Code Intersectionality

by Don Friedman on September 12, 2017

There’s been some discussion in the last couple of weeks on the topic of Belgian Block paving – usually and somewhat incorrectly referred to as cobblestones – being impassable for people with mobility issues. A solution exists for this particular problem, which is to provide smoother pavement at crosswalks. This allows people in wheelchairs or using canes or other assistive devices to cross without fear of falling while minimizing the visual impact on the street.

In a broader sense, there are many places where there are conflicts not just between the letter of various laws and code provisions, but between their goals. We now provide handrails even on unoccupied roofs, to make them safer for maintenance workers, but those handrails can change the appearance of landmark buildings and interfere with another relatively new requirement to have paths across the roofs of low-rise buildings that are clear for fire-fighters to cross to the rear. We want to save the appearance and materials of historic windows but we want to meet more stringent energy codes. We want to keep historic buildings intact but we want fire-resistance. We want novelty in architectural design and we want our buildings to not leak.

There’s a concept common the social sciences called “intersectionality.” The short version of it is that people are complex and no one aspect of their being defines them, so there is value at looking at multiple identities at once. In the case of buildings, the issue is a bit simpler since the identities are entirely imposed by observers. We have to decide if we want to emphasize historic preservation, risk, aesthetics, environment, or some other aspect of the buildings’ existence, but we cannot eliminate the others. In some cases the codes and regs make the issue simpler for us: for example, buildings listed on the National Register are exempt from New York City’s energy code requirement. Everything in design is a comprise and the specific issues of preservation mean that the compromises are often more visible than they are with new buildings. That’s not new, not surprising, and in my mind, not a bad thing. The overly-restored buildings dubbed “disneyficaton” are the result of preservation winning over all other considerations to its own detriment.

Redundancy and Resurgence

August 11, 2017

Apparently, traffic is up on the Erie Canal. The canal has had a strange history: as the first practical transportation link directly from the midwest to the east coast, it helped make New York City what it is. Traffic, mostly agricultural produce in the early 1800s, came here instead of floating down the Mississippi to […]

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Three Thoughts In 285 Words

July 21, 2017

I read Doug Stowe’s blog regularly. There’s a pretty good size gap between his work and mine, but what he has to say is always interesting and he says it in a way that both informs and entertains. His July 4th post is a good example of why I read his blog. In a very small […]

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Peeking Through

June 26, 2017

Infrastructure is to us as the ocean is to fish: it’s everywhere around us, and we depend on it completely, but we usually don’t see it even when we’re looking at it. Sometimes it shows up as oddities that require explanation; sometimes it shows up as windowless buildings. The cute corporate-art-deco structures in the two […]

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Why Green Roofs Are Not A Fad

June 21, 2017

People have known about the heat island effect for some time, where the concrete, asphalt, stone, and brick of buildings and streets absorb more heat than a natural landscape would, where black roofs absorb heat, where human activity generates heat, and the relatively lesser amount of vegetation means that the natural cooling from plant respiration […]

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Future Failure Portrait: Rubble Masonry

June 12, 2017

Let’s say it’s the nineteenth century and reinforced concrete doesn’t exist in anything remotely like its modern form. And let’s say you’re an ordinary builder trying to construct a foundation wall. And let’s say you’re not a psychic and therefore don’t know that the entire world of construction is going to be turned upside down […]

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Biodegrading Garbage

June 8, 2017

Animal waste processing plant, Barren Island, Brooklyn: Modern plans for composting and turning waste to energy have a lot of precedence. Before there was an airport at Floyd Bennet Field, that scrap of land was Barren Island, which processed so many animal carcasses that the adjacent water was named Dead Horse Bay. The problems we […]

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Preservation Is Better

May 12, 2017

A new study compares the environmental impact of replacing the buildings of the United Nations complex with retrofitting them. (A recently-completed project retrofitted them.) The short version: the higher efficiencies possible with mechanical systems in a new building would take at least 35 years (and maybe a lot longer) to overcome the environmental impact of the constriction of […]

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A Gray Area

May 5, 2017

This article on garages is somewhat confounding. On the one hand, I fully support adaptive reuse. On the other hand, building better garages for new development is still building more garages and therefore encouraging more driving within cities. On the other other hand, if you’re going to design something that is not great for the […]

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Resilience By Design

April 27, 2017

Flooding in the East River tunnel of the L train, from the MTA: Here is a long read from The Guardian on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, reliance to storms, and design solutions. To give a sense of the awakening to sea-level rise and flooding issues, we now have to add flood maps to our […]

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