Category Archives: Curiosities

The Five Takeaways of Deconstruction: Buffalo ReUse

Buffalo, like many other cities in America, was a once booming city of industry in the late 19th and early 20th century.  It was a manufacturing powerhouse, located squarely at the western end of the Erie Canal.  Cars, consumer goods, railroad cars, steel, grain storage, were some of the major industries here.

Grand theatres, office buildings, and homes sprung up to accommodate the growing middle class.  At one point, it even rivaled New York City as one of the wealthiest cities in the United States.  Beautiful buildings and parks proliferated all over the city, from such names as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and Frederick Law Olmsted.  However, after the Depression, industries went out of business and never regenerated.  People fled to the suburbs, or to other cities.  Currently, Buffalo is a city estimated to have 268,900 residents, of which this number is declining.  Approximately 10,000 houses lay empty.

With empty houses comes a number of issues, including blight, crime, vandalism, and a reduction in community.  The city has plans to demolish 5,000 houses in the next couple of years.

Simply demolishing these houses and putting the rubble into a landfill seems to be the easy and quick short term solution.  However, what about the most efficient long term solution?  This is where deconstruction comes in.

“Deconstruction, or ‘green demolition’, is the process of taking down a building in the opposite way it was assembled, so that as much of the building material can be salvaged and reused.  We use a 10,000 pound all-terrain forklift, to complement human labour, and it has proven to be a more efficient, cost-effective, and economically practical approach than hand deconstruction,”  describes Rachel Matthews, Volunteer Coordinator at Buffalo ReUse, a not-for-profit social enterprise in Buffalo, New York.

From a materials perspective, the process of demolition by Buffalo ReUse is incredibly efficient compared to a conventional demolition.

“We can effectively reclaim up to 50% of the tonnage of a house that would have otherwise been discarded – including architectural detail, antique items, and good quality building material that you can’t find in houses today,” she explains.

Caesandra Seawell and Rachel Mathews of Buffalo ReUse provides the five takeaways of deconstruction below.

1.  Cities all over the US are beginning to realize the benefits of deconstruction.

With the ability to recover so many valuable resources from a large stock of old houses, former boomtowns in the Rust Belt have seen the growth of green demolition/salvage social enterprises.

“For example, in Pittsburgh there’s Construction Junction, in New York there’s Sustainable South Bronx, in Washington State there’s New Heights Construction, and in Baltimore there’s The Loading Dock.  Similar programs have also popped up in Portland and Detroit,” explains Mathews.

2.  Construction waste makes up about 20% of landfill waste in the US.

Without so much of a thought, many old buildings are demolished, reduced to a pile of rubble, and a new building is plopped into its place.  Debris is cleared away and dumped in a landfill.  Plenty of this building material is valuable and recyclable, such as wood, metal, concrete, paper and plastic.

3. The economics of demolition differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Seawell explains the costs of deconstruction versus demolition.

“The average two-story house costs between twelve to sixteen thousand dollars to demolish, whether it’s regular demolition or deconstruction.  This yields about 45 tons of rubble.  However, with deconstruction, the difference is that the owner gets a tax deduction for donating the materials that are salvaged and recycled – this is usually around $8,000 or so,” she explains.

“The cost of the deconstruction is based on a couple things – equipment rental, cost of throwing material in the landfill, whether or not there is asbestos in the building, sewing cuts and labour,” says Seawell.

Prices also vary between counties.

“The one challenge we have is the cost of landfill.  In Buffalo, a ton of debris costs about $25 to dispose, which is very cheap compared to other cities on the East Coast such as New York.  In NYC for example, it costs about $110 a ton, so contractors make sure to separate and divert materials.  So, conventional demolition is so popular in Buffalo because it’s so inexpensive and quick.  It costs $1,125.00 to use the landfill and bury a house, while if you were looking at NYC, it would cost $4,950 just to use the landfill.”

4.  Deconstruction is a great way to salvage a piece, or pieces, of history.

Beyond the economic benefits of deconstruction, the simple fact exists that deconstruction yields some really cool stuff.  Visiting ReSOURCE, I came across early 20th century door handles, 1950s light fixtures, stained glass windows, vases, paintings, chandeliers, sinks, and beautiful cabinets, copper ceiling tiles, and a bevy of other bric-a-brac.  Most of these things were constructed during a time where quality was important, and planned obsolescence was not a standard.

5.   Deconstruction is also a way to engage the community.

Buffalo ReUse has found that deconstruction has had a number of knock-on effects.  First, is that deconstruction has helped to remove abandoned houses, which are seen as liabilities in the city.  The organization has also hired and trained local people, many of them youth from low income neighbourhoods.  The store, ReSOURCE, has been able to sell low cost items for people in the neighbourhood.

The organization has also engaged its neighbours in urban planning, envisioning how vacant spaces would take shape in their community.

“Ideally, we want to transform all of the vacant lots in our target area into gardens, parks, safe pass-thrus, greenhouses, and other spaces that benefit and beautify the neighbourhood,” explains Seawell.

“On top of that, we also want to continue to plant trees, hold workshops, empower the community, and promote environmental stewardship,” she adds.

It is clear that Buffalo ReUse has some lofty goals and big ideas.  Like their deconstructions, with a little elbow grease they can make these things happen.

Thanks to Rachel Mathews and Caesandra Seawell in writing this article.  More information about Buffalo ReUse can be found at http://www.buffaloreuse.org.

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The Five Takeaways of Star Trek: Jonathan Lane

Star Trek has always been there for Jonathan Lane, Trekxpert and Chief of Communications for STARFLEET, Star Trek’s oldest fan club.  The airing of Star Trek’s first episode, “Arena”, took place two days before Lane was born.  He watched Star Trek during dinnertime as a child growing up in the 1970s.  He doodled Starship Enterprises on his science homework.

“I loved the way that the show worked, the fact that it was science-y.  I was, for the most part, a geeky science kid,” he explains.

He’s memorized the plot and title of all Star Trek episodes, from all the series.  And while attending Cornell, he and his roommates would even have Star Trek marathons.

“I can’t even imagine some of the Star Trek marathons these days – with all of the series – you could technically watch four and a half weeks worth of Star Trek episodes without repeating one,” jokes Lane.

“But that wouldn’t be healthy,” he warns.

Lane claims to own six Star Trek uniforms, and even featured a Star Trek groom’s cake at his wedding.  His wife, who is not a Trekkie, was good natured about it.

Below, Lane provides the five takeaways of Star Trek.

1) Star Trek provides a futuristic lens on contemporary social issues.

In the 1960s and 70s, there was a lot of social controversy and upheaval in the US – and in the 1960s, television presented a sanitized view of ourselves.  For example, The Andy Griffith Show, Dick Van Dyke, Leave it to Beaver – these television shows were, in a way, utopian versions of society.

“Gene Roddenberry wanted Star Trek to be a mirror of what was going on in contemporary society, and he created other civilizations who encountered similar issues.  There is one particularly famous example, an episode called “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, where an alien was half white and half black – had whiteface makeup on the left side of his face, and was completely midnight black on the right side.  There was a being like him from the same planet, except he was white on the right and black on the left – and they had been hunting and running from each other through the cosmos for thousands of years.  Eventually, the entire planet of the half black and half white beings was destroyed, and because of their deep hatred, the two characters end up killing each other as well, even though they are the last beings on their planet.  This spoke strongly to the civil rights movement,” explains Lane.

“There was another episode where Klingons started arming villagers with primitive flintlock guns to take over an area occupied by mountain people, and Kirk and his crew had to decide whether or not to start arming these mountain people to defend themselves.  It was a perfect metaphor for what was happening in Vietnam,” says Lane.

Similar themes were reflected in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine.

2) Not all Star Trek fans live in their parents’ basements, have never kissed girls before, or have tape in the middle of their glasses.

There are several types of Star Trek fans.  Two commonly heard phrases are “Trekkers” and “Trekkies”.

“The easiest way for me to describe the difference between a Trekker and Trekkie is that a Trekker owns a pair of Spock ears, and a Trekkie is someone who owns them AND wears them.  An alternate explanation is that a Trekker gets angry if you call them a Trekkie.”

Lane goes on in further detail:

“A Trekkie is that typical geek who has no real connection with reality – they live in their mother’s basement, and believe that Star Trek is the be all and end all of everything.  Trekkers are a bit more progressive about Star Trek – they don’t go around giving the Vulcan salute to everyone, and they don’t wear Star Trek uniforms to court.”

Extremely devoted Trekkies are sometimes called “Get-a-lifers”, who represent the typical stereotype of a Star Trek fan.  This was made popular by a Saturday Night Live skit in which William Shatner lambastes Trekkies at a Star Trek convention, telling them, “For Chrissakes, it’s just a TV show!  Get a life!”

However, for the most part, Star Trek fans are a diverse bunch.
“There are all sorts of Star Trek fans out there – one of our officers in STARFLEET is in her 80s or 90s.  We have members who are 10, 11, 12 years old.  There are people in college, professionals, lawyers, doctors, anyone you can imagine.  There are even people who have met their current husband or wife through STARFLEET, or their second or third husband for that matter.  There’s this stereotype that we’re loners – but really, we are people who like being with people – we’re an inclusive bunch you could say,” explains Lane.

3) The oft-mocked Star Trek convention is not a laughing matter.

There are two types of Star Trek conventions – professional ones, and fan-run ones.  The predominant professional one is run by a company called Creation Entertainment, which started in the 1970s and 1980s.  What began as a quick way for a Long Island comic book store to make extra money, has turned into a multimillion dollar enterprise.

“The first Star Trek convention started off as a way to make a quick buck selling merchandise for the store, with the hook of having several Star Trek actors signing autographs.  However, over the past fifteen years, these professional conventions have emerged into huge, monolithic conventions in major American cities, where big (Star Trek and science fiction) stars attend, and spots in autograph lines are sold.  The events are extremely well run and well attended.  They’re very high profile events,” explains Lane.

On the other hand, the fan-run conventions provide a more “personal” feel.

“The fan run conventions are held in smaller towns and cities, and do not have such a large budget – perhaps only two or three Star Trek stars are able to attend.  However, everyone gets together, has room parties, dances, and the like.  And they’re typically not as expensive.  However, as Star Trek fandom waned over the years, as well as the recession, many fan-run conventions have had to be cancelled.  Some conventions have gone from having 2,000 down to 200 registrants, and they haven’t been able to afford doing them anymore,” laments Lane.

Of course, at both types you’ll find people wearing costumes and Spock ears.

4) The rivalry between Star Wars and Star Trek could be likened to the cola wars.

I asked Lane about the rivalry between Star Wars and Star Trek fans.

“I think the debate between Star Trek and Star Wars is analogous to the debate between Coke and Pepsi.  I enjoy and drink both.  The difference between the two is the ‘trek’ part.  Star Trek is more about exploration, and you aren’t always guaranteed a phaser battle.  I mean, you’ll have them from time to time, and we’ve seen some good battles against the Borg.  But with Star Wars, the ‘wars’ part is guaranteed – you just have to wait a few minutes for the next battle to happen.”

Lane describes how Star Trek is changing.

“However, if you look at the most recent Star Trek movie – Kirk on an ice planet running from a giant scorpion, Sulu with his collapsible sword – there is a feeling that JJ Abrams is pulling Star Trek more in line with Star WarsStar Wars is the more successful franchise, from a mainstream acceptance standpoint, although both franchises still have incredibly strong fan bases.”

5)  The technologies on Star Trek can best be described as art imitating life imitating art.

When creating technologies for the show, Gene Roddenberry conducted painstaking research to ensure that things were accurate.  In some cases, Roddenberry would work with NASA to find out what some up-and-coming gadgets were.

Many gadgets have already materialized in one form or another

“One doesn’t have to look further than the communicator – which we now see as a cell phone.  I wonder if Captain Kirk knew that, one day, we would even be taking pictures with these communicators!” laughs Lane.

“In many of the original 1960s episodes, there were these small, hard, square-shaped objects that could be placed into computers and read – years before the floppy disk.  And now, forty years later, some technology has even leapfrogged over Star Trek—as you won’t find many floppy disks around anymore,” explains Lane.

And in some cases, NASA was inspired by Star Trek.

“One of the technologies that the USS Enterprise had, the impulse engine, was run by something called ion propulsion.  It’s where people go through space, pick up some stray hydrogen, process it, and as you pick up speed, you pick up more hydrogen and accelerate.  This is something that NASA is working on right now, no doubt in part because of Star Trek,” says Lane.

And of course, the one technology that came from Star Trek that Lane is keeping his hopes up for?

“Teleportation,” he jokes.

Only time will tell.

More information can be found about STARFLEET at http://www.sfi.org.

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The Five Takeaways of the Loch Ness Monster: Adrian Shine

There are many mysteries in life that will never be solved.  Who makes the crop circles in farmers’ fields?  Who built those statues on Easter Island?  How did they build the pyramids?  Do aliens exist?  Why is Christopher Walken so scary?

One such mystery that has persisted over centuries is that of the Loch Ness Monster.  In 565 AD, St. Columba, a Gaelic monk, had come to Scotland to spread the word of Christianity.  He was the first person to have reported a Nessie sighting, claiming to have “drove away a certain water monster” by making the sign of the cross with his fingers and yelling religious verse at it.  The “water monster” fled.

Centuries and centuries of sightings followed around Loch Ness.  Old grannies, policemen, monks (Ed. Note: what is with all these monks sighting Nessie?), tourists, shopkeepers all claimed to have seen her.  A photo of Nessie then surfaced, which disappointingly, proved to be a hoax.  With so many sightings, and this one disputed photo, did or didn’t she exist?

Such a mystery brought me forward several hundred years to a little town named Drumnadrochit, Scotland, a little town in Inverness that finds itself the capital of the world’s most legendary lake monster.  I arrived at the former Drumnadrochit Hotel, now The Loch Ness Centre, a multimedia exhibition of all things Loch Ness related.  This centre is also the workplace of the world’s foremost expert on the topic, Adrian Shine.
Shine has been studying the loch for over forty years.  Despite not being formally educated in any institution of higher learning, he has written over 60 academic papers and has had some of the best hands on learning from various naturalists.

“I became interested in the Loch Ness monster when I was a schoolboy in the 1960’s.  I grew up in England and was unsatisfied with all the explanations I had been given about the loch, but was a lazy and somewhat mediocre student and decided to come see it for myself.”

Four decades later, Shine is still at the loch studying its mysteries.  Below, he’s provided some of his five takeaways on Nessie and Loch Ness.

1)  Nessie has been spotted as either a plesiosaur or a serpent type animal.

Over a thousand sightings of a “monster” have been reported since 565AD.  Nessie has often been reported in two forms.  One form is the plesiosaur, a long necked dinosaur, while the other reports have detailed Nessie as a sea serpent.  The former has been more commonly portrayed, and as a result, souvenir shops all over Scotland have been quick to sell merchandise emblazoned with tartan cap sporting plesiosaurs.

2) Nessie is the world’s most pervasive lake monster due to the long timeline of sightings, the Scottish diaspora and lastly, the resurgence of interest in dinosaurs.

In the world of lake monsters, no lake monster has been as revered as Nessie.   Certainly, lake monsters like the Ogopogo and Storsjon lake monsters have strong local followings, but do not even hold a candle to Nessie.  The number of alleged lake monsters abound in Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America, and amount to around two hundred and fifty.  I ask Shine why he thinks that the legend of Nessie has endured.

“First, there is the fact that the legend of Nessie has been around for a very long time.  Very few lake monsters have been around since 565AD.  The other thing I think is a large part of it is after the Jacobite wars in 1741, many Scottish people immigrated overseas – I think many of them took the story of Nessie with them.  Lastly, I think that in North America and Europe, there is an unprecedented amount of enthusiasm for dinosaurs.  This was especially the case after the release of Jurassic Park.”

Somehow, the movie captured the notion that Nessie, or other dinosaur like creatures, are still living in our midst.

3) Most of the sightings could actually be attributed to wakes, rocks, and waves.

Because the loch can be windy, foggy and choppy, many illusions are created.  Many sightings reported over the centuries have been attributed to things as varied as mirages, windslicks, boat wakes, deer, logs, waterbirds, rocks, and boats.  In one unusual case, a Nessie sighting turned out to be an escaped horse from a local barn.

4)  Nessie could be a catfish or a sturgeon.

One explanation for a Nessie sighting could have been that of a sturgeon.  It is not uncommon for strange fish to be seen in Loch Ness – for example, salmon live in salt and freshwater conditions, and come back through the loch to spawn.  Although a sturgeon is not native to the area, there have been cases of Atlantic sturgeon found in the UK wandering through various rivers and locks throughout the 1800s and 1900s.  Though the Atlantic sturgeon is extinct in the UK, Shine suggests that with a horse-like head, the sturgeon could certainly account for the strange fish or kelpie “Water Horse” sightings of some of these years.

Another hypothesis of Shine’s is that Nessie could be a catfish.  There is a predatory European Catfish called the Wels, which lives to approximately 100 years and can grow to 9 feet and 300 lbs.  Shine suggests that, like a salmon, which spawns in the Loch, the catfish eats nothing in fresh water.  The catfish even matches the description of one of the sightings – “In 1932, the year before the monster sensation, a Miss MacDonald saw a crocodile-like creature swimming up the River Ness.  It had a short neck but a long snout and most improbably, two tusks.”  These two tusks could easily be the whiskers of a very large catfish.

5) Nessie could also be caused by underwater waves.

As part of Shine’s study of the topography and biology of the loch, he noted the existence of a thermocline.  A thermocline is a sharp density change between warm and cold layers of water.  Because the loch is aligned directly with the winds, it seesaws the warm and cold water layers, sweeping any debris along with it, causing objects to move in the opposite direction to the wind.

This would explain why certain sightings, where people were certain that it was Nessie since the object was swimming against the wind, could be explained by this natural phenomenon.

Interestingly, other lakes where thermoclines occur – Lake Okanagan, Lake Champlain – also have lake monsters.

Whether Nessie is a plesiosaur, serpent, wake, rock or result of a thermocline – no one will ever know.  However, one thing is certain – Nessie will continue to befuddle people for centuries to come.

More about Adrian Shine and the Loch Ness at http://www.adrianshine.com and http://www.lochnessproject.org.

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