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2019 Galisteo Street, Suite N-10 A  
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505  
505/ 982.2448  •  877/ 982.2448  

Pulling the wool
Edward Crocker

If you know little to nothing about a particular topic and have not much inclination to educate yourself even if a problem affects you directly, you would be one of the hapless suckers ". . .born every minute" so aptly described by P.T. Barnum. His marketing principle, alas, is not limited to huckstering paying fools into the circus sideshow, but thrives in the worlds of politics and academia.

Mental entropy can be, and is, relied upon in ivory towers and halls to power to direct or, in a more sinister way, to "nudge" thinking and behavior to guide policy. As you might imagine, I do not intend to address geopolitical issues; I will simply point out, again, how a void in critical thinking applies to even the most humble of the building arts –- earthen architecture. When you throw "green" building into the equation, the hyperbole directed at the brain-dead grows exponentially.

In this context I have had a lot of fun with Mr. Barnum’s protégés. Remember the zero-energy emerald? And the Rastra scam (I have an update on Rastra –- Oh, Code Enforcers! It conducts water like a sieve and you need to require, not prohibit a moisture barrier on the walls). And, in exasperation, bucket walls.

Here is another good one. The Spanish at the University of Seville have collaborated with the Scots at the University of Strathclyde to develop an improved compressed earthen block. A CEB is produced by using hydraulic presses to create building blocks from practically any local soil. In its simplicity it is elegant, cheap and as green as it gets.

Academics, like those obfuscating politicians, hate simplicity and all except the really good mathematicians abhor elegance. Driven, I suppose, by an obligation to spend some ill-fated grant money in the search for a global solution to housing, the Spaniards and the Scots tested and published their ideas for improving compressed earthen blocks (see Construction and Building Materials, Volume 24, Issue 8, August 2010, Pages 1462-1468). Among their claims are that their blocks are inexpensive, environmentally friendly because they do not produce carbon dioxide during manufacture, they utilize local materials, and they are strong.

This is what they have done:  They have subjected the simple CEB to "strengthening" by adding sheep's wool and a natural polymer derived from seaweed. Who'd have thunk?

I have no doubt based on their testing that they have improved the compressive strength and modulus of rupture of CEBs. But really, no CO2? Do sheep exhale? Do they, uhmm, emit other –- well, you know, gasses? Is there no exhaust from whatever mechanism is used to compress the blocks, nor any carbon involved in the hydraulic fluid? And is seaweed locally available in, say, New Mexico? You can buy the polymer, its called alginate, for $49.95 for four-and-one-half pounds, plus shipping. Whoops, more of that dreaded carbon.

In this instance the "researchers" have appealed to the suckers by taking a product that doesn’t need improvement and subjecting it to totally unnecessary, expensive and alien materials. Then they applied some exaggeration probably to assure themselves that they had fed the green hysteria and to justify their work to their sponsors. In practical terms they accomplished absolutely nothing.

Old P.T. was right. And this one got past a peer review.

Crocker Ltd
2019 Galisteo Street, Suite N-10 A  •  Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505
tel 505/ 982.2448  •  fax 505/ 995.9877
toll free 877/ 982.2448

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