April 26, 2013
Cities around the world are covered in spray-painted hieroglyphics and cryptic designations scrawled on public surfaces; unintelligible tags and arcane signs intended to communicate messages to a specialized audience with a trained eye. Such markings are so prevalent that they just blend into the urban patina of dirt and disrepair and go largely unnoticed. I’m not talking about illegal graffiti. Rather, the officially sanctioned infrastructural “tagging” employed by public works departments around the country.
You’ve probably seen these markings on streets and sidewalks. Multi-colored lines, arrows and diamonds denoting the presence of some subterranean infrastructure or encode instruction for construction or maintenance workers. A secret language that temporarily manifests the invisible systems that power our world. Recently, Columbia’s Studio-X blog shared the decoder ring that unlocks these secret messages:
A version of the above code was first implemented in California after construction workers accidentally cut through a petroleum pipeline in 1976, resulting in a fatal explosion that destroyed half a city block. To prevent future incidents, a system of notation known as DigAlert was developed to communicate vital information to anyone who might be doing construction work or excavations in areas near underground cables or pipelines. Since then, the American Public Works Association established a standard color code to identify subterranean infrastructure in American cities. This standard is a recommended by most national agencies, but, like the “fire diamond,” it is not a mandate intended to supersede any local regulations.
These “safety colors” –expanded to include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, grey, white, and black– have been formalized by the American Standards Institute (ANSI) as Safety Color Code Z535, which provides Munsell notation and Pantone color-matching information to help ensure consistency across mediums.
While the color system warns workers about certain types of hazard, there is a complementary language used to approximately mark the underground location of a conduit, cable, or pipe. According to the Guidelines for Operator Facility Field Delineation established by the Common Ground Alliance, spray-painted lines (in the appropriate color, of course) space between four-feet and fifty-feet apart should be used to mark the center of a single facility or, if multiple conduits are running in a single trench, over their outside edges with arrows pointing in the the direction the services are running with a perpendicular line connecting the edge marks to form an H (as seen in the photo at the top of this post). A diamond is used instead of the perpendicular line to indicate a duct system.
While just as esoteric (though not as artistic) as illegal graffiti, these regulated utility markings encode a different type of turf. And knowing that Krylon code can save lives. Such urban annotation reveals the danger and complexity of American cities and is just one more example of the standardized, secret signs that surround us.
Previously: Decoding the City: The Fire Diamond
April 10, 2013
Cities are full of signs. Signs telling us where to go and how to get there; signs suggesting things to buy and signs keeping us from where we shouldn’t be. Every sign is a code of sorts, a graphic system linked to something else – an idea, an instruction, a building. Typically, these codes are carefully designed to be decipherable by as many people as possible – everyone, ideally. They reduce meaning to its most essential components: RED=STOP. But occasionally in cities, there are signs that aren’t intended to be read by everyone, coded messages for specific agencies or civil service employees. These signs are ubiquitous but largely indecipherable and mostly go unnoticed. One such sign is NFPA 704 – perhaps better known as the “fire diamond.”
NFPA 704 is the American system for identifying hazardous materials created by the National Fire Protection Association. It was first developed in 1957 by the NFPA’s Sectional Committee on Classification, Labeling, and Properties of Flammable Liquids “to safeguard the lives of those individuals who may be concerned with fires occurring in an industrial plant or storage location where the fire hazards of materials may not be readily apparent.” In 1961, the NFPA formally adopted the primary-colored diamond design as a National standard, providing emergency workers with a simple, readily recognized and decipherable system of signage describing general hazards to help workers in planning a safe and effective response.
These signs are found on chemical tanks, warehouse doors, and loading docks all over the country – any industrial, commercial, or institutional building that manufactures, processes, uses, or stores hazardous materials that “would cause, or significantly contribute to an increased risk of serious injury, incapacitating illness or increased risk of death.” They are exclusively used on structures or containers; signage for vehicles carrying hazardous materials is regulated by the Department of Transportation. Although the National Fire Protection Agency standard describes the relative sizes of the diamonds and the numbers, including the suggestion that diamonds used on building exteriors measure no less than 15 inches by 15 inches, local authorities have final jurisdiction over how the signs are implemented, including their location and size.
The basic form is familiar to anyone who’s every had some sidewalk chalk and a ball. A diamond divided into four smaller diamonds, each given a color code and number to signify a specific hazard: the blue diamond is the health signal, ranked according to the level of toxicity and effects of exposure to response personnel; the red signifies the level of flammability, and the yellow indicates reactivity. The white diamond is reserved for any other necessary information, such as water reactivity, radioactivity, the need for protective equipment, or specialized extinguishing agents. The number within each diamonds indicates the severity of the threat, ranging from 0, indicating no hazard or unstable materials, to 4, which indicates highly combustible, toxic, or reactive materials that could cause death or major injury.
With the exception of the poison and radiation symbols, NFPA 704 is almost completely opaque to the average person and just fades into the background of visual white noise produced by the modern American built environment. But to those for whom they’re intended, the signs provide invaluable, and potentially life-saving information. Other countries have their own unique standards, such as the orange hazard symbols required on all European vehicles carrying dangerous materials. Have you observed similar signs oversees? Are you curious about other signs and symbols? Let us know in the comments!
March 22, 2013
It’s been five years since the Make It Right organization broke ground on their first house in the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood in New Orleans, an area that was completely devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The non-profit was formed in 2007 with the optimistic and ambitious plan to build 150 sustainable homes for returning residents who were struggling to rebuild. From the very beginning it was a high-profile project, partially because of the 21 renown architects commissioned to design new homes and duplexes for the area, but mostly due to the fact that it was founded by actor and architecture enthusiast Brad Pitt, whose celebrity gave the project an early boost and briefly made it a cause cêlèbre for many wealthy donors. This week, The New Republic ran a disparaging piece questioning the progress that Make It Right has made over the last five years, and MIR Executive Director Tom Darden responded with his own strongly worded rebuttal, calling The New Republic piece by Lydia DePillis a “flawed and inaccurate account” of their work. Taken together, the two articles provide some compelling insight into the nature of the project and, more broadly speaking, the benefits and detriments of large-scale building projects in disaster-stricken cities.
I should probably say up front that I lived in New Orleans for more than six years and left the city in the wake of Katrina. After leaving, I visited New Orleans frequently and would occasionally document the progress of the Make It Right development on my personal blog. The reconstruction of the Lower 9th Ward is a complex issue with both emotional and political ramifications. There is no right answer to disaster recovery and there probably never will be. That’s what makes it such a fascinating and incredibly difficult problem. Make It Right believed that good design is the solution.
But of course, good design is expensive. One of the biggest complaints levied against Make it Right by DePillis is the cost of their houses:
Make It Right has managed to build about 90 homes, at a cost of nearly $45 million, in this largely barren moonscape—viewed from the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, which connects the ward to the center city, they spread out like a field of pastel-colored UFOs….Construction on the cutting-edge designs has run into more than its share of complications, like mold plaguing walls built with untested material, and averaged upwards of $400,000 per house. Although costs have come down, Make It Right is struggling to finance the rest of the 150 homes it promised, using revenue from other projects in Newark and Kansas City to supplement its dwindling pot of Hollywood cash.
The article argues that the same amount of money could have potentially been used to accomplish much more. It’s a valid point that many people agree with, but TNR played it a little fast and loose with their numbers. Make It Right has actually spent $24 million on the construction of 90 homes. Still a significant amount, and Darden admits that yes, more conventional homes could be built more cheaply and in greater numbers. But that was never the point of Make It Right. Not exactly, anyway. The organization was formed to build high-quality homes for those that needed them the most. Darden writes:
While the academic debate about the fate of the Lower 9th Ward raged, families were already returning to the neighborhood, living in toxic FEMA trailers and planning to rebuild. These homeowners had decided to come home, but lacked the resources to rebuild in a way that would be safe and sustainable. Make It Right decided not to try to build as many houses as possible, but to design and build the best houses possible for this community.
For Make It Right, “the best” means that all houses meet stringent design guidelines that require them to meet the highest sustainability standard, LEED Platinum, incorporate new building technologies, and work with the latest construction methods and materials. Additionally, every home is structurally engineered to withstand 130 mph winds and five-foot flood surges.
Those designs are a mixed bag, and in some cases the final built project bears little resemblance to the original design. This is due to the fact that, as I understand it, the design architects relinquish control of their projects after handing over construction documents to Make it Right’s team of architects and builders. Ostensibly, this is to help keep costs down and strengthen the vernacular elements of each building to create something that feels like a true neighborhood despite the fact that it was born from disparate architectural visions. One of the most jarring examples of this is the minimalist home designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban:
From rendering to reality, something got lost in translation. The strong horizontals of Ban’s design have been lost to extraneous moldings, some profound design changes, and a less than flattering paint job. Though these may seem like small concessions, the cumulative result has destroyed the craft and elegance that was a critical element of the original design. To be fair though, these changes may have been the result of conversations between MIR and the homeowner. Collaboration is a key part of the MIR process. But if such drastic changes were necessary, I can’t help but think that Ban’s design shouldn’t have been considered in the first place. There are a few other questionable designs by architects that just don’t seem to “get” building in New Orleans, and during my last visit to Lower 9th Ward back in 2010, I couldn’t help but think that it felt more like an exhibition of experimental housing than a neighborhood. Perhaps that will change with time, natural growth, and much-needed commercial development.
To be sure though, there are also some terrific designs. While it’s exciting and press-friendly to have projects from high profile international architects like Ban, Frank Gehry, Morphosis, and David Adjaye, I think the most successful Make It Right homes have come from local architects like Waggoner & Ball and Bild design, who are familiar with the city’s traditional architecture have have created some of the most innovative houses in New Orleans by analyzing and reinterpreting classic local building types like the “shotgun house” and the “camelback.” For these firms, it’s not about always about imitating how the traditional buildings looked, but how they performed.
Design aside, perhaps The New Republic’s ire is misdirected. I can’t believe that the people behind Make It Right have anything but the best intentions for the city and are doing the best they can to fulfill their mission. However, some people have argued –and continue to argue– that they should never have been allowed to begin. The 9th Ward is one of the more remote parts of the city and due to its near total devastation, there was some speculation that the neighborhood might be abandoned completely and allowed to transform back into a natural flood plain. There was even talk that the entire city might shrink – a not implausible idea. After all, Detroit recently unveiled a 50-year plan, dubbed “Detroit Future City,” to do just that:
The Motor City hopes to manage its shrinking population with large-scale “deconstruction” to clean up blighted and sparsely occupied neighborhoods that pose a threat to public safety and an unnecessary strain on civic infrastructure. These decommissioned blocks will be replaced with parks, “ecological landscapes,” and even urban farms. The idea is that the city’s limited resources could be more efficiently employed in dense areas. It’s like a utopian plan mixed with the plot of RoboCop.
However, the City of New Orleans, for reasons that were surely both emotional and political, elected not to shrink their footprint. The strain on resources and infrastructure that may have resulted from this decision is one of the problems highlighted by The New Republic piece. This has been a constant debate since the rebuilding began. Why divert valuable resources to remote areas instead of relocating those residents to denser areas that are better served? It’s a good question. The city has only recently agreed to invest in the civic infrastructure of the Lower 9th Ward – to the tune of $110 million. This is a welcome relief for some of the city’s residents and for others a waste of funds that comes at the expense of more central neighborhoods. For Make It Right, it’s a sign that the city is finally taking the initiative to invest in more innovative infrastructure. Darden notes that “The new streets are made in part of pervious concrete that reduces runoff by absorbing water,” adding that “The city should be applauded for developing some of the most innovative infrastructure in the country, not chastised for it.” It’s interesting to think that if such innovations were to continue in the Lower 9th Ward, the neighborhood could become a sort of urban laboratory where new sustainable initiatives and materials can be tested –safely, of course– before being used in denser areas throughout the city.
The articles written by The New Republic and Make It Right offer many other salient points and counterpoints and I recommend reading them both for a comprehensive view on the issue. They make for a compelling read and include some touching anecdotes from neighborhood residents. Reconstruction at this scale is an urban issue that Make It Right started addressing with architecture.But architecture can only do so much. There are obviously larger social and political issues that are still need to be figured out. And then of course, there are events that can’t be predicted, like how the remarkable shifting demographics of Post-Katrina New Orleans will change the city. At first, Make It Right was an optimistic, symbolic kick-off to reconstruction. Five years later it’s a become a case study and a contentious point of discussion and debate. But there’s a lot of value to that as well. As I said in the introduction, there is no right answer. But that’s exactly why we need to keep talking.
March 15, 2013
Every year on March 17, monuments around the world go green for 24 hours to celebrate St. Patrick’s day. The most famous of these temporary interventions is the dyeing of the Chicago River.
The tradition started in 1961 when water pollution controls were first enforced in the Windy City and a Chicago plumber was trying to locate a pipe that was dumping waste into the Chicago River. In order to find the waste line in question, a green dye was dumped into several waste systems to determine which one was dumping into the city’s eponymous river. It’s a simple enough idea. But at the end of the day when the plumber reported to Stephen Bailey, business manager of the Plumber’s Union, chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and consummate showman, Bailey saw the plumber’s dye-soaked jumpsuit and had an epiphany that would forever change the face of Chicago — at least for one day a year. A few phone calls later, during which he surely had to convince politicians and engineers that he was, in fact, not joking, plans were in place to dye the river green on St. Patrick’s Day using the same chemical compound that coated the plumber’s coveralls.
Although Bailey intended that the river remain green for only a single day, the process was something of an experiment and when it was first attempted in 1962, Bailey mixed 100 pounds of dye into the river with speedboats, which turned out to be a little too much and the holiday spirit was accidentally extended for an entire week. In following years, the recipe was refined and eventually perfected. Today, about 40 pounds of the dye is used.
That original dye actually has a pretty fascinating history of its own. It’s called fluorescein and was first synthesized in 1871 by Nobel Prize winning chemist Adolf von Baeyer, who also created synthetic indigo, so thank him for those sweet jeans you’re wearing.
Fluorescein is a synthetic compound that turns from an orange or red to green when mixed into water and excited by sunlight. It was commonly used to trace water flows, check for leaks, and study pollution or drainage. Outside of plumbing –way outside of plumbing– fluorescein has also played an important role in the air and space industry. Not only has it been used by militaries around the world to help locate parachutists who have landed in water, but it was also famously used to help locate the Gemini IV, the first NASA mission to be supported from Mission Control in Houston, after its landing capsule crashed into the ocean more than 40 nautical miles of course due to the failure of its guidance control systems.
Although it was deemed to be safe for the river, concerned environmentalists in Chicago petitioned the local government to find a more natural replacement for the fluorescein in 1966 and as a result, a “thoroughly tested,” top-secret, vegetable-based dye is now used. When asked about the safety of the current mystery dye in 2005, Laurene von Klan, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, told the Chicago Tribune that “It’s not the worst thing that happens to the river. When you look closely at the problem, it’s not something that needs to be our priority right now. In fact, when that becomes our most important issue, we’ll all have to celebrate because it will mean the river has improved so much. . . . Studies show [that] for creatures who live in the river now, [the dye] is probably not harmful.”
But dyeing the river was only one of Bailey’s holiday urban design schemes. He also proposed using green flood lights to dye the Wrigley Building green, but ultimately had his idea rejected. Bailey was ahead of time, a holiday visionary. In the years since his first grand infrastructural intervention, cities around the world have started transforming their buildings buildings and even entire landscapes with go green on St. Patrick’s Day: The Empire State Building, The Sydney Opera House, the London Eye, Tornoto’s CN Tower, Table Mountain in Cape Town, the Prince’s Palace in Monaco, and the list goes on.
Today, going “green” has taken on a different meaning. Thanks to an increasing interest in climate change and sustainability, the color now carries political, economic, and urban connotations. It seems fitting then that the literal “greening” of the world cities on St. Patrick’s Day began with a law designed to control and reduce pollution.
February 26, 2013
Last January, air pollution reached new levels of toxicity in China. Just how bad did things get? According to the Chinese Air Quality Index (AQI), measurements of particulate matter in the air reached more than 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter the northeastern part of country. That probably doesn’t mean anything to you without context though, so here it is: anything above 300 is considered “hazardous” and citizens are warned that they “may experience more serious health effects.” For even more context, consider that the U.S. AQI only goes up to 500. Air quality in China is a constant concern and while the recent toxic cloud has dissipated for now, a number of businesses are creating new ways to battle pollution at every scale – from personal designer face masks to inflatable architecture.
The Shanghai office of the design firm Frog recently came up with a concept for a modern air mask that provides air quality data in real time. The AirWaves mask (top image) is an improvement to the standard air masks in both style and substance. As it filters the air breathed by the wearer, embedded particle sensors feed data to an accompanying smartphone app that connects to a larger AirWaves network, which users can access to view air data by neighborhood. Frog hopes that by “leveraging the community” they can create a more reliable and a more trustworthy source of pollution data.
The Shenzen-based company Broadwell technologies builds inflatable, pressurized domes to cover athletic fields in winter, but lately it has found new clientele for its enormous inflatable architecture: wealthy Chinese people and organizations who like to breathe. Broadwell has partnered with the California-based air filtration company UltraViolet Devices, Inc. (UVDI) to add air filtration systems to its domes so that Chinese residents can enjoy the outdoors in the safety of the indoors. The most widely publicized use of Broadwell’s new domes is their installation over the sports complex at the International School of Beijing (ISB), where the dome was fitted with a custom dual-stage particulate and activated carbon filter system designed by UVDI. The joint venture by the Broadwell and UVDI creates a space with an AQI rating below 50 – within the range of what is technically referred to as “good”.
Domes and inflatable buildings captured the imagination of architects in the 1960s and 1970s, but they have traditionally been affiliated with revolutionary artists and architects like Ant Farm, who traveled the country inflating temporary structures to hold lectures or screen movies, and Buckminster Fuller, who suggested that a two-mile diameter dome could be built over midtown Manhattan, saving residents more than 90 percent on their energy costs while also protecting them from inclement weather and nuclear attacks. Broadwell’s inflatables are decidedly less counter-cultural but are in their own way revolutionary, as they represent a new solution to temporary atmospheric control at a massive scale. These so-called “pollution domes” can cost more than a million dollars and measure over 54,000 square feet – not quite the size of a city, but unless the sources of the pollution are regulated, covering all of Beijing would only transform the Chinese city into the world’s biggest smokers’ lounge.
China is taking steps to improve its air quality but cleaning pollution takes times and governments tend to move slowly. While new policies take shape, Chinese designers and engineers will continue to affect change by doing what they do best: solving problems creatively.