• Building Fast and Slow Part II - The World Trade Center

      Part II in our series comparing the construction of two Tallest Building in the World projects - the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center. See here for Part I. Unless otherwise noted, information and quotes are from “City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center”

    • Building Fast and Slow: The Empire State Building and the World Trade Center (Part I)

      The Empire State Building was completed in 1931. At a height of 1250 feet [0], it was the world's tallest building, exceeding the recently completed Chrysler building by 202 feet. It would hold that title for the next 39 years, until 1970 when it was surpassed in height by another New York skyscraper, the under-construction World Trade Center, which would reach a height of 1368 feet on the North Tower. The World Trade Center would hold that title for just 3 years, after which it would be su...

    • Advertisement
    • Comparing process improvement in manufacturing and construction: Duco vs Drywall

      Henry Ford famously said that customers could have the Model T in any color they wanted, as long as it was black. This restriction was largely driven by the limitations of automotive paint technology at the time. The only cheap, durable finish available for cars was a

    • An Overview of Concrete Forming Technology

      Reinforced concrete is, by a large margin, the most widely used building material on earth - by mass, we use as much reinforced concrete as every other material combined. One reason for this volume of use is concrete’s versatility - because concrete is placed as a liquid, it can be used to form structures of virtually any size and shape. Placing concrete thus requires some way of forcing the liquid concrete into the shape that you want it to take. This is traditionally done with concrete molds c...

    • Why did we wait so long for wind power? Part III - offshore wind

      Historically, most wind power has been built on land. But we're increasingly seeing turbines be built offshore, in the ocean. There are a few reasons you might want to build a wind turbine offshore. For one, winds over the ocean typically blow faster, and steadier, than winds over the land. And while wind over land often blows most strongly at night (when it’s needed the least), offshore winds often blow most strongly in the afternoon and early evening, when it’s needed the most. Together,...

    • Why did we wait so long for wind power? Part I

      Since the early 2000s, wind power has been a substantial fraction of new electricity capacity in the US. In 2020 wind power was 42% of new electricity generation capacity, and in 2021 it was 32%. This is also true around the world. In Europe, wind power has been the first or second largest source of new generation capacity since at least 2015:

    • Why aren't there economies of scale in building size?

      In general, large buildings aren’t much cheaper to build on a per-square foot basis than small buildings are. Why is this the case?

    • Where do economies of scale come from?

      If we’re going to understand why construction has so few economies of scale, it’s useful to know what causes economies of scale to occur in the first place. Economies of scale are the result of several different mechanisms.

    • How NEPA works

      The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is a piece of federal environmental legislation that was passed in 1969 towards the beginning of an “eternal September” of environmental laws. NEPA is often called the “magna carta” of environmental laws because of how influential it has been in shaping environmental policy. Not only does NEPA significantly influence federal government actions, but the law has served as a template that has been widely copied, both by state governments (in the form of...

    • How building codes work in the US

      Buildings must be built to the requirements of the building code, a set of laws that governs how a building must be built. Because building codes ultimately govern the form the built environment takes, it's useful to understand how they work, and how they evolve.

    • The Rise and Fall of the Manufactured Home - Part II

      When we left off, over a few short years mobile home manufacturing had grown into a massive industry, and was supplying an increasingly large fraction of the US’s housing. In 1973, 580,000 mobile homes were shipped, just over 50% of the number of single family home starts that year (1.1 million), and 22% of total housing units produced that year (including single family, multifamily, and mobile homes.) The Department of Commerce predicted that mobile home shipments would be between 750,000 and 8...

    • The Rise and Fall of the Manufactured Home - Part I

      A recurring theme of this newsletter is the failure of prefabrication (building homes in factories instead of on-site) to revolutionize the housing industry. While it’s possible to build a successful construction business with prefabrication, it hasn’t swept away the old methods of building - building a home on-site remains the most common (and in most cases, the cheapest) way of building a house in the US. (Outside the US, prefabrication is often more popular, but it’s still not a

    • Why are nuclear power construction costs so high? Part III - the nuclear navy

      This week we conclude our look at nuclear power construction costs. So far we’ve looked solely at conventional nuclear power stations that supply electricity to the grid for residential and commercial use. But civilian power stations aren’t the only sort of nuclear reactor that the US builds. The US Navy has been building nuclear reactors for 70 years as part of its Naval Reactors program. It’s built over

    • Industrialized Production of Joy - Interview with Tyler Goss

      This is an excerpt from a longer interview I did with Tyler Goss, a former architect who now works at AECOM, and has had a bunch of interesting roles in the AEC space, including, as we discuss below, working with Disney. I thought it was interesting enough that it was worth breaking out as a separate article.

    • The Science of Production

      Book review of the Western Electric Statistical Quality Control Handbook

    • Lessons from Shipbuilding Productivity - Part I

      When trying to think of how construction might be improved, I’ve often reached for a car manufacturing analogy. Cars are large, complex objects that improvements in production methods made vastly cheaper, and most folks start with a lot of preexisting knowledge about them, making them a useful point of comparison. (It’s not just me who does this - car analogies were a basic talking point at