assembled with interlocking precision to form the wall.”

It is interesting how these shapes are arranged.  There is a free-form interlock which is aesthetically pleasing.

These bricks do not have a high compressive strength; they are not mass produced as standard bricks are made. Each shape must be robotically produced. These “bricks” are also cut into as they are arranged and assembled.  By contrast, manufactured blocks can be produed at a rate of around 1.7 seconds per block (6 at-a-time, 10 second cycle time)

If we go back to some basic definitions, masonry is defined as (1) “the craft or occupation of a mason.” (2) “work constructed by a mason, esp. stonework.” A mason is defined as “a person whose trade is building with units of various natural or artificial mineral products, as stones, bricks, cinder blocks, or tiles, usually with the use of mortar or cement as a bonding agent.” This modular unit is not really a brick at all, and should not be considered masonry.

The assembled forms of the Blobwall result in large holes or gaps between the unit shapes. While this provides an interesting aesthetic, it does not keep out the elements, wind, rain, etc. as do regular bricks, or the interlocking triangular bricks described on this blog.

This is an interesting technology and design, but it does not quite fall within the realm of masonry. The unit shape is not a brick, there is low compressive strength, it cannot be inexpensively mass-produced, and the resulting shell is not weatherproof or suitable for habitation.

I’d say it’s pretty cool to look at though.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Non-Fired brick and Block: for a Green Future

Bricks and blocks made from material which is not fired, or heat treated, have long been a goal of the masonry industry. Firing bricks creates pollution and contributes to greenhouse gasses.

China has long been the world’s major producer of fired clay bricks. They have recently begun to phase out the creation of fired clay bricks, and are now using cement-based bricks, which create less pollution and CO2 than fired bricks.

In this article, shared with me by my business partner Mike Wong, a recent effort to create non-fired brick in Viet Nam is discussed. This effort appears very promising, and may help the world find an adequate solution toward the creation of non-fired brick and block.

Here is another description of making non-fired brick. This technology uses bacteria and room temperature sand, and also appears very promising.

Interestingly, the Vietnamese approach relies on industrial waste, like slag from combustion and metal processing. This approach hearkens back to the cinder block, as developed and invented by Francis Straub, as discussed earlier in this blog. Sometimes it seems there is nothing new, only that which has been forgotten.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Architectural Jihad!

The block system I’ve been describing on this blog is likely to gain real acceptance as an architectural alternative to conventional construction in other areas of the world, notably the Middle East and Far East.

A dome has become an unusual construction design in the West over the past several centuries. In America today, the dominant balloon frame construction method results in the square and rectangular configurations, like so many cookie-cutter “Monopoly houses” which dominate the American landscape.

In the East, by contrast, a dome is much more culturally acceptable. This is due largely to the beautiful mosque designs which characterize this part of the world. The mosque is often the cultural and social center of a city; thus a dome design is viewed upon much more favorably.

Already, much interest has been expressed by large construction firms from the East in this system. Concrete International, a trade magazine published by the American Concrete Institute, ran a short story on my block system, and numerous inquiries from large construction firms across the Middle East and Far East made formal inquiries into this masonry system.

In my last blog entry, I discussed using this masonry system for water storage, septic systems, and desalination applications. A global effort to launch this system for these utilitarian applications would also make it available for architectural applications, whose use as an architectural dome is more culturally accepted than in the West.

This use of masonry to build architectural domes also provides buildings which will withstand monsoons, typhoons, fire, termites, and does not require wood for construction. It seems like a good fit culturally, socially, economically and from an engineering standpoint; providing buildings with a long and useful life cycle. Finally, this is a sustainable use of resources which will help preserve valuable wood, and creates an energy efficient structure.

A modest architectural revolution seems in the offing, whose acceptance in other parts of the world could play a significant role in the future of building.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Masonry to help Women and Girls around the Globe

I am applying for a grant through the State Department and the Rockefeller Foundation, in an effort to help women and girls in developing countries around the globe.  This effort is described at this link.

They are just asking for a short (5 page) summary of the idea; if it is deemed worthy, they will then ask for a full proposal.  Funding is available up to $500,000.

Here is my paper describing this effort:
Potable Water and Sanitation System to Improve the Lives of Women and Girls on a Global Scale

-Concept Paper-

1. Primary Problems Addressed

Water Storage Women and girls in developing countries around the globe often face a daily struggle to procure, store and use safe drinking water for themselves and their families. Across different cultures, geographical boundaries, and religions, this critical responsibility typically falls on women and girls. The importance of access to potable water for the well being of humans cannot be overemphasized. A huge amount of time, energy and resources is consumed in the daily quest for potable water. This onerous burden prevents women and girls from using their time and resources for other critical aspects of living. This situation results in a continuous cycle of poverty, poor health, and lack of security for women, girls and their families. This problem is only expected to worsen as the effects of climate change continue to adversely affect the supply and access to clean water globally.

Sanitation The problem of safe, affordable, reliable access to potable water is compounded by unsanitary conditions and is often due to improper methods of disposal and treatment of human waste in close proximity to water sources. Contamination of water sources with microbes and parasites from human waste creates major public health problems on a global scale. The burden of dealing with dysentery, diarrhea, sickness, and death falls disproportionately on women and girls within the family unit.

Procuring Fresh Water Our changing climate is reducing the sources and availability of fresh, clean potable water across the globe. As glaciers melt, they have become less reliable as the traditional source of potable water for many areas dependent on this source of water. As sea levels rise from climate change, salt water and brackish water encroach on fresh water aquifers, further reducing the availability of fresh water for human consumption. The most vulnerable populations to the lack of fresh water are those already plagued by the deepest poverty, poor health and lack of fundamental security resulting from poor access to water and food. Women and girls feel the effects of diminishing sources of fresh water most acutely, since they are traditionally relied upon to provide their families with water.

2. Description of the Innovation

The innovation proposed to address these three problems (water storage, sanitation, and procuring fresh water) is an innovative masonry system comprised of triangular interlocking concrete blocks which assemble into a sphere. These masonry units are manufactured on a concrete block machine which produces high strength, low cost, consistently reliable masonry units. The concrete block industry has a strong presence around the globe, and has the resources and ability to produce these masonry units using existing methods and materials. All that is required is a set of molds for producing these innovative blocks.

Water Storage Storage of potable water is achieved through an underground spherical tank. This tank is assembled by hand, requiring no special equipment or skills. Blocks are to be provided by a block manufacturer. These triangular blocks are easy to assemble and create a very high strength concrete sphere which can be expected to last on the order of one hundred years or more. These tanks would be of a size that is obtainable by individual families and households.

Sanitation The problem of proper disposal of human waste is addressed by use of a septic tank system. The septic tank is also an underground sphere made of the same triangular block as required by the water storage tanks. This system isolates human waste from potable water, creates a much cleaner environment, and ultimately produces rich fertilizer for use in growing crops in an economical and sustainable fashion. The liability of human waste is converted into a valuable asset for producing food.

Procuring Fresh Water Fresh water is currently produced around the globe by desalination of salt water. Two basic methods are currently used for desalination: distillation and reverse osmosis filtration. Both of these methods require a significant amount of energy and are expensive. Distillation requires a lot of heat to boil or evaporate fresh water from salt water; reverse osmosis requires a lot of electrical energy to achieve the high pressures (~1,000 psi) necessary to force salt water through a semi-permeable membrane which removes the salt component. Spheres made from the masonry system described here have a very high compressive strength (~8,000 psi). These spheres can be outfitted with an inexpensive surrounding membrane and a portal which contains a reverse osmosis filter. If the sphere is sunk to a depth of 2,225 feet below sea level, the pressure exceeds 1,000 psi and salt water is forced through the membrane, filling the sphere with fresh water. The sphere is then floated to the surface using an inflatable bladder, so that no energy is required to pump fresh water to the surface. The fresh water is then harvested, the sphere is re-sunk and the process repeated. A large scale operation of this type (involving hundreds or thousands of spheres) would achieve an economy of scale, and does not require the high energy and cost of conventional desalination methods. The cost of these spheres would be relatively inexpensive.

The innovation proposed here could help solve the three critical problems of water storage, sanitation and procuring fresh water. This can be done inexpensively, at any location around the globe, using existing methods, materials and equipment currently in use by the concrete block industry. The effect of this innovation on women, girls and their families would be far-reaching, dramatic, sustainable, affordable and environmentally appropriate.

3. Stage of Development

This innovation has been in operation for over 5 years, although the application of this innovation for the purposes described here have been in operation for less than one year. This masonry system has been used for architectural applications, to build kilns and furnaces, and for landscaping applications. These innovative blocks have been successfully produced on commercial concrete block machines, and buildings have been constructed using this masonry system.

4. Specific Activities

This technology has been patented, manufactured and introduced to the concrete industry in the US. This innovation was identified as a “Cutting Edge Technology” by the American Concrete Institute (ACI) the trade group for the industry; which establishes building code and works to advance the state-of-the-art in concrete technology. Several buildings have been successfully constructed using this masonry system, and various landscaping features have been assembled and installed using this novel masonry system. This technology has also been used to build high efficiency kilns and furnaces under two grants awarded by the New York State Energy Resource & Development Authority (NYSERDA). Currently, a new business (Sure Well, LLC) is working to introduce this masonry system for water storage applications in the state of Utah. Utah State Bill 32 was recently signed into law, which allows citizens (for the first time) to store and use rainwater in Utah, in below ground tanks of up to 2,500 gallons. Sure Well, LLC is able to provide these tanks at a fraction of the cost of other below ground water storage tank companies. This company is expecting to expand its operations on a national level, providing this high performance, inexpensive water storage solution across the country through a number of concrete block manufacturers. Currently, the principals are working with Besser Block Company, a global leader in concrete block production, to make this masonry system available on a global basis. Besser has a strong presence in 115 countries around the globe and is a leading producer and provider to the concrete block industry on a global scale. This innovation has not yet been employed for the specific applications described here, thus no metric is currently available for improving the lives of women and girls for whom these applications are intended to benefit.

5. Sustaining the Innovation

To date, this innovation has been sustained through private investment, grants, collaboration of industry & trade organizations and a boot-strap effort.

6. Expected Results

The results of award funding are expected to be immediate and far-reaching. Molds for this masonry system will be purchased and distributed to those locations which have the greatest need. Block will be manufactured and an educational effort will be launched in conjunction with the manufacturers, government agencies, NGO’s, and other philanthropic organizations to help ensure the distribution, proper installation, assembly and use of this system for the three applications described here (water storage, sanitation and water procurement). Water storage and sanitation can be implemented immediately. Water procurement through desalination will require further testing, development and trials. Desalination is expected to be developed within three years; once developed it can be rapidly deployed to any number of locations. This system relies on the existing, developed and tried and true methods of the concrete block industry.

Measurement of project success will be readily obtained by simply counting the number of people and households directly benefitting from clean water storage systems, septic systems and access to clean potable water. A typical fully mechanized block machine is capable of producing over 3,000 blocks per hour. Each concrete sphere requires 180 blocks. A block machine in continuous operation is thus capable of producing enough blocks to make 400 spherical tanks per day. Molds can be re-fitted with new wear parts at a low cost, and used on another machine in a different location, dramatically maximizing the high-efficiency production of state-of-the-art concrete block production on a truly global basis. The ability to free women and girls from the onerous task of providing fresh water and sanitary conditions will have a huge and immediate benefit.


I am sure we could help a lot of people with this project.  Let's hope others think so.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chinese Mortar

Ancient Chinese mortar was made with a combination of limestone and sticky rice. Yes, sticky rice!

Recent research by Fuwei Yang, Bingjian Zhang and Qinglin Ma of the Laboratory of Cultural Relic Conservation Materials, Department of Chemistry, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China has shown through various analyses that limestone and sticky rice was the recipe for mortar by the ancient Chinese.

This same mortar recipe is now being used to restore ancient Chinese masonry structures which are in need of repair.

I personally found this very interesting. One of the important ingredients in sticky rice is gluten, a protein found in grains. I have several US patents on using gluten together with ceramics. It creates a very high green strength ceramics (green = unfired) so I am not entirely surprised that sticky rice was used in mortar.