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Meet the Man Who Built a 30-Story Building in 15 Days (wired.com)
107 points by mayop100 on Sept 26, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

How about "Meet the Man Who Supervised A Crew That Built Assembled an Uninhabitable 30-Story Building of Preassembled Component Parts in 15 Days." No inspections were done, there are no functional water supply nor waste water systems, fire supression system, elevators, electrical distribution system, solid waste disposal system, HVAC or environmental control system of any sort... and the parking sucks.

The title was even more of a let down after the recent story about the man who single handedly carved road through a mountain [1].

[1] http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4557726

It's also what I expected when I read the title. I thought one man physically created the building (like the guy who carved the road in the mountain)

Do you have a source for any on that? The article specifically mentioned elevators.

The images/schematics also show conduits for electricity and pipes for water and waste.

Well if you looked at the schematics for the sections it is conceivable that it is habitable. There is a company in the US doing homes somewhat like this [1] where the market is for building a house in a place with a limited building cycle (think mountain cabins). I've walked through the BluHome factory and met with their engineers, they pre-fab everything, when they 'build' it on site its basically an unfolding operation.

That said, the Broad building looks to have the necessary systems (perhaps not fire suppression) and it looks in the video like they build the crane into the building (which is sort of a waste of a crane) but it is "space." Now if he wanted to impress folks he could build two of those in Haiti for the folks who are still living in tents because their shacks did not survive an earthquake.

[1] http://www.bluhomes.com/

Who pissed in your corn flakes?

I've often wondered why more buildings aren't made this way.

There'll always be a place for one-offs, of course; and in prestige markets like NYC it'll almost always be so.

But a lot of the world's construction is really quite simple in requirements, and centralising manufacturing must surely make it more efficient overall.

This already happens somewhat for "big box" stores and warehouses, with some adjustment it just seems like an obvious step to me.

I'd be interested in hearing from construction industry experts as to why this isn't already the norm.

All the components used to build a house are indeed created in a very efficient factory. The concrete, insulation, drywall, lumber, nails, electrical -- it's all been driven down in price by centralized manufacturing.

These components still use onsite assembly because of shipping costs. It's obvious why you can't easily ship someone a 1,500 sq ft house from China. Even shipping sub components (like say a wall) is more expensive than shipping someone a stack of 2x4s and some nails and paying someone to nail it together.

Prefab homes exist, but they are more expensive than traditional homes per square foot for nice homes that are bigger than a double-wide trailer, so they remain a bit of a novelty (in the US anyway). The fact that the market has yet to find a way to drive down the cost using prefab makes me wonder if onsite assembly isn't in fact the cheapest form of construction at our disposal today.

> Prefab homes exist, but they are more expensive than traditional homes per square foot for nice homes that are bigger than a double-wide trailer, so they remain a bit of a novelty (in the US anyway). The fact that the market has yet to find a way to drive down the cost using prefab makes me wonder if onsite assembly isn't in fact the cheapest form of construction at our disposal today.

A narrower set of financing options for prefab homes exists as opposed to traditionally constructed homes. That leads to a pretty serious difference in demand, and an awful lot of the price difference might just come from that.

Commercial construction uses a very different philosophy than modular construction. Modular construction uses boxes whose size is constrained by the highway system, and works best when all the boxes are the same. Commercial construction treats the whole building as a single structural box, and then the walls can be non-structural and easily moved around as demands and tenants change. Reconciling those two ideas is hard, since commercial tenants like that flexibility.

These videos of fast-builds are only for commercial buildings that are inherently and permanently modular, like hotels.

The construction industry suffers from the same problem that most ERP Java shops and aerospace contractors do - the only way they can stay in business using their business model is to use cost-plus contracting (software/buildings/military jets) and customize the hell out of their products to rack up the largest bill/longest hours/institutional knowledge (it's their incentives - hence most software projects fail/military jet fiascos/building overruns).

This could also be because some of these programs are actually hard to make (and some are) but it's also due to the fact that they have to keep reinventing the wheel and don't transfer institutional knowledge/expertise across projects or scale out their time.

They'll pursue this through "lowest" bid contracts, sales teams, obscure knowledge (APIs/systems/building codes), "personal networks" and other inefficient and economically wasteful mechanisms to maximise their take.

Product companies don't have this problem.

Prices are non-negotiable, things must meet exacting standards, things must be standardized, their is no institutional knowledge and there isn't any customization.

You get what you pay for - and that's it.

Java shops and aerospace contractors are starting to meet their reckoning with the rise of SAAS apps and vertically integrated companies like Tesla/SpaceX/Solar city. Who wants a customized rocket when I can get an off the shelf fully tested and consistent Falcon 9 for ~$60 million (even less than what China charges)?

Construction is the next industry.

Products > services for the simple reason that they are more cheaply produced, easily sold, iterated upon and created.

I believe that in many cases they are.


Drive around a modern city in Asia and you'll likely see kilometer after kilometer of cookie cutter apartment buildings, with building plans so simple, they could almost be replaced with stacks of cargo containers and a central elevator shaft.

I may be wrong, but I'd be highly surprised if there wasn't a tremendous amount of prefab on display here.

From the article:

...hallways are uncomfortably narrow; climbing the central stairway feels like clanging up the stairs of a stadium bleacher.

It’s worth noting, though, that the majority of apartment buildings going up in China are equally ugly. Broad’s biggest selling point, amazingly enough, is in the quality.

I'm surprised by all the negativity here; this seems like a fairly practical version of Buckminster Fuller's ideas around prefabricated buildings - achieving significant savings in materials, labour and time.

This is a practical demonstration of a streamlined factory-based building construction system. The general idea has been around as long as the industrial revolution, but it seems to me that their impressive execution of it really marks the start of a major technological shift.

I don't believe that the objections come down to the principle of prefabrication itself, but the execution. In Europe and the Anglo-sphere, we've learned the hard way that when we try to regiment human lives to rigid efficient clean modernist boxes... it doesn't work and there are social consequences. Our buildings, our homes and our workspaces must conform to us, and not the other way around.

I have trouble believing that social consequences are relieved through the unique designs of houses that people live in. But even that isn't the point, there is no reason that each house can't be unique and prefabricated.

Agreed. My point was simply that I don't believe it's prefabrication itself that folks are taking issue with. It's the fact that we're talking about a sterile, impractical and dehumanising box.

I don't get the obsession with building skyscrapers in rapidly developing countries and regions like Dubai or China. Especially China, where they have plenty of space in the hinterlands, yet all the wealth concentrates in the coastal regions. I thought a socialist-planned era of capitalism would know better than that.

That said, the USA stopped having the largest skycrapers because they stopped making sense in a world where technology can close even the biggest physical gaps.

High density buildings are much more environmentally friendly than suburban sprawl. People need to travel less to work, shopping, seeing friends, thus less cars, less oil used, less roads needed to be built. Mass transit actually is profitable and sustainable. It's easier to build out network type of infrastructure. Broadband is easier to build and cell towers covers more. Services are centralized to cover more people, less fire house, less hospital, less police.

People need to understand this and often don't. If you're interested in the research behind the environmental friendliness and economic importance of density, see Edward Glaeser's book The Triumph of the City: http://www.amazon.com/Triumph-City-Greatest-Invention-Health...

I agree except for the "cell towers covers more" statement. Cell tower coverage is actually greatest in areas like Iowa. Cell towers could in theory cover more people in a dense city, but you end up putting in more towers for both capacity and RF reasons.

- Channel capacity remains approximately the same per user, so in high density areas, you need more towers.

- RF signals are heavily reflected and/or shielded by the vast "concrete canyons" of a modern city, so more towers are needed to eliminate shadows.

Well, true. Cell tower coverage is actually very good in the kalahari desert. They build huge towers that cover cells way bigger than anything you'll find in any city. But those patch-cables they need from the tower to the backbone :). I think the OP meant something along the line "it's easier to supply a sufficiently dense network" since you probably need more antennas but in the end, it's easier to put up those antennas since you have a reliable cable connection close by.

If I have to choose between giant skyscrapers and massive suburban sprawl I will opt for the 100 floor elevator trip over the 15 minute car ride any day.

False dichotomy much?

I don't think skyscrapers (usually commercial use) are particularly correlated with suburban sprawl (residential use) one way or the other. You can have one with or without the other.

I think the gated / fortress mentality of upmarket high-rise accommodation is corrosive to a sense of community. I'm more in favour of walkable streets than either of short car or elevator trips.

We might differ in our definition of "skyscraper" but most of the densest US cities (NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston) have lots of high-rise residential housing (300+ feet). In my neighborhood here in Chicago nearly all the skyscrapers are residential.

High-rises do not have to be at odds with walkable streets or a sense of community. High-density residential housing can more easily support neighborhood shops and restaurants. People meet each other in their building gyms. Kids can have friends in the same building and visit them without needing to be escorted.

I would be very sad if I had to bring my children up in these kind of living conditions. I would much prefer a nice house in an area where we can enjoy nature a little but also be close enough to a city so we can access its services.

I had a great garden as a kid and access to one of the UK"s nicest woodland areas. I would be sad to not be able to give my children the same just so they can have 'friends in the same building'.

To each his own, but what makes you think you can't enjoy nature in the city? I had a backyard growing up, but my daughter in Chicago is going to be walking distance from a 1,200 acre park with a zoo, a duck pond, and a flower conservatory, not to mention a beautiful lake to boat in.

I personally find suburbs tremendously lonely and isolated, especially for families where the parents don't have time to drive kids to activities and friends. I grew up in a suburb and since I was old enough to take care of my little brother the two of us would just hang around at our house until our parents came home. Weekends became a tiresome exercise in our parents driving us around to activities and friends. And my parents had very little social life outside the family because there was nobody we could just "pop over" to see. Social activities had to be coordinated evenings and with everyones' busy schedules it happened once every month or two.

And once the kids are old enough to drive--well I don't want my daughter driving. The great thing about cities for people with money is that they can buy security from the risks of city living: crime, etc. Upper-middle class white or asian kids are about the safest demographic in a city. But you can't buy yourself security from the risks of the suburbs. Teenagers with cars are the most endangered demographic in a suburb.

Proximity to green spaces is usually set by income. It's great that you are in within walking distance of a 1200 acre park with a zoo, duckpond, and conservatory. But what about someone making 1/2 to 1/4 your income? Shouldn't they have access to these things as well?

I grew up poor in the city and I grew up middle class in the suburbs. Turns out my single mom didn't make more money, it just went further in the suburbs. We even had a more active social life after leaving the city. We weren't allowed to go to the park because drug dealers and users had basically over ran it. I found a used condom in the sandpit and asked my mom to blow it up because I thought it was a balloon. After that incident we moved to a sunny suburb with a clean swimming pool, parks in every direction, and shopping center within walking distance.

The city is a great place to live if you have money, for everyone else the burbs aren't so bad.

It's definitely true that the city is better for people with more money, but people in cities are usually paid more too. And the crossover point comes at different points in different cities. Here in Chicago, you don't need to be rich to afford an apartment in a tree-lined neighborhood near a park and a mile or so from the lake. It's even more true in smaller cities like Syracuse, etc, or satellite cities like Evanston or Aurora.

Evanston is a suburb!

Who's talking about suburbs? That's still thinking in a city mindset.

I grew up in a 2500 person country side village in England. That village had everything we needed and it was only 30 minutes bus ride away from the neatest large town. It was also 45 mins train ride away from the nearest city.

I hate to break it to you but there is about 100 square metres of "nature" in the UK. All those lovely rolling hills and hedgerows are about as natural as a betting shop under a multistorey carpark. There hasn't been much in the way of nature in this country for about a thousand years. Just enjoy what we have.

Not from England, but true dat. Once coal in England became cheaper than wood as a fuel source, the trees breathed a sigh of relief (more so once the British fleet switched from wooden construction to iron hulls).

Having grown up in the suburbs (with plenty of real woodlands around), I have the exact opposite feeling. The community, diversity, tolerance, and learning opportunities of a dense city are better than any suburb or small town. As far as nature goes, I just went fishing with my son the other day (in an abandoned quarry, funnily enough). My wife, who grew up in the countryside of U.K. feels the same way.

Disclaimer: I live in downtown Chicago.

Singapore is one country that would prove you wrong. Residential Skyscrapers every where with common community areas, beautiful parks and malls at walkable distance and a good public transport system. I don't see it corroding the community.

Singapore is also an island where land is it's most valuable resource. Just across the causeway Singaporeans are increasingly buying property in Malaysia. So yes they have what you list, but even they want more.

High population density has a lot of advantages and it's actually one of the things I like most about China. I think most Chinese would dislike living in a low density area. In fact, when I show pictures of Montreal to Chinese/Hong Kong people their first impression is that "it looks boring".

High density has advantages of scale, i.e efficiency. On the other hand, when things break, they break massively I.e. a power outage, a garbage strike, etc. Also, infectious diseases propagate faster.

Still, I would take density over sprawl, if push came to shove. I wish San Fracisco would adopt some of the Chinese practicality when it comes to urbanism --not the ugliness of the uniform apartment block buildings, but the allowing of change and growth.

Super-tall skyscrapers don't make much sense with existing technology, but there is plenty of residential skyscraper development in the US. My neighborhood here in Chicago has several under construction right now.

I'm not really sure why you'd build anything other than skyscrapers. They're extremely efficient, and high-density development saves a lot of money on road construction.

It is mainly because of the infrastructures. It is a developing country with massive population, where the infrastructure is poor(er) outside cities. It is all part of cycle.

It's a pity his ambitions don't embrace even a hint of design thinking or aesthetic virtue. Seriously, they're butt ugly. Just phallic boxes that describe an obsession with size and haste that seems to have trumped even the most basic functional considerations for a building.

I can't help but think his promotional material might read suspiciously like the spam in my inbox: 'Big erections, FAST!'

A while back I had two friends, one an architecture student, one a civil engineering student. They had some interesting banter:

Architecture student: if civil engineers had their way, all buildings would be square concrete blocks

Civil engineering student: if architects had their way, all buildings would be beautiful, and collapse in the slightest breeze

I used to work in a civil engineering company and ran the intranet. The most secure part was the company wiki, which held all of the organisation's collective wealth about how to make things that wouldn't fall down, explode etc. They used this knowledge to help architects make buildings that would be safe, but were equally careful to ensure that none of this knowledge was ever transferred to other civil engineers.

I suppose this made perfect financial sense, but it does mean that there is no "collective knowledge pot" that people can pull against to ensure they don't make the same mistakes.

BTW in the wiki there were countless pages about concrete. Concrete pipes, concrete under water, concrete in a desert, concrete under stress, you name it. Ever tried tuning a search engine results page for concrete pipes?

Hehe - I'm sure there's a middle ground somewhere!

Anything tall is phallic?

Why is the whole page refreshed when I click to see another picture?

And it seems all Wired articles behave the same. Annoying.

Try adding '&viewall=true' without the quotes on the end of Wired URLs.

It is annoying though, a little bit of jQuery would fix it in about 5 seconds flat.

I know, I was wondering if it was just my browser or something.

Construction constitutes a huge part of economic activity. While the public is going to have to be skeptical of any new construction technique until the buildings have some track record(imagine what people thought about the first skyscrapers), the cost and environmental footprint of new buildings is one of those "Big Problems" that is obviously worthwhile to solve.

Prefabbed homes already have a track record. They collectively sucked. Look at any disaster film following a hurricane or tornado and all the flattened houses were usually prefabbed trailer homes. The builders learned that lesson and started on something simpler, prefabbed freeways, bridges and conduits. But the damage has already been done. When you say prefab people think Hurricane Andrew and the acres of flattened houses it left behind. Maybe in another 10 years they'll be more common. For now, people aren't signing 20+ year mortgages so some builder can work out the kinks in their technique.

Cheap wooden houses get blown away regardless of fab technique.

Probably so, but during a storm or tornado warning it's the trailer parks that get evacuated. Cheap wooden homes are left to the owners to figure out if they are going to survive or not.

"There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy." - Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language.

Alexander then goes on to not present any real evidence. I know that the standards of evidence of low in fields like architecture, but it makes me sad to see people engage with important topics like this one using nothing but assertions and platitudes. Dense cities have many advantages, especially around energy effeciency and environmental footprint. If we are going to make the right decisions for the future of our species, we need to make them based on evidence. If we don't have evidence, we need to do research.

As much as I like Alexander's book, I wish people wouldn't buy into his opinions so wholeheartedly.

Reading the article, I get the impression that working for this guy is similar to being a cult member:

"To become an employee of Broad, you must recite a life manual penned by Zhang, guidelines that include tips on saving energy, brushing your teeth, and having children."

I think this a good place to mention the Pullman riots - (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pullman_Strike)

and George Pullman - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Pullman

The Wikipedia page of the Broad Group[1] has some PDFs with detailed floor plans and building stats. Quite interesting. Sure they're bland as can be, but as this seems the Model T of this type of building, we might get some improvements later on (although I wonder how e.g. different outside structures would mess with the energy management).

1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broad_Group

(links to e.g. http://www.broad.com:8089/english/down/T30_Technical_Briefin...)

From the photo caption showing the existing (ugly) pre-fab skyscraper:

"Prefabricated skyscrapers can be inflexible. To create a lobby for this hotel, Broad had to stick an awkward pyramid onto the base."

Central planning of the national economy during the Warsaw Pact era left some cities in central and eastern Europe with some of the world's ugliest and most user-unfriendly "modern" architecture. Only in a country with a centrally planned economy could a builder come up with the idea that skyscrapers built like Lego toys will become the new standard for skyscrapers.

I think it's here on Hacker News where I learned most of the interesting story of the construction of the Burj Dubai (now Burj Khalifa) skyscraper. There were structural innovations in that building



that allowed it to reach its world-record height. It was also built during a crazy, boom economy, and it remains to be seen how soon, if ever, the building will produce an economic return for its investors.

I think the most thoughtful book I have ever read about architecture, published before Hacker News was founded, is Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built.


(Yes, the author is the same Stewart Brand who is famous among HN participants for saying "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.") Brand's book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built is all about the many modifications that building owners make to buildings over time as the economy changes, as new materials and technologies are invented, and as buildings change owners. The gee-whiz articles about what the Chinese builder PLANS to do with buildings made of pre-fab parts are less interesting to me than what the possibilities are for modifying such buildings after they are built.

AFTER EDIT: An interesting second-level comment below asked about

it looks in the video like they build the crane into the building (which is sort of a waste of a crane)

and that prompted me to look up an article about how the tower cranes that build the tallest skyscrapers interact with the buildings they build.


There are occasions when some parts of the crane's support structure is built into (or onto) the building as the building goes up, but usually the working part of the crane is disassembled and reused.

AFTER ONE MORE EDIT: While doing something else, I remembered that another Hacker News participant recently linked in a comment in another thread to Paul Graham's 2005 essay "The Submarine,"


about the public relations industry, and how "news" stories are inserted in the mainstream media. I have seen a lot of kind submissions to HN of stories about the Chinese builder's PLAN to build the world's tallest skyscraper out of pre-fab components, but those stories, even in the best instance, have included remarkably little actual reporting from the scene about the economic viability of the plan or how well the builder's existing buildings are liked by owners or occupants. He has a great publicity machine, but I'd like to know more about the buildings.

I totally agree with your view on communist concrete buildings (I have to look at them every day).

But before we completely dismiss the idea of using prefabricated elements, consider the good old bricks, which are basically prefabricated elements that allow for enormous flexibility. Same with roof tiles.

To me it seems that prefabricated elements become a problem if they are too large relative to the building's total size. It's hard to make an interesting lego house using 200 lego bricks because the square shape of the lego bricks define the shape of the house. But if you use 20,000 lego bricks the shape of the building doesn't appear to be defined by the shape of the individual bricks. Sort of the same way fonts appear ugly on low resolution screens.

Prefabricated elements should be smaller.

Assembly costs are already a major expense in large buildings. TO drive costs down, the prefab elements will be getting larger, not smaller.

Yes, except if they invent something to make assembling easier (for example a click system of some kind). If prefab elements get so small that a person or a small robot could carry it and so that it could be stacked easily, transported in containers, raised up with elevators etc. it could be cheaper.

Even then, to drive costs down further, you could make them larger and you have fewer of the easier operations.

The minima for cost will always be, make the elements as large as feasible.

But they usually build all the prefab materials beforehand, taking longer than 15 days. So saying it's built in 15 days is a bit cheating. Still an interesting feat though.

If you live next door I think 15 days is the effect even if planning and part construction has been taking place for longer.

Also if the parts become standardised then maybe it really would count as 15 days.

Yeah, usually they start the time-lapse videos after the foundations are dug, which seems like cheating.

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