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Is Washington becoming 'happy with crappy?'

From 520's pontoon problems to the Boeing 787 debacle, standards seem to be slipping in an age when the Chinese economy is dominating. But a call should be made to return to high quality, long lasting products.
A Boeing 787

A Boeing 787 Kentaro Iemoto@Tokyo/Flickr

Where's the money to finish ongoing mega-projects like the 520 Bridge?

Where's the money to finish ongoing mega-projects like the 520 Bridge? Anna Borska

The ferry Sealth

The ferry Sealth C.B. Hall

I ran into James Fallows who was in town promoting his fascinating new book, China Airborne, which looks at the future of that country's economic transformation through the lens of its ambitions to be a major player in aerospace. Can China do what it has done in general manufacturing in the realm of Boeing, Airbus, and NASA?

I mentioned to Fallows what a European official had told me in Shanghai at the close of the world expo there in 2010. After living in Shanghai for two years as commissioner of a major pavilion and seeing what they could do, he said his impression was the Chinese do everything to a 95% standard. They don't seek perfection, they just build something's that's good enough. "I wouldn't want to ride on an airliner or space shuttle they'd built," he told me.

Fallows said there's a saying about that: "Happy with crappy."

He doesn't use that phrase in his new book, but he describes the phenomenon. The growth and infrastructure spurt in China, the rapid industrialization and urbanization, is remarkable, but how lasting is it?

"It's true," he writes, "that buildings and facilities tend to age quickly in China, because of pollution and, sometimes, shortcuts in construction standards." Fallows writes that while living there he often saw aging buildings he assumed were built in the 1960s only to find they were constructed four or five years before. They'd appeared to have aged 40 years in less than a decade. Sounds like those meth addict mug shots you see online.

He cited the Rem Koolhaas CCTV tower built for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which he says has "harshly weathered" and looks like its been there for years. Contrast that with the Space Needle which, at 50, is still looking fresh in skies much cleaner than they were forty years ago.

A high speed rail crash in China last year, and the Sichuan earthquake which brought down poorly constructed schools, Fallows writes, are highly publicized examples that have contributed to the image of slap-dash construction.

It's not true of everything, and much of China's infrastructure is newer than ours, he observes, very noticeable on new and lightly trafficked freeways. In America, the challenge is updating and renewing the old, as evidenced here in Seattle by the 520 and South Park bridge replacements, and the Alaskan Way Viaduct removal.

If China has been sloppy in its build-up phase, are we doing better in meeting or exceeding the standards of American engineers and builders who created so much of the infrastructure we still rely on? You see a lot of failing Seattle streets with patchwork repairs (if they're lucky). At the turn of the century, concrete was poured that has lasted a century. Compare the construction of a 1920s bungalow with the particle board of a 2001 condo. Are we building stuff nowadays that will last a century or longer?

Or are we becoming "happy with crappy?"

Recent headlines make you wonder.

We're undertaking the multi-billion-dollar replacement of the 520 bridge which has rapidly aged, in part, due to more use than was originally projected. But inspectors have already found major problems with the replacement bridge's new pontoons which are supposed to keep it floating. Cracks and not enough re-bar reinforcement seem to be the problems.

Earlier this year, a monkey wrench was thrown in the massive Columbia Crossing bridge project over the Columbia River when the Coast Guard raised objections to the bridge's height. Way late in the project we've discovered that the bridge is too low for some river navigation. Raising it will require major reworking of the project. Might be cheaper just to write a lyric about it, like in the old Erie Canal folk song: "Low bridge ev'-ry bod-y down,/Low bridge for we're com-in to a town ..."


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Comments:

Posted Wed, May 23, 4:41 a.m. Inappropriate

“Happy with Crappy” is not a new phenomenon in my opinion, ever since structures have been designed by engineers using computers, we have seen substantial reduction in quality associated with longevity. If a structure needs to survive an 8.5 earthquake it will, but experience an 8.6 and you will have a pile of rubble. Slide rules,(remember them?) are not as fast or accurate as a computer, so engineers designed into every building a substantial fudge factor. Use the Space Needle as an example; it has been said that it was overbuilt around 250%.

“Happy with Crappy” is also a function of our throwaway society, build things cheap, and toss them when they are “old” be it out of date old, or just out of fashion. We also obsess with how cheap the price is, look at what Wal-mart offers.

If the new 520 pontoons sink in the next big windstorm, we have only ourselves to thank, we want the bridge built as cheap as possible. If we can support a Tim Eyeman in this state, is it any wonder we build things cheap? We do not want to pay taxes, so we build thing “within the allowed budget” and we have pontoons ready to sink. You get what you pay for. The old mantra “pay now, or pay later” never changes.

Posted Wed, May 23, 4:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe our unionized workforce finds the taxpayer money intoxicating.

http://www.seattlepi.com/local/komo/article/Hidden-camera-shows-520-Bridge-workers-drinking-3578609.php

BlueLight

Posted Thu, May 24, 6:20 a.m. Inappropriate

The workers do whatever the 1% tells them to do. It's one group and one group only that's responsible for what goes out the door and it's not the people wearing tool belts.

Goforride

Posted Wed, May 23, 7:36 a.m. Inappropriate

At the cornerstone of the current I-5 bridge across the Columbia River is one of my favorite quotes, from John Ruskin:

"When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work that our descendents will thank us for; and let us think that we lay stones on stones, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that people will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See, this our parents did for us”."

We are so obsessed with "on time and under budget" that we lose sight of the essential fact that our children will have to cope with the result of our vision and care - or lack thereof. The architects, engineers and builders of today are no less capable of greatness than their predecessors. We just have to be willing to ask for it.

TylerP

Posted Wed, May 23, 7:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Why shouldn't we be "happy with crappy" if the powers that be are just going to destroy major public works projects after just 30 years (cf. the Kingdome)? This is just another example of the short-term thinking that fuels everyone's actions from Wall Street investors to Wal-Mart shoppers. It doesn't matter if it's crappy because I'll want the next NEW THING soon enough.

Posted Wed, May 23, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Keeping up with the Jones used to be the name for it, but crony capitalism, or whatever one chooses to call it, is now far beyond that. Today's WSJ "For Oakland's NBA Warriors, A Fast Break Across the Bay" (Google the first phrase of that in quotes.) And the title covers only half the saga.

afreeman

Posted Wed, May 23, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

All the examples here are in the public domain aside from the cheap shot at Boeing where the delays in the 787 have patently not been because they were "happy with crappy" but instead have needed to make it first rate even at the expense of embarrassing and costly delays.

If you wanted to cite a better example of corporate "happy with crappy" then there is no need to look further than Microsoft where the whole world has for a three decades had to put up with one buggy and kludgy windows operating system after another - However it made many billions of dollars for our economy and so it is difficult to argue that the last 5% was worth striving for.

Looking at the public sector, Seattle is clearly skimping on infrastructure repairs especially to roads but when we do spend money on the whole job is done well. The Seattle schools cannot be credited with much but the renovations of old school buildings have been to a very high and long lasting standard and to their credit they have avoided the temptation to renovate more buildings to a lower standard. As another example of good construction look at the excellent new fire stations we are building. Indeed we even build first rate structures when they are unneeded. For example, the downtown library is a beautiful building that is well constructed but next to useless for most of us as an amenity since most of the book borrowing occurs in the suburbs. Book and media collections will soon be stored on a distributed collection of servers rather than in a grandiose building so it might have been prudent to build a central library for a 20-year lifespan if we built it at all.

Posted Wed, May 23, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

The problem with the 787 is that it was conceived by Boeing and built by McDonnell-Douglas.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, May 23, 12:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Didn't you mean "outsourced to the Boeing suppliers" who have no incentive to make sure their parts fit with anything made by anybody else.

It was purely a cost saving plan which only served to teach Mitsubishi heavy industry how to make airplane wings. (only the single key component of efficient flight) If Japan's currency wasn't in the tank, we'd probably see a Japanese airplane competitor in the air by now.

GaryP

Posted Wed, May 23, 10:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Wrong answer. Boeing outsourced the wings because the cost of a new factory to build the wings would not look good on the balance sheets.

Posted Wed, May 23, 11:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Partial credit. McDonnell-Douglas executives undervalued the engineering talent, the knowledge of supply-chain management, and the discipline of project management of heritage Boeing. They were familiar only with the commercial airplane business based upon their exposure to the Douglas business unit which from the 1980s onward had been limping along by rehashing and repackaging derivative airplanes.

Posted Wed, May 23, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

My grandmother would have washed my mouth out for a "Happy with Crappy" Headline. JG-

Posted Mon, May 28, 6:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Agree with you, Jerry.

Posted Wed, May 23, 2:53 p.m. Inappropriate

It's always entertaining reading Knute's work. But seriously, can you really connect the Boeing 787, the 520 bridge and the new ferries and sum it up as Happy with Crappy? Wow!

I think a better headline and tie in would be called, 'The Need for Greed'.

Let's face it, Wall Street forced Boeing to move their 787 assemblies overseas. No sane Engineer would have done that. But for the coke snorting class on Wall Street, that made perfect sense.

Posted Thu, May 24, 6:07 a.m. Inappropriate

The biggest evidence of happy with crappy are the many buildings that go up in Seattle that are designed for the bottom line of the developers, and look like crap to the rest of us.

Mossback makes cheap shots about the 787, which just might be the world's best example of an extremely high quality product.

The best evidence that Boeing is happy with crappy is their decision to assemble a line of 787 in South Carolina, a state with notoriously crappy schools and terrible roads which is dominated by a political culture whose moral purpose is defined by radically right wing pastors, who can be bought for the almighty dollar.

Dumb is celebrated in South Carolina - which remains one of the most racially divided places on the globe. Hardly a place to market high technology products to the rest of the globe.

Whose getting those Boeing jobs in North Charleston? Does that workforce look like the profile of the rest of the state?

Jan

Posted Thu, May 24, 6:30 a.m. Inappropriate

"Happy with crappy" is simply the manifestation of the shift in our economy, and in our thinking, from engineer to finance being the most important part of the project.

All the examples of China cited are simply because "slap it up" is more important to them than building something that will last.

Obama hit it dead on the head awhile back when he said in an interview that he wanted to see America a powerhouse in manufacturing, not just in banking and finance.

Look at how things have change since the Reagan days. Which is more profitable and certainly more prestigious: an MBA or an MS in engineering?

Goforride

Posted Mon, May 28, 12:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Although it may be logical for big event venues to be mostly temporary, the shift of primary concerns from engineering to finance sums up these situations best. Whether major infrastructure projects are essentially temporary or long-term, profitability dictates a short-term investment. Nothing new there. Happy with Crappy Potempkin Villages are one thing, Planned Obsolescence quite another.

Unfortunately, President Obama trade policy principally increases manufacturing for global trade that is unsustainable, thus obsolescent in the long-term.

Wells

Posted Thu, May 24, 7:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Speaking of "happy with crappy," there is Crosscut and the former Publicola team to think about.

NotFan

Posted Mon, May 28, 6:48 p.m. Inappropriate

How about a new headline "Butt Ugly The New Normal"

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