Saturday, June 4, 2011

When Will We Learn?

Words from Yvonne-
This spring and summer we're witnessing natural disaster piling on natural disaster world-wide. Sendai/earthquake/tsunami/nuclear fatalities; the Mississippi and its tributaries behaving in ways inconvenient to human beings; tornadoes deleting acres upon thousands of acres, shanties and mansions alike, with scrap lumber and sheetrock in fragments as far as the eye can see. Here in Hinton we wonder whether it's all our own fault, whether it's the wrath of "God" (woo-hoo), or whether maybe it's the natural way nature behaves.

Humans stubbornly build structures in areas prone to earthquakes that can sustain some level of quake. As has been clearly shown, though, the standards given lip service have not been tough enough, certainly not in Japan.*

Similrly, we build houses alleged to be "hurricane-proof". Again: woo-hoo. Whose blame is greater? The designer's, the builder's, or the sucker's who buys them? The hottest hurricane-proofing gimmick today is (get this) itty-bitty precious little metal straps purported to hold the roof rafters to the upright members so the roof won't blow off. That would be laughable if it weren't so pathetic. And of course we build square box houses close together so that the wind can funnel between them and suck the walls out in what physicists call the Venturi effect. The rectangular box shape so ubiquitous in houses is old, though. It's traditional--what everybody is used to seeing. It's convenient. The furniture fits it.

Of course the wind loves a flat surface to push against! The Little Pig's house gets blown down again by the Big Bad Wolf, just like in the bedtime story ... but it's real.

We still make such houses of nominal 2 x 4s (which have shrunk over the years to 1 3/4 x 3 1/2--if you're lucky). We cover that with sheets of board made from scrap wood and glue--and we expect it all to stand up. When North American culture switched from timber-frame construction to 2-x-4 construction, house designers and builders contemptuously (but accurately) called the 2-x-4 mode a balloon frame because it was so lightweight and flimsy.

Many years ago Bucky Fuller decided that a dome was a better, stronger, more sustainable shape than a rectangular balloon frame of 2-x-4s and pressed wood--but a dome is inconvenient to build. The carpenters, poor dears, have to figure some odd angles: for example, 72 degrees instead of 90 degrees; and the furniture doesn't fit right. Oh gasp. There is a shape, though, documented as tracing back at least to the days when Norsemen told tales of Valhalla, that stands up in the fiercest gale. It is easy and inexpensive to construct, and it contains the furniture very well indeed; it is called a quonset hut.

Quonset huts dating from World War II (that happened in the 1940s, children) are still found all across the Pacific islands. After monsoons and typhoons and hurricanes have swept those islands clear of all else, the huts still stand. They're rusty, but they are still serviceable. No, you can't stack them into fashionable condo towers or into beehives, but we can't imagine that people enjoy living in hives or in fragile multi-story structures that in the end are tall matchboxes. Nor can such structures be accurately described as healthful, let alone safe. A magazine called Southern Living ran an interesting feature on page 100 of its issue dated May 2009. A couple bought a quonset hut in situ with a footprint 25 feet by 48 feet, and refitted it to be their home. The photos tell the story; ask your librarian, or see their piece at Another way in: southernhomeawards-quonsethuttransformation. One of these titles or a variant on it will show you the piece.

Such structures may not conform to current building codes or zoning restrictions or historic-building decrees from city planners or county commissioners or historic societies. If that's the case, what a shame. The last we heard (though we've seldom seen this principle exercised), laws that got passed could likewise get unpassed. It isn't the buildings that need changing; it's the codes. How difficult is that to grasp? And if you lose your home in a tornado because you built it to comply with the fiat of some historic commission or county council, try going to that body to get funding for replacement of your dwelling.

How much would it be worth to you to have a home that withstood tornadoes and cyclones and earthquakes? Haven't we seen enough destruction and grief and loss to reexamine our assumptions? What is tradition worth?

Many years ago an episode of Star Trek had the crew seeking a source of some radioactive element that was obtainable only from nuclear stations. Mr. Data suggested how to find such a station: "Look along any tectonic fault line. That's where the stations are all located; that or at least on the seacoast."

It can't happen here. It can't happen here. It can't happen here ... is the mantra. Well, it can and it probably will ... if it hasn't already. To protect yourself and your family, think about where you live. Think about the building you live in. Make appropriate changes. That is known as rational behavior.

It is true that recently this continent has been experiencing storms with a frequency and number statistically above normal. That may be traceable to humans' continual burning of fossil fuels, which burning raises the temperature of the planet on two counts: the actual heat generated and the resultant greenhouse effect--pollutants retaining heat that, left alone, would escape into space.

Climatologists now tell us that we're actually lucky (read: living on borrowed time), because the pollution in the atmosphere causes dimming that holds temperatures down, preventing the full effect of the sun's rays coming to earth. Apparently without such dimming, most land presently arable would be arid and desert-like. Then the population would be drastically reduced through starvation, and the planet would re-correct itself: With lower population, there would be diminished burning of fossil fuels and the planet would cool again.

Malthus was right:

Over and over again human populations reproduce themselves

to levels unsustainable by the planet's resources.

Look around you.

The real question, then, is this: Are we doing anything about it? The real answer is: No.

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*See Wall Street Journal of May 10 2011 page D-7 on designing for earthquake areas.

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