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29 December 2009

Return on Investment

maintain: to keep in an existing state of repair; to preserve from failure or decline

Although logic tells us our world is built on the past - the inspiration, artistry, genius, and brute labor of our predecessors - it’s easy to forget what has gone before and accept everything we see as normal. If we occasionally took the time reflect on the wonders around us, or the long chain of events that led to their creation, we might better appreciate what we have, and plan better for the future.

To celebrate our sixtieth birthdays, my wife and I took a three-week vacation in Germany and Italy, beginning in mid-September. Before that, our foreign travel had been limited to a trip to Puerto Morelos, Mexico in 1998 and a CSI/CSC convention in Winnipeg in 2006. Our longest vacation had been ten days, so this was quite the adventure for us.

One of the major contributing factors was my work schedule. For the first time in the last thirty years, there was a hole! Despite the economy, I had been working overtime, so to see a couple of weeks with nothing scheduled was a bit of a shock. Hmm, what to do? Work anyway, and lose the vacation time? Stay home and try to catch those pesky gophers? Or - hey! here’s an idea - do something you’ve talked about doing for twenty years!

And so, in just a few weeks, we planned our trip. At first we were going to play it safe and take a short trip to England, but we quickly decided to make the most of the opportunity; we added a third week and began planning a tour of the continent. Our list of cities continually expanded and shrank as we alternately added interesting sites, then cut things to avoid the “if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium” syndrome.

We were a great team, both in planning and execution. We split the itinerary, with Linda focusing on Italy and I on Germany. Once we had that more or less settled, she worked more on accommodations, while I worked on transportation. By the time we left, we knew where we were going and when, with one exception - but that’s another story.

The weather could hardly have been better. We had one misty morning in Immenstaad, and light drizzle on our last day, in Limburg. Otherwise, all sun and light breeze, enhanced with the occasional glass of wine. We relied primarily on rail transportation, with a couple of bus trips and a few cruises thrown in for variety. I can’t say enough about the rail system, especially in Germany; there was no comparison with my Amtrak experiences. In short, it was as perfect a trip as I can imagine.

Of the many remarkable things we saw, the most pervasive was the sheer age of the buildings and artifacts. Coming from a country just over two hundred years old, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that every place we went had a history many hundreds of years longer than ours. It was an odd sensation, sitting in a restaurant that was doing business long before Columbus set foot on North America. In Pommern, Germany, we toured a winery that had been in the same family since 1610. In both Germany and Italy, we saw countless buildings that were centuries old, yet still in use today.

In some areas, I was struck by the apparently poor condition of buildings that were not in obviously poor areas. The paint was peeling, the roofs were damaged, and some had holes in the walls. Yet there they stood, still serviceable after hundreds of years. The secret of their longevity? They were built of stone, concrete, and plaster.

In many parts of Italy, I was amazed by the countless terraces built to allow agriculture on the steep slopes. In a dark, lower-level room in Rio Maggiore, I found a room-sized museum that showed how the terraces were built. While most of the masonry construction we are familiar with uses manufactured masonry units and mortar, the terraces I walked among were built of dry-stacked, rough-cut stone. This method of construction requires both the meanest grunt labor and sophisticated artistry; the mason had to carry each stone to its location on a steep hill (often 70 degrees), then choose the right combination of stones that would produce a stable wall with a relatively smooth, planar surface. According to the information I was able to find, the terraces in this area contain more than ten million cubic yards of stone. (For an aerial tour of this area, go to The scenes of Manarola and Rio Maggiore include a good view of the terraces surrounding those cities. If you’re interested, some of our own pictures are online at

It’s interesting to consider what I saw in the context of “sustainable” design. I’m pretty sure the Europeans weren’t terribly concerned about sustainability, yet they built cities that survived to this day with essentially no maintenance. Not that they necessarily had that in mind, but when you build with stone, you’re building for the long haul! Those ancient structures have proven to be impervious to all but the worst disasters, and it hasn’t mattered that someone forgot to paint them for a few years - or a few hundred. They also demonstrate the recyclability of stone; many a castle has contributed material for the construction of a newer building.

Unfortunately, stone buildings can’t be built fast enough, and they require too much labor to be affordable in today’s world. Modern construction relies heavily on complex technology for production of materials and labor-saving equipment, and for maintenance and operation of building systems. Our challenge is to create materials and systems that make better use of existing resources, require little maintenance, and will either last a very long time or be easily reused or recycled. Instead of designing for performance on the day of occupancy, we must evaluate the total cost of each material and system, including maintenance and replacement, and base our decisions on the life cycle cost of the entire facility.

Without maintenance, I wonder, how many twentieth century cities would be intact and in use a thousand years from now?

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