[FoRK] Engineering rules of thumb and Amazon's HQ2 effort

Ken Meltsner meltsner at alum.mit.edu
Mon Sep 11 19:02:09 PDT 2017

Are our tech giants getting a bad case of edifice complex?  First
Apple with the "spaceship" HQ, and now Amazon putting out an RFP for
their second headquarters.

Last week, sdw mentioned one of the most famous engineering "laws"
(Postel's).  Well, way back at my first professional, permanent job
(GE R&D), Stephen Spacil, one of my colleagues, had come up with an
engineering "law" that ought to be better known:

By the time you build a new facility for an opportunity, the
opportunity will have passed.

There were many examples at GE in Niskayuna, like the coal
gasification building that wasn't completed until coal gasification
was shown to be a dead end both economically and technically, or the
lab space purpose-built for a division that was sold shortly before
the lab was completed.

And the corollary is that junky buildings, like MIT's famous Building
20 [1] (built as temporary lab space during WWII, but used for more
than 50 years) are often the most productive spaces for novel ideas
because no one cared what happened to it -- labs routinely drilled
holes in walls and floors to make space or connections for unwieldy
equipment, for example.

Really makes me wonder about Apple's new headquarters which is
probably too beautiful to hack if a flexible space is needed, and now
Amazon's stated goal of adding a second headquarters.

Ken Meltsner

[1]  Brand, Stewart (1995). How buildings learn: what happens after
they're built. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-013996-9., cited
at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_20
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