Category Archives: Writings

Revisiting Form and Forces

I just presented a paper at the 2017 National Architectural Engineering Institute (AEI) Conference in Oklahoma City. The paper critiques graphical statics as a contemporary pedagogical tool. You can read it here.

While in Oklahoma City, I also went to see the final game played by the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team, where Russell Westbrook was honored in a pregame ceremony by Oscar Robertson. Not everyone is up to speed on NBA trivia; to learn more, read this NY Times article.

Cornell’s proposed Fine Arts Library at 100% design development

Cornell’s 100% design development (DD) drawings for the proposed Fine Art’s Library have been completed. The scheme continues to have serious fire-safety deficiencies, continues to be non-compliant with the New York State Building Code, and continues to be problematic for non-Code reasons as well: it destroys a flexible “low-value” industrial-type building that was extremely useful for the department of architecture and replaces it with a spectacularly useless mausoleum for the display of books. You can read more of my articles and blog posts about this project here.

Today, one day before the anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I offer two more reading options: first, a detailed analysis of the latest 100% DD drawings (and Cornell’s Code variances) and second, a Cornell Chronicle parody covering the same material.

This photo accompanies my Cornell Chronicle parody.

A Fulbright journal: Five months in Tianjin

I kept an electronic photo-journal for five months while living in Tianjin, China, as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar. During my time there during the fall 2016 semester, I taught two courses in the School of Architecture at Tianjin University, and also lectured in several other cities in China. You can read my journal in one of two formats: either as a black and white paperback book (click here to order a copy), or as a full-color pdf, embedded below. It takes a short time for the pdf viewer to load; click on the “fullscreen” button in the middle of the horizontal menu bar to enlarge the content.

[March 26, 2017 update] I’ve uploaded some random videos: Scenes from China.

Steel truss design

I’ve written a paper (not yet online) [Update 5/28/17: now online here] about graphical statics. In order to demonstrate that the “form-finding” objectives of such techniques are often superficial and flawed, I needed to provide a case study of an actual structural design problem, using real materials and real design methods, that accounts for things (like the buckling of bars in compression, or shear lag and effective net area of bars in tension, or deflection issues) that graphical statics ignores. So I created an enormous spreadsheet to find the optimal (lightest) steel double-angle Pratt or Warren truss for any given span, spacing, and loading condition. The spreadsheet actually designs 105 different trusses (with aspect ratios ranging from 2:1 to 16:1; and with from 2 to 14 “panels,” as shown in Figure 1) in order to find the optimal combination of aspect ratio and panel geometry for a given span, spacing, and loads.

Figure 1. Trusses are designed with from 2 to 14 panels

Figure 1. Trusses are designed with from 2 to 14 panels

Well, the spreadsheet had well over 1,000,000 cells and couldn’t be converted to an online calculator using the software I have. Therefore, I made a smaller version of the same spreadsheet — this one only designs a single truss (rather than 105 versions) and only considers whatever aspect ratio and panel geometry have been selected. However, this calculator can also be used to find the lightest truss, but only by trying out numerous geometries while keeping track of the truss weight.

Second edition of Structural Elements published

The second edition of my structures text, Structural Elements for Architects and Builders, has just been published by Common Ground Publishing. More information can be found here.

Second edition of Structural Elements for Architects and Builders

Second edition of Structural Elements for Architects and Builders

The new edition is substantially different from the first edition, which was published by Elsevier, with reorganized chapters and much new material, including new sections on material properties and systems for wood, steel, and reinforced concrete.

The new publishers have a different business model from Elsevier, and are able to offer much lower prices: only $30 for the paperback version and $10 for an electronic (pdf) version.

Thanks to Susan Schwartz for the cover photo of Schwartz Auditorium in Rockefeller Hall at Cornell.

Summary and critique of latest LEED reference guide (v4)

I’ve just completed a summary and critique of the latest LEED reference guide (v4) for newly constructed “green” buildings. This is the third such critique that I’ve posted online: my first such attempt was back in 2007 for LEED version 2.2, and my second summary was posted in 2010 for LEED’s 2009 edition. I’ve also posted a table with links to the various LEED sections (“categories’) within the three critiques.

Here’s a sample of my critique from the v4 Introductory section:

U.S. buildings actually produce relatively little CO2, mainly by burning oil or gas for heating and hot water. The big generators of global warming gases are not buildings, but rather the coal-burning electric utilities. By including the CO2 emissions from electric power plants in the category of “buildings,” LEED essentially lets the electric utilities off the hook — their contribution to global warming is barely mentioned in the reference guide. The reason for this is clear: LEED has no interest in threatening the infrastructural basis of corporate profitability by challenging the cheap supply of energy. In fact, LEED is not interested in any form of regional, national, or global planning that might actually address the questions it raises. Rather, it’s ideology is consistent with that of the corporate entities it serves so well, providing as it does a branding tool to validate their “sustainable” and “green” efforts: according to LEED, one must tap into the corporate desire for profitability, and put into motion the miracle of “markets” to solve all problems, one building at a time. In spite of LEED’s claim that the nonresidential (i.e., corporate) “green building portion of the construction market” has achieved a 35% market share in 2010, the planet continues to lurch closer and closer to some sort of disastrous climate crisis, global poverty persists, and most workers still “lead lives of quiet desperation.” But as long as the LEED brand grows, these counter-indications won’t dampen the spirits of the pragmatists in the USGBC (the U.S. Green Building Council is the not-for-profit organization that created the LEED rating system) or call into question their vision of a voluntary, consensus-based, market-driven program.


When living in Hong Kong in 1997-1998, I discovered that Chinese fortune cookies do not exist in China, but rather are an American innovation. In my early days eating American Chinese food, I got used to the idea that the fortune cookies supplied with the check at the end of the meal actually did contain a fortune — that is, a prediction of what would happen to you sometime in the future.


These fortunes always had a positive, or optimistic, character, since it would clearly be counter-productive for a restaurant to deliberately give its customers bad news.

At some point, however, the fortunes in fortune cookies seemed to change their character; in fact, they were no longer fortunes at all, but merely trite pronouncements about life.


Not having an actual fortune in a fortune cookie was discouraging to me, since there are already enough trite pronouncements about life available through mass media and news programming; it seemed hardly necessary to work my way through the plastic packaging of the cookie, and crack open the hard shell of cookie material, in order to get yet another annoying message about love, life, and work.

Yet I continued to pry open these strange clams of brittle dough, perhaps hoping that an actual fortune would emerge — something I could ridicule freely and with pleasure. Imagine my surprise, then, when I recently opened a fortune cookie at Ling Ling Garden restaurant in Ithaca, NY, and received neither an optimistic message about my future nor a facile observation about life, but a shocking rebuke and warning: “Your problem just got bigger. Think, what have you done.”

from Ling Ling Garden, Ithaca, NY

I was literally stunned. Was there a rogue employee somewhere in the fortune cookie production line planting dystopic messages in these cookies? And if so, why? And was this message/warning unique, or were there others like it? My mind raced feverishly thinking of the possibilities: “The man behind you has a gun. Your life is in danger.” “Hundreds of large rats have entered your home. Extermination is impossible.” “Your computer just crashed, and none of your important work was backed up. You will lose your job.”

In the end, we paid the bill and left the restaurant. I haven’t dared return.

fashionable building

I recently found the type-written original copy of my first “scholarly” paper, written in 1983 and rejected for publication in the Journal of Architectural Education. I still think it explains quite a bit about architectural fashion, competition, and the peculiar type of architectural pedagogy that results. I’ve put the whole thing online here.

hole in floor

You’d think it would easy to put a hole in a floor of a building, but it isn’t. The building code (here I’m talking about the International Building Code, or IBC, latest 2009 version) is organized so that code enforcement people can check whether plans for buildings are in compliance with the code, rather than being organized so that architects can figure out what is or is not possible.

image of hole in floor

image of hole in floor

I made a calculator to help designers figure out whether their proposed holes, connecting two or more floors in a building, are in compliance with the 2009 IBC (similar to earlier versions). I also provide a more detailed discussion of the logic behind making such holes, with an invitation for those more expert than myself to clarify some puzzling code issues.