Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Resource misallocation

Recently read about the new sky scraper being built in Chicago. It will be the third highest structure there, and will be done in a couple of years. And here I thought Chicago was in deep financial trouble, had plenty of available office space, and generally was over the ego driven need to build these phallic monuments. The last big one was topped out in 2009 (A trump tower no less!).

Turns out this one is for very high end condos and a hotel. A Chinese company is making it happen. I guess there are still a lot of millionaires in the Chicago area that would go for a nice view of Lake Michigan. (Or millionaires looking to move some assets out of China and invest in a "stable" location).

And there are also a lot (54!) of other, shorter buildings being built, but still very tall and elaborate.

Skyscrapers are very complex structures, use huge amounts of materials, and are very dependent on a fully functioning economy, stable utility costs, and paying tenants. There have been a few articles in the past pointing out how the ultra high sky scraper craze has taken off and given the host countries some sort of ego boost.

China alone built 84 skyscrapers in 2016!!

And it appears that here is a weird correlation between skyscraper frenzy and imminent economic collapse:
if this correlation holds, then rough times are ahead.

Regardless if economic collapse follows, skyscrapers are, I would argue, a vast resource misallocation. While they improve city density, density is not an automatic good thing. A downtown that is too vertical can be sterile and uninviting, and large buildings can mean lots more long distance commuters.  Instead of walkable cities or neighborhoods, we get harried train riders.

I have no expertise in city planning, but from a purely resilience viewpoint, skyscrapers seem vulnerable and brittle in response to changed conditions. Makes you wonder why mayors, city councils, zoning and permitting departments encourage them. A single story building, or even one that is walkable can be designed to be habitable without power, but not skyscrapers. They do not function without large amounts of electricity.

It's one thing to tear down a three story building or a big box store that has become obsolete, but tearing down a scraper that no one wants would be a formidable task, and a real waste of resources.

Where should a city, or a country be investing in infrastructure, housing stock, utilities, and so on? A look in to the future is needed, and a frank assessment of the available funds to do any chosen plans.

With the remaining "cheap" energy and resources left to us, I would argue that we as a minimum stop building infrastructure that is highly grid dependent and can't be repurposed. The wider question is, what should we be building, or not building?

Here are a few principles I will throw out, which COULD be used as a checklist to wisely build, but won't be. They assume vastly less energy and materials available in the coming decades to continue building like we have up to now.

The majority of transportation infrastructure spending should be shifted to rail and mass transit, instead of adding new roads. NO NEW ROADS.

Any existing transportation infrastructure should be repaired and modified so that it either is very cheap to maintain (gravel roads) or built like the Romans, with a design life in centuries. Obviously, only a few main arteries would justify the later approach. There are already a lot of  rural local government units choosing to transition paved roads to gravel because of tight budgets. This trend will increase.

Overall, transportation infrastructure will need to transition ( over ~50 years?)  to facilitate local transport, with minimal regional or national traffic assumed.

Any new housing infrastructure should be built with nears zero energy needs, like the passive haus movement out of Germany.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passive_house

All existing housing should be evaluated to be either recycled at the end of its useful life, or upgraded to as near to passive house standards as possible.

All new structures should be designed to beyond LEED certification, such that they have very low life cycle environmental impact. This can be done either through completely renewable materials and simple construction, or very long life span design, measured in centuries. and designed to be easily maintained.

Yeah, these pie in the sky goals are not politically or culturally viable here in the states, but the funny thing is, as we continue to transition to a low energy society, ( fossil EROEI continues to decline) at some point we will be stuck with the built infrastructure we have.

Here is an example of resource allocation I have chosen. This apple grinder and press will last for decades if stored and taken care of properly, and needs no electricity, no further fossil fuels than were used to create it, and just needs friendly neighbors to come help during harvest time.


  1. Hi Steve,

    Not to mention vertigo! Yuk. Like you, I wonder how they'll be deconstructed in the distant future. It seems like an immense task.

    The folks in the photo with the apple press look like they are having a great time of it. Nice. And that is a huge collection of apples too. I hope they made some tasty apple cider? I always make sure that visitors have a great time when they visit this place as enthusiasm is contagious.

    Out of curiosity, do you make yoghurt? We are having troubles recently with that process which has been more or less fool proof for over a decade. We're going right back to basics with the process so as to eliminate every other variable. Oh well.


  2. Hey Chris,

    Yoghurt- that is one thing we aren't making at home. Our neighbors run a small, direct to customer dairy, and make their own yoghurt, which is to die for.

    What I have learned from them, is it's all about the milk. They use Jersey milk, and have found that other breeds just don't have the same butterfat and milk solids content, and don't make as good yoghurt. I don't know what other variables you might have going on, but I would check with your milk source and make sure they haven't changed breeds at their farm.