The Hedgehog And The Fox Debate Practice

by Don Friedman on June 29, 2017

The oldest version of the saying is from ArchilochusThe fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing. It shows up in Aesop and was more recently used as the based of an essay by Isaiah Berlin. If we strip away various morals that have been found in that one sentence, it is a comparison of two different ways of thinking. Some people use one overarching idea to organize their thoughts, others use different ideas depending on the context. (The morals in the ancient tales usually favored the hedgehog, whose defense by way of curling into a ball and letting his spiky back repel carnivores was seen as superior to the fox’s many tricks and stratagems. If we’re honest about it, ancient fables and newer fairy takes are full of anti-fox and anti-wolf sentiment, probably because those predators posed a real threat to rural livestock.)

Old Structures might seem at first glance to be a hedgehog practice. Of the 400 or so buildings we worked on in 2016, one was new. The rest of the buildings were existing, and almost all of them were built before 1950. There’s an obvious consistency there. I’d argue that’s the context for the real issue, which is how we approach our work. We work with, in no particular order, steel, cast iron, wrought iron, reinforced concrete, mass concrete, brick, ashlar stone, rubble stone, terra cotta, concrete block, cast stone, wood, artificial wood, glass, and aluminum. We do pre-purchase conditions assessments, post-collapse forensic assessments, and assessments for a dozen other reasons; we design repairs, replacements, and removals; we design any kind of alteration you can name. We may have our preferences – it’s no secret that I believe that altering and reusing a building is better than replacing it – but there’s a wide spectrum of options that we can and have used.

Most importantly, the wide range of building types, materials, structural systems, existing conditions, owners, and future plans that we encounter means that it’s not possible for us to treat every project the same way. Everything we do is contingent on the context of the particular project, which means we have to use multiple strategies for different instances of the same problems. That seems pretty fox-like to me. Even more fox-like is the fact that we do so – we’ve adopted a contextual approach – not because we have an overarching theory of how conservation engineering is supposed to work, but because it’s what works for us.

Office Processes As Technology

May 31, 2017

I’ve talked before about the changes in office technology during just the period covered by my career – thirty years, so far – but I was recently reminded that the edges of “technology” blur imperceptibly into the surrounding social context. The internal operations of any office (I’ll use ours as an example) are a set […]

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Who Builds Your Architecture

April 23, 2017

Who Builds Your Architecture? is an ongoing discussion of the labor force in construction. Worth reading; worth thinking about, particularly the next time you hear about a mega-project.

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B Corps in Public

April 13, 2017

Wine on sale in a deli near our office: One sign of success for anything new is when the general public becomes aware of it. For example, I had used email within closed systems, like the on-campus computer network when I was an undergrad in the mid-80s, but I was amazed 1990 to hear about general-purpose […]

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Looking for a Project Manager

April 10, 2017

And now for something completely different… Old Structures is looking for a project manager. I’m going to describe who we’re looking for in this blog post and trust that if anyone reading is interested they’ll get in touch, or if anyone reading knows someone who might be interested they’ll forward a link to this post to their friend. […]

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What Do We Do All Day?

March 29, 2017

George W. Melville, Chief Engineer of the United States Navy Bureau of Engineering, in the 1890s. A serious man with a serious hat. We’re fairly busy right now. Also, we have two part-time student interns learning the basics. When you combine those two facts, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how we all […]

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Recertified As A B Corp

March 23, 2017

Old Structures Engineering has been recertified as a B Corp, a process that takes place every two years. This was our first recertification and my overall feeling is that it’s nice to know that our original certification wasn’t a fluke. There were two interesting aspects to taking the B Assessment for the second time. The first […]

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Neatly Categorized

February 4, 2017

As part of our biennial B Impact Assessment, I provided the photo above to show part of our recycling effort. In short, we sort and the landlord’s cleaning staff collects. From the right, our refrigerator, our food garbage, and our metal/plastic/glass bin. Fascinating stuff, I know. But this is better than putting everything in the garbage.

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There Is No Solution

January 9, 2017

A long read from The Guardian on time management: here. The short version: we all have jobs to do, and “time management” simply pushes tasks around. In the words of Joel Spolsky, a schedule is a bunch of wooden blocks that have to fit into a box of fixed size. You can juggle them but […]

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For The Weekend: More B Corp Discussion

December 11, 2016

The Harvard Business Review is, to my knowledge, not a bastion of anti-profit touchy-feely propaganda. So here’s an HBR article arguing that certified B Corps are more successful businesses.

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