Monday, January 31, 2011

DUST: The shoe may fit, but does the foot fit the stair?

In planning, as in any undertaking, when a certain prevailing goal asserts itself as the principal one, other objectives and their respective goals all too frequently become subordinate—such is the nature of prioritization. A no-brainer. In a conflict zone, urgency often triumphs over pragmatism. In Afghanistan, a dozen different units can lay claim to territories within a nascent outpost base, each with widely varying intended uses for the land in order to meet their strategic component of the mission. Someone oversees the process to ensure that units are able to meet their needs without impinging upon the others, or violating the terms of any Land Use Agreements with the host nation’s government. However, all too often the hasty maneuvering elicits in some less than satisfactory configurations, such as a light industrial use occupying the exact center of a fortification, normally reserved for billeting (quartering of troops) and pedestrian-oriented uses. But the industry requires less manpower and a lot more land, so it receives the space early on in the development and subsequent residential quarters have to design around it. It’s like putting a bottling plant where the town square would normally go. In an ideal situation, the center of the base would host the most restrictive residential uses (residential and community support), but it only hurts the overall mission when other units are waiting at the doorstep, ready to install the infrastructure they need.

I can see where seemingly imprudent land use decisions must proceed because they meet ever critical short-term needs, even if they are a long-term disaster. But what about the planning involved in constructing individual buildings within a base?

Most military units and battalions, as they build the requisite structures for the implementation of respective missions, are impelled/compelled to abide by Minimum Military Requirements—a fundamental understanding that few if any new bases are going to be permanent installations, and thus the shelters should leave a minimal footprint and cost as little money as possible. It entails basic responsibility with public dollars. Thus, throughout bases like Camp Marmal, the American quarters typically look more like this:

A combination of Small Shelter Systems (SSSs) by different manufacturers: usually Alaska Structures or CAMMS, sometimes California tents. (The concrete objects to the right in the lower photo are bunkers to protect from rocket or mortar attacks.) Inside each residential tent is a labyrinth of ropes and carpets, strung from the side beams to form makeshift privacy partitions for the eight to sixteen people sleeping there, often in bunks. Compare this with the German quarters on the base:

The magnificent mountain backdrop may continue to distract from the humdrum foreground, but the fundamental point is clear: while nothing fancy, the Germans get modular units strung together along a double-loaded corridor. These narrow structures (sometimes nicknamed “hooches”) usually measure about 8 feet by 20’ and, I believe, hold two troops who share a bunk bed. As the photo indicates, each unit can control its own heating/cooling, and the structures sit on a graded base that is clearly meant to last. The Germans control the land on this base (reputedly purchased), and they can set their own standards, which, due to their long-term presence, ostensibly does not require a maximum threshold for construction sophistication. Thus, their compounds boast a higher number of hardened structures.

But the Americans, with a military presence in Afghanistan ten times the size of the Germans, are operating with different prerogatives. The original photo from this post captures a core concern in the prioritization of expediency over other planning elements. Two-story plywood structures typically host office and administrative functions, and they have been nicknamed SWA-Huts. They are always windowless.
By most measurements, these structures are suitable, perhaps even ideal, for hosting the administrative arms of long-term, non-permanent field operations. They’re quick and cheap to build. They’re easy to secure, and they manage extremes in climates better than tents, protecting the sensitive information and valuable equipment inside. Because the foundations and load-bearing walls can accommodate two stories, they offer the opportunity to consolidate personnel with interrelated tasks into a smaller space than the Alaska tents. And they remain in good shape just long enough for a long-term (5 to 10 year) installation, with little cost to demolish—or even to dismantle—when the work is complete, which is almost always a longer time frame than initially anticipated.

But nestled within these expeditionary structures are some deficiencies that, if built on the home front, would be illegal.

From a distance, these stairs look no different than what one might see leading to an elevated deck in a person’s back yard. A landing bisects the stairwell so that it ascends perpendicularly, creating far less of a protrusion from the building than it would if it lacked this vertex. But the midway resting point almost helps disguise a serious design flaw. Notice the stairs on the lower half, below the landing:

And now observe the stairs above the landing:

It’s difficult for a photograph to capture the distinction (believe it or not, the snow actually helps), but perhaps some other angles will make it clearer. Again, here’s the lower half of the stairwell from the side:

And viewing it looking downward:

And here’s the half from above the landing, from both the side…

And looking downward.

If it still isn’t clear, the treads to the steps are smaller below the landing than they are above. The construction team used two different sized boards, and the upper ones are about an inch wider; with two boards per step, the treads are about two inches wider on the upper portion. While this might not seem like a serious offense, for most people ascending and descending a staircase is a largely unconscious act, primarily because we safely assume that the rhythm our feet travel is going to be uniform. Few people climbing the stairs to this SWA-Hut have managed it without stumbling at least once or twice, and descending is particularly problematic at night, since the building has no exterior lighting. It is only a matter of time before someone is seriously hurt. I still use a flashlight every night after having used this building for over a month; I’ve nearly wiped out a couple of times. Imagine the danger posed if personnel have to evacuate the building in a hurry, which is a legitimate possibility in a war zone.

The outside environment offers another example of a more justifiable but still unfortunate exclusion:

None of these offices have plumbing; everyone has to use port-o-lets. No structure would meet Minimum Military Requirements if indoor plumbing were installed, let alone the fact that it would have to link with a broader network and water/wastewater treatment system. No plumbing means no toilets and no sinks—no sinks means no place to wash hands after using the restroom in this crude, dirty environment. This has been illegal for approximately a century in the US. These green port-o-lets have little dispensers of sanitizer solution, but they are seldom operative, and no public health expert has ever suggested that this fashionable alcohol-glycerin combo should ever take the place of soap and hot water for killing bacteria. The closest latrines with a sink, water, soap, and flush toilets are a five minute walk away. Functionality, safety, and general sanitation take a back seat in the interest of getting the job done quickly and cheaply.

The building reveals other deficiencies on the interior that prevent the population from evacuating safely. Notice the hinges on this door, leading to a second office from the entry room on the second floor of the building.

The door pivots to the interior. This inner room has no other exits. All personnel must leave through the door in the photo above, walking into another room first before exiting. Here are views from inside this interior room:

The 5 to 10 workers using this room at any time will have to pull on the closed door in order to open it, though modern building codes would require the hinges to operate so that the door requires pushing. Having a pull door only creates an impediment in the event of an emergency that requires evacuation. Unfortunately, most of the doors in the building have been installed under these standards.

Elsewhere on the base, code violations are less obvious, but a trained eye can certainly identify them. I don’t have the skill set to spot most problematic circuitry, but many people on staff do.

Seen above is an extensive row of Small Shelter Systems, most likely Alaska tents, viewed from their “back yards”. The large box on the right side of the second photo is a 100-amp breaker. Here it is up close.

And here’s the other side of that 100-amp breaker…
…ports filled with 60-amp cables. This is not as dangerous as it sounds. But it is certainly not up to code. Under normal conditions, 60-amp cables can handle the current generated from a 100-amp breaker. The problem is the combination of excessive current coupled with extreme outdoor air temperatures, which is a legitimate concern in the Afghanistan summers, when temperatures can break 120 degrees and the air conditioners are cranking at full capacity. A 100-amp breaker often will not trip when the current is excessive until it’s too late, and there will be a short on the cable. The most likely outcome is nothing more than a series of ruined cables. In a worse case scenario—if these cords were covered with, for example, blankets or paper bags—the shortage of a cable could induce a fire.

In all likelihood, expediency supersedes optimization of supplies in each of these instances. It was not a deliberate act of carelessness to use two different sizes of boards on the stair treads, or to link cables and a breaker with different current flows. The construction team had to do the best it could in a limited time frame with the materials that the workers received. But cost is undoubtedly also a factor, and the lack of uniformity does seem a bit surprising, considering that most units are contending with budget constraints. Take, for example, the back of these LSS (Latrine Shower Shave) units:

Notice that the middle latrine uses a different piping configuration than the other two. Elsewhere in this row, one can find some really creative pipe networks:

Wouldn’t it have saved money to buy the exact same pipe fittings? After all, most of the latrine units themselves are identical, presumably ordered in bulk. I have no idea what went on in the installation of these facilities, but it would appear that the LSS units and the plumbing came from different sources. Maybe these units weren’t all brand new, and some smaller pieces were lost in transit, resulting in pipe networks that the construction team cobbled together with whatever was available. The latrines may very well all operate with reasonable efficiency—the plumbing configurations are simply different means to the same end—but it would be virtually impossible for them to operate identically, since they use such different infrastructure.

Frugality, expediency, and functionality make uncomfortable bedfellows in facilities planning, particularly in a military setting. It is difficult for any combination of the two to prevail and virtually impossible to achieve all three (the elusive “win-win-win situation”). The disharmony of functionality and frugality is obvious; you get what you pay for. A good example of this is a bulk order of chairs that recently appeared in the American dining facility, a welcome contrast from the uncomfortable, noisy, awkward metal benches.

These chairs are lightweight, padded, and have a moderately ductile backs for reclining. They are also mind-bogglingly junky. The facilities operators introduced them in the handful of days between Christmas and New Year’s Day. At the time that I write, a month has passed, and I would estimate that over 80% of them look like this:

Good luck leaning back in that. The ductile plastic suffered from excess pressure applied to it; it snapped. Now the chair is little better than a stool. By no means is this an indication that the troops and civilians here are rough with the chairs. It doesn’t take engineering knowledge to see that these chairs had a design that encouraged leaning back, but they lacked the structural support to do so. The result was inevitable. And now they have had to order another set of chairs and reintroduce most of those abrasive metal benches. I can only hope that no one was seriously hurt from one these jalopies.

Analogous to this scenario is the one motivating the decision to mix amperage between cables and breakers: no doubt 60-amp cables cost less than 100 amp ones. Obviously the ratio of cables to breakers is high, so the aggregate cost savings for 5000 cables at 60 amps versus 100 amps is probably significantly greater than the savings for 100 breakers at 60 instead of 100 amps. And, as is indicated earlier, skimping out on the cables is not likely to result in catastrophe, which might not necessarily the case if the purchaser had ordered breakers with inadequate amperage and splurged on the cables. Neither one of these situations has caused any bodily harm that I’m aware of, but between functionality and cost, it is clear which variable won.

The glitches around and inside the two-story plywood office indicates the likely victor in a duel between functionality and expediency. It may not have cost any more to build stairs with uniform treads—in fact, it may have cost less—but it could have caused delays if the team had to wait for the appropriate supplies. Most likely the shipment was partially wrong here and the builders had to make do with what they had at their disposal. (One of the neighboring two-story plywood structures seems to have uniform treads.) I’m not sure what motivated the installation of interior doors that swing the wrong way. Maybe it was a supply issue again, and they just didn’t receive the right hinges but had to build promptly. To me, the repeated occurrence of such an easily avoidable flaw is redolent of a hastily conceived design not fully vetted by architects or engineers.

The issue of quality control helps tie the last problematic pairing of our three variables: expediency and cost. Building a structure quickly with little thought to the design will inevitably result in a product that functions more poorly than it otherwise would. But building quickly is frequently also antithetical to building cheaply. A rush job often costs more, just as it costs to deliver mail express rather than standard. The situation at hand in a conflict zone changes routinely and demands immediate reaction, sometimes lacking the forethought it needs and frequently resulting in escalated costs in order to get the job done quickly. Foregoing the standards set that US building codes set decades ago clearly speeds the process. Regulations and standards routinely intend to improve functionality but rarely help cost or speed/efficiency. Thus, we witness an abundance of poorly built structures that still cost significantly more than the sum of the individual parts would suggest, chiefly because time was of the essence.

Of the three variables—speed, price, quality—I would never assert that one always comes out the loser. All three rise or sink in importance in various situations; this is hardly profound. The unfortunate reality is that rarely do two of the three ever share top billing. The builders on a construction site are seldom culpable; they simply implement what they are told to do with the supplies given. Clearly the suppliers and implementers do not always communicate through the construction manager as well as they should, but to pin the blame on any of these entities fails to account for the logistical challenge of getting these supplies into a war zone. The people in charge of the purse strings are hardly steering the ship either; budgets shrink and grow from a variety of forces, the political one proving a formidable wild card. And any budget, no matter how well planned, will wilt under radically fluctuating costs.

In identifying all the safety compromises in the built environment of a military base in wartime, I identify a problem without a clear origin. These sort of problems are the wickedest of them all. No one would argue that the powers that be have anything to gain by turning a blind eye on US building codes and construction standards, but they very well lose out in other critical aspects of the mission if they always stop to mind the Ps and Qs. It fosters a climate of individual solicitousness, to identify these almost unavoidable weaknesses beforehand in order to prepare for them, because they’re not going to change. We residents of a base just have to remain vigilant and be sensible when encountering a potentially risky situation. I offer a final example of the best and worst with which the military must contend. Much of the construction work is required by national and international law to engage in the services of LNs, or Local Nationals: in this case, Afghan companies that have responded to RFPs. It does not take long from observing these generally industrious men to realize that Afghanistan has nothing resembling an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

There was a parking it's a peaceful oasis.

Hardly a month goes by—perhaps more like once a week—without some new artistic endeavor depicting contemporary life synecdochically through paved surfaces. We can all think of one. Whether the first that comes to mind for you is a song by Joni Mitchell (or maybe David Byrne), a Terry Gilliam movie, or a Kurt Vonnegut novel, the world today has been smeared across by some paving surface—or so they'd have you believe. Granted, most of these examples, by virtue of the fact that they criticize this phenomenon, share a certain political leaning (and, most likely, a dense big city that they call home), but the fact remains that modernity and concrete or asphalt share a loose fungibility: the phrase “paving the way” implies progression, or, at the very least, succession.

Is it justifiable to bemoan the fact that the earth, in totality, is most likely becoming increasingly impervious with each passing second? Even the greatest Luddites can hardly complain over the fact that, a century ago, most roads outside of urban centers in the United States—the nation with the largest road network by far—were dirt or gravel at best. After all, a hard surface that resists most weather patterns is unambiguously superior for travel, and individual mobility is better than ever before, with all evidence that it only stands to improve in the future (even if perhaps at a higher cost per unit traveled). These broad artistic swipes at our increasingly paved future generally achieve satire and a resonant message, more readily than a dire warning of eminent peril. At least they make for a catchy tune or a cult novel/movie. Nonetheless, most people simply do not allow the cement trend to bother them; perhaps they even welcome it as an indicator of improved convenience. And perhaps the fact that so much of the world still remains unpaved—sometimes completely removed from human intervention—that a dystopic future devoid of natural plant growth can only achieve resonance in the topos root of the aforementioned word: we do indeed have a “place” here in the future that is simultaneously the present, but it is hardly so devoid of all that is green and pure to be dys, or “bad”.

Maybe it is legitimate to claim that the world is increasingly paved, but a thousandth of a percentage's incremental increase still smacks of hyperbole. Even in most urban environments, plant life is abundant—sometimes more so than the unsettled world around it (particularly noticeable in my current home here in Afghanistan, where trees are non-existent except in well established towns). So the collision of the built and the natural ultimately isn't as bleak as Mitchell and Vonnegut would like us to think it is. Sometimes the harmony between the two is so unexpected that it is particularly charming, as in this eminently suburban streetscape in Gulfport, Mississippi:

Aside from blurring people's faces to leave them anonymous, I'm not normally one to doctor my own photos. But I couldn't help but try to capture the serenity of this live oak by at least toning down the ordinariness of the surroundings. So I confess: I “Photoshopped” out some of the signage. Here's the actual vista of this tree:

There it sits, right in the middle of a grocery store parking lot. The Southern live oak is one of the most emblematic trees of the South. I suspect that only the magnolia surpasses these expansive titans for evoking the ecology of Dixie, particularly in a place like Mississippi—nicknamed the Magnolia State. But the magnolia is the name for a genus, a broader classification than the specific Quercus virginiana of the Southern live oak—not surprisingly, the magnolia family of trees covers a much broader geographic region. (By the same token, the live oak characterizes a broader Quercus genus as well; the Quercus virginiana, or Southern live oak, is the specie of focus here.) The Southern live oak generally thrives in exclusively the coastal Southeast, making it most characteristic of the Deep South, whereas magnolias can endure as far north as Philadelphia. It is common practice—almost a cliché—for artists/filmmakers/photographers to show American “Southern-ness” through a silhouette of a grove of Southern live oak trees, with Spanish moss draped lazily across the horizontally inclined branches. Not surprisingly, Southerners by and large revere these trees, in part for their tremendous canopy, their idiosyncratic evergreen characteristics (they are never without leaves), and their ability to withstand hurricane-force winds. The streets of New Orleans, Savannah, and (prior to Hurricane Ike) Galveston all derive the majority of their canopy from these trees. One of the most prominent old plantation homes in Louisiana is the beloved Oak Alley, featured in many movies, as well as this blog quite some time ago.

So, if these trees are so pervasive, what makes this one so special? As is clear from the photos, it is in what is otherwise a pretty unremarkable parking lot to what seems to be a run-of-the-mill southern grocery store chain.

If the photos have not made it obvious already, this particular Southern live oak is big. Huge.

Though I didn't take any measurements, I really didn't need to in order to assert that it's bigger than most if not all of the Southern live oaks in New Orleans neighborhoods. Thus, it's safe to assume that, by virtue of its greater size, it's also older than the 150 year old plantings that line St. Charles Avenue in the Big Easy. In fact, I would venture to guess that this tree is comparable in size to the Southern live oaks in Oak Alley Plantation, which, in turn, were planted over three hundred years ago. Carrying this deduction a step further, I suspect that this tree is of a similar age, which would date it a good 180 years prior to the incorporation of the City of Gulfport in 1898.

And, as gutsy as it may be for me to assert this, this Southern live oak may even pre-date the Winn-Dixie! Most of the development around this part of Gulfport, based on the appearance of the homes, comes from the 1960s through the 1980s, a era when automobile-oriented design and parking lot provision were often at their most generous. Relatively few subdivisions that originate from this time have sidewalks, particularly if they were platted outside of an incorporated area. Developers of commercial plazas focused little on aesthetics or preservation of green space; the biggest amenity of a strip mall was its abundance of free, plainly visible parking.

Yet shifting consumer tastes have elicited a gentle irony: many of these 40-year-old strip malls are now struggling with high vacancy levels, having been replaced by lifestyle centers and other retail typologies that emphasize aesthetics in general—and greenery in particular—much more than in the past. In most municipalities, the inclusion of some form of landscaping is mandated for parking lots over a certain minimum size. The US Green Building Council's Version 3 of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for New Construction and Major Renovations provides multiple incentives for developers to “break up” an expansive sheet of pavement through trees and landscaping, partly to facilitate stormwater management by reducing impervious surfaces, but also to help minimize the urban heat island effect, largely induced by pavements and other aggregate materials that retain heat. Both of these negative characteristics of conventional parking lots can pose a huge burden and source of discomfort in a hot and rainy climate, such as southern Mississippi in the summer.

But somehow I suspect that ecologically sensitive stormwater management and heat island mitigation were not on the developer's mind when building this Winn-Dixie. First of all, if this store is as old as most of the housing and commercial establishments in this area, its construction precedes that of city ordinances mandating landscaped islands, LEED certification, and the green building movement altogether. The installation of landscaped islands is hardly consistent throughout this parking lot. Some other angles reveal that most of the rest of the lot is barren and exclusively impervious...

...with the exception of the perimeter, which hosts islands with significantly younger plantings.

These perimeter trees were most likely a private decision and not a public mandate. At any rate, their existence depended on development of this site; obviously they didn't grow in this pattern by nature. Parking lot landscaping has become particularly prevalent in the last decade, induced by a combination of municipal codes and—perhaps most potently—market forces: developers have found that strip malls/lifestyle centers/shopping plazas attract the eyes of passers-by through their inherently more upscale appearance. Treeless strip malls look old-fashioned, tired, and barren in comparison.

In fact, upon further scrutiny, aesthetics may actually be the single greatest justification for these landscaped islands, because the ecological benefit is increasingly dubious. While they undoubtedly provide at least some shade and relief from the heat island effect that makes Mississippi parking lots so uncomfortable in the summer, the cost of maintenance may outweigh the benefits, particularly if the installation uses landscape or trees that demand a great deal of water or irrigation, further skewing the natural hydrology of a site. A not-so-recent article of Urban Development observed that because so many of these landscaped islands seem like afterthoughts to accompany a stormwater management system of pipes and culverts, the islands do not achieve a great deal of their mitigating effect. In addition, passers-by routinely trample the ground cover, the islands aren't big enough for the root systems to grow, and catch basins collect much of the water before it permeates the soil for the trees. Thus, the street trees often die within a decade. (These shortcomings are undoubtedly one reason why LEED encourages xeriscaping, or drought resistant plant cultivation, in any stormwater management system, with more emphasis on vigorous, natural landscaping to reduce the need for catch basins.)

Regardless of what inspired these much younger perimeter tree plantings, they do not fit in with the mighty old live oak.

They belong to a different pattern, and the big tree is an exception to this. Were the developers that saved this tree were motivated by something else: a love for this tree in particular? They sacrificed at least four parking spaces for it, but in the process salvaged what almost manages to serve as a landmark for the area. The “island” is more like Australia (or at least Madagascar), providing ample space for the live oak's sprawling, generally superficial root system. They didn't try to jam additional landscaping at the ground of the tree, which would most likely not survive for lack of water and sunlight, or it would flourish on its own terms but rob the mighty tree of its nutrients. Whoever conceived this may not have been an expert arborist, but he or she was not likely a mere amateur either.

The titanic tree flourishes thus far, after having been surrounded by asphalt for at least two decades and probably much more. And in all likelihood, it will outlast its much younger cousins, who were given the poorly thought-out treatment that Len Zickler and Duane Dietz rail against in the aforementioned Urban Development article. These smaller trees—also Southern live oaks, I believe—are jammed into much smaller islands, sometimes two at a time. Some rust colored mulch and compost undoubtedly try to endow them with the nutrients they need but otherwise are not receiving. Chances are strong that the will succumb to their poor environment within the next few years. But, if it's lasted this long, the older cousin will most likely persevere into the distant future.

This anomaly—an old-growth tree in a settlement less than 40 years old—proves that not everything those talking heads (pun intended) satirize about modernity is not entirely fair. The artists who denigrate the paving of America routinely target suburbia in particular—take the examples mentioned at the beginning of this post, or, a much more recent one, Win Butler. And these suburban-critics would have us believe that leaving the city is predicated upon a hostility to both the old (aging architecture) and the natural (the desire to get around everywhere through a gas-guzzling vehicle). But keep in mind that the original inspiration for suburban living was a return to nature, often not by the middle class but by the gentry who could afford the greater travel costs. Today, an overwhelming number of Americans continue to prove by their buying (and foreclosing) patterns that they'd prefer a big yard, even if it means the houses are spaced so far apart that they have to drive ten minutes to buy a can of Coke. Sure, that big green expanse might have the biodiversity squelched through fertilizer and pesticides, but it is a perception that it is far more natural that closely packed urban living. A lawn is certainly not impervious like a tightly packed urban streetscape. And a city park is rarely any more of a realistic, natural ecosystem than a suburbanite's manicured back yard.

Here, in Gulfport, one can witness veneration for both the old and the natural in this preservation of a long-standing Southern live oak tree. It does happen now and then. The distinctions between between rural and urban—the synthetic and the natural—the modern and the pre-modern—the good and the bad—get hamfisted treatment by both the city artists/intellectuals and the designers of giant new exurban subdivisions. And, long after the polemic ends and the two sides have died of exhaustion, years after some technological advancement renders the Winn-Dixie (and all grocery stores) obsolete, this tree will continue to stand, enjoying increased breathing room amidst the cracked and decaying pavement. It used to be real estate; now it's only fields and trees.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Neither gone nor forgotten.

My apologies for being negligent of my blogging duties as of late. I haven't forgotten, nor have I tried to let it drop--though this is the longest I've gone without a post since "Dirt" began. Work has been particularly intense lately and my health has not been 100%. BUT...I am working on a post and will have it ready in a few days. All the best; thanks as always for reading!