Tuesday, January 28, 2014

It's lonely up here, but that's OK

While this blog is my personal record of some of my musings, thoughts, designs and ideas, I am generally not keen to make it about “me.”  Who cares about me?  Why should they?  It is not my intent to speak about myself, but sometimes it is unavoidable.  I have slowly realized that nobody else is doing what I am doing, and so today I write briefly about this as a personal experience and how it affects my work.

For over 25 years now I have been focusing my entire work on designing manufactured concrete block which are used to build roofs, including domes and spheres.  When I began this, I had no idea that nobody was doing this, it seemed so obvious: surely others must be engaged in this sort of work?  But no, I am alone in this odd pursuit.  Over the decades, in my extensive dealings with industry, manufacturers, contractors, block producers, working masons and others that inhabit this masonry realm, nobody else is working on this particular problem.   I have asked virtually everyone I’ve met in my journey through this technological development if they are aware of others working on this problem?  The answer has always been “no” (if anyone is aware of others working on manufactured block as I am, please let me know!).   

My unique vocation is made more curious because –since its early inception- I have chosen to focus on triangular concrete masonry units.  Again, nobody is remotely close to pursuing this sort of thing, yet it seems so obvious to me.  To make it even more weird, I have decided to pursue interlocking triangular manufactured concrete block.  The reasons for this are plainly evident (even self-evident) as I’ve attempted to describe repeatedly over the years that I’ve written this blog.  Yet nobody else is doing anything like this.

My ‘home base’ in upstate western NY is property populated with numerous models, prototypes, structures, finished buildings and so forth.  I have been visited by numerous friends and acquaintances over the years who have observed this work, entered these buildings, and inspected these structures with varying amounts of interest and curiosity.  The common response is “but it’s all so obvious!” which it is.  Yet nobody else has pursued this type of masonry.

The apparently obvious, simple, and clear reasons for these masonry designs and configurations become somewhat obscured as my designs have developed into articulated, detailed and specialized forms which have evolved to meet the very specific constraints and limits imposed by the method of manufacture (concrete block machines) and the demanding specifications of assembly and –finally- the performance requirements of the finished building itself (strength, toughness, low cost, design flexibility, etc ).  Upon close inspection this ‘obvious’ masonry unit design has features and properties which pique the curiosity of an interested observer.

Although this work has appeared as an obvious and simple solution, it is very different from the standardized practices and existing methods used by the masonry industry.  Standardized practices generally involve only straight walls, square corners and rectangular block or brick.  These parameters have defined the scope of research and investigation within the masonry industry and academic community.  Because my designs are not rectangular (they’re triangular), they make much more than straight walls, and they behave differently than regular manufactured concrete block and the structures assembled from rectangular block.

My experience with academia has been quite humbling.  My work is typically referred to (or rather dismissed) as “concrete igloos” by those academicians who encounter it.  These individuals usually fail to grasp the inherent benefits of these designs; I am usually embarrassed for them, and smile meekly or write stupid poems in which I join them and mock myself along with my critics.

I have scoured academia for anyone doing work within the field of masonry science which might pertain to my own work.  I have encountered some great minds doing wonderful work, but nobody really does any work which is akin to my own particular designs.  It has been a source of frustration for me.  All assumptions, equations, engineering models, failure mechanisms, and in general all ways of viewing masonry structures are not adequate or appropriate to describe my own work.  This frustration at the unique nature of my particular focus has also served as source of inspiration and motivation for me to continue in my development of ideas and practices.

When I am able to demonstrate my ideas by making them, some people look twice.  Slowly, deliberately and knowingly I have built a small yet growing and important number of believers in my pursuit.  In our current age of instant gratification seemingly personified by the internet, I realize that I am a weirdo.  I don’t know how many other people could pursue an idea without compensation or acknowledgement or other justification for over 25 years, alone and with the tenacity and perseverance I have come to know so intimately.  It’s a lonely place I occupy, yet I find solace in this solitude.  Yes, I am a weirdo.

Change is afoot in masonry design.  I shall continue this pursuit with the same passion that was sparked in me as a seven year-old boy entering the great cathedrals of Europe for the first time.   There is much more to come, just watch what’s next.  I am as eager as ever.

"Don't wait for the trends to develop. Instead, watch for people messing with the rules, that is the earliest sign of significant change." - Joel Arthur Barker,  'Paradigms, the Business of Discovering the Future' 

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