Creeping automation

Automation is everywhere, but most of us don’t notice it. Every product we buy, every service we use has been touched by automation, some more than others. Think about the products you buy about the grocery store? Come in a package? Packed by machine!

I’ve had some interesting emails from regular followers/readers about automation. I don’t think people quite understand how invasive and creeping automation is.

Here is a perfectly simple example. I live on a new development in Colorado. Some 70 single family homes, and now they are moving into the multi-family condo and town homes. They’ve built two condo buildings, and a 3rd 12-plex is going up now, literally right across the street.

Pressed Siding, Floor and Ceiling Boards from Canada
Crane lifts pre-constructed parts into place

First, let’s be clear, this isn’t a pre-fabricated building. It’s a unique design to this location, that most would consider “traditional construction”. Only it isn’t, it’s massively labor free, and largely “skilled-labor” free.

The construction is typical timber frame, in the old days, there would have been an army of craftsmen working on site, the continuous sound of saws and hammers. While there are some professional craftsmen on site, the bulk of the construction is being done by “nail gun jockeys” using pre-cut, assembled panels and components. They just nailed them into place.

Of course, walking pass this, you’d never normally take a second look. Since it’s directly opposite my home office, everytime I look out the window I see it. What do I see?

Creeping factory assembly and automation. All the major parts arrive pre-cut to size; the joists and all the boards for the side that need holes for windows and door arrive pre-cut. The original boards come from Canada and Mexico. Anyone who has seen the home improvement shows knows that the boards are not cut by craftsmen and craftswomen, but simply cut by operator assisted laser cutting machines. What do all these things have in common? Automation.

It would be easy to simple, let’s at least bring back the board creation, prep and the component assembly to the USA. Indeed easy to say. That assumes we have the raw material, and that the factories exist that can manage the increased workload. If they can’t then let’s assume they can be built.

What happens then? Well, the businesses that do the manufacturing either produce the same goods at the same price as they are available overseas, which will be hard. The US no longer has the same wealth of natural resources. Those that we do have are harder to extract, or come with environmental, planning or development restrictions. Even if these were lifted, they would still come with a price tag.

Those costs, plus any for plant construction, or increased raw material cost would be passed onto us. Effectively doing a “Carrier” and raising prices to cover their increased costs.

Automation is everywhere, but most of us don’t notice it. Every product we buy, every service we use has been touched by automation, some more than others. Think about the products you buy about the grocery store? Come in a package? Packed by machine! Ready made meals, the whole production line from animal slaughter to food prep and cooking are all now largely automated. It’s invisible, invasive and all encompassing.

The Greatest Social Challenge of our Generation — Strong Towns

This is one of the best blogs of many on the Strong Towns blog. American suburbia is only viable with heavy government subsidy and planning — It would be unaffordable otherwise.

As we see the Growth Ponzi Scheme unwinding and the first decades of what journalist Alan Ehrenhalt has called The Great Inversion, Americans are experiencing a return to normal living conditions. In many ways, it’s a traumatic transition; who-moved-my-cheese on a continental economic scale.

Source: The Greatest Social Challenge of our Generation — Strong Towns

I don’t want to sit here

*The inspiration for this post and the words and comments came from the excellent Strongtowns blog, and a post written by Gracen Johnson.

One of the more interesting challenges of living somewhere that is a high development area, is not the density, construction, or traffic, it is trying to ensure that in the rush to build, there is more than a hat-tip to quality of life.

Boulder and surrounds are synonymous with open space, and trails. All the developments adjacent to my neighborhood has trails and reasonably close access to open space, usually via trails. However, in a development with more than 120 single family homes, our developer has provided nothing to build or foster community, a far as I’m aware not a single swing or slide has been added.

Immediately adjacent to our development, North End Phase II/III, the same developer is applying to build another 78-dwellings, including single family, duplex and triplex homes. The development will for sure attract families.

I reviewed the plans, and there it was, adjacent to the power line trail, a lonely out-crop of the development, and almost immediately under overhead power lines, a “covered picnic area and table”. I thought this would be a good opportunity to challenge the developer and Lafayette Planning Commision to provide something better.

This is especially relevant, as the developer is seeking reduced lot sizes, and higher density. Meaning the back yards will be smaller, with less room for children to play.

Using pictures of what the developer has done on our development, I spoke before the planning commision last Tuesday (May 24th).
“Mr Chairman, Vice Chairman, and Commissioners, thank you for taking time to let me speak tonight. I’m Mark Cathcart, a new resident of Louisville CO. I live in the North End Phase II Development, just 250 yards immediately west of the proposed Blue Sage development.

As you know, North End and Blue Sage are from the same developer. At least in the North End Phase II development, the Public open space and community assets are disappointing.

While I’m sure the developer would argue otherwise, realistically I doubt any of the residents would. Not a single swing or slide has been added, we have Hecla Lake, which would have otherwise been difficult to develop, mostly due to the adjacent power lines. We have a drainage ditch that masquerades as an open space, and a pocket park, similar I would guess, to the one being proposed for the Blue Sage development.

Slide2The question is why would you want to sit here? Would you let your toddlers and young children play on the Boulders, helpfully surrounded by bark to break their fall?

I admit, this isn’t finished, the pictures were taken this afternoon. There is no allocated public parking, and no play area, it is adjacent to the water pumping station and to North End Phase III, and what are likely to be the 10-most expensive houses, I would guess over a million dollars each, in the entire North End development.

Allowing pocket parks like this stay under HOA control, limits almost any future improvement.

In some circles, this would be called defensive architecture, deliberately unappealing.

Slide3The top picture is from Blue Star Lane, south west of the Blue Sage development, looking into the open space to be developed.

We (often) demand developers throw some cash toward green space or public amenities in order to get approval for construction. You see it all the time in subdivisions with exquisite landscaping, pocket parks, and benches that are only appreciated from behind a car window or on the planning application.

The bottom picture is taken from the north west of the open space, looking south east to South Boulder Rd. We should spend our time obsessing why there are no people here, rather than what they might do wrong if they showed up.

Yes, Waneka Lake Park is just over a mile away from the development via the trails, but how much parking does it have and how many children can the play area take?

I’d ask you to reject the current proposal for reduced lot sizes, and increased lot coverage and ask the developer to produce a more useful community based amenity open space.”

Although the sketch plan proposal was approved, enough members of the planning commision asked for a better park that the developer will be expected to make some changes. We’ll have to wait and see what they come up with.

Changing Austin

even the sign is new
even the sign is new

I hate that Austin is changing, but when I look at much of the change, I can’t deny that its better. This hiperstercrit blog sentiment and list of changes is one of my favorites.

My poster example of change, is the house opposite mine, a 74-year old Hispanic guy lived there alone, he was so financially broke he couldn’t afford to retire; his hands were twisted and ineffective but he still did plumbing work. His only real pleasure was playing scratch cards, I’d often bump into him over at the corner store. He died last year, my neighbor and I agreed to put a bid in for his home, clean it up and modernize it, and rent it out at an affordable price using the property itself as an investment, rather than the rent as income. It was an old school south Austin shotgun duplex.

His nephew was in charge of the estate wanted $450k for the house. We looked it over, inside was awful, he hadn’t done any real maintenance, decoration, or refurbishment and our contractor reckoned it would cost $150k to sort out the piller/beam, the floors, a/c, electrical etc. We offered $350k but it was refused. They sold for $420k to Sett Studios. The city applied for Historic, the neighbors all wrote in opposition to the Historic zoning, the city withdrew the application. It will likely be replaced some some variant of this, which is two doors down on the same block.

So is Austin changing, do I blame people like me moving in? Yes to a point. I’m part of the problem. On the other hand, would anyone have paid the $450k and refurbished, no! Can I blame the nephew for asking a high price, absolutely not. Could you really ask someone to live in the house as it was, not really, although I’m sure some do it’s really not what we should be aiming for in the USAs fastest growing city, absolutely and totally not. This isn’t change for change sake, it’s necessary regeneration.

The “Welcome to Austin” mural is a perfect analogy of change. Yes, it has changed, although most won’t have noticed. Back in early 2013, I asked Todd Sanders at Road House Relics if he had any plans to repair/refurbish the mural? I introduced Todd to the folks at the neighborhood association, and contacted a personal friend who is in a senior position at the AUSTIN CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU, and a few months later the wall was stripped, and perfectly repainted by a team from Creative Action. It’s new, it’s vibrant, the only way you can spot the change, the new mural says (C) 2013 top-left. Change is inevitable.

Density, M/F and “Character”

Over on Dan Keshets’ “Austin On Your Feet” blog, Dan posted yesterday what I think was a follow-up to a long twitter conversation a number of us had. His post is about the City of Austins’ CodeNext project. Dan is an advocate for greater density in Austin, and as the name of his blog implies and the about page says “has lived and worked in central Austin near downtown without a car since 2005”.

I’ve had the feeling that a lot of those advocating for greater density, and especially the acceptance by the central neighborhoods of much more permissive multi-family zoning, have no real idea what is actually happening, at least on the square mile of Bouldin neighborhood that I live in. It seems pretty representative of Bouldin in general. I have no idea for other neighborhoods.

Dan includes an extract from a CodeNext email “a revised Land Development Code should consider the unique character found in different types of neighborhoods throughout Austin” and then Dan states “I believe the buildings-first perspective is a poor perspective from which to guide policy”. You can read the entry, and all the comments including mine, here. Now, I have not read CodeNext, or participated in any related meetings. Dan and I disagree, I think, on how density should be added, and especially how much is required. Others including Mike Dahmus aka M1EK seem to think mine, and other neighborhoods are being NIMBYS. For my part, I think that people are always afraid of change, when you can’t give clear examples of how much, and what change your are proposing you can’t expect anything but pushback, because things can always be worse.b.

So in a break between lunch and my first conference call this afternoon, I shot around a few streets within about 4-blocks from my house to take pictures of what is actually going happening under existing zoning. One of the reasons I’m not pre-disposed to wholesale changes in zoning, is I struggle to see why anything is needed. When CodeNext mentions character, my reaction is too little, too late. That boat sailed years ago, when houses like mine started going up(2005) if not before.

So, the following gallery are just some examples of what is going on right now, M/F housing within 4-blocks north, west and south of my house. I don’t offer them as evidence of anything; I’m not using them to defend against change; I don’t make any judgement on style; I don’t know about the zoning or even the legality of some of the construction. They are simply examples of the type and style of existing recent, predominantly M/F construction. The first few examples are the style of the traditional homes in the neighborhood, there are hundreds of these in Bouldin, spanning the entire spectrum, from near collapse to pristine condition. On my block, one traditional home disappeared in the past 8-weeks, and another is scheduled to be replaced soon. I don’t know what character CodeNext think they are defending, what ever it is, maybe someone could point to some examples here.

Maintaining the traditional houses simply can’t and won’t happen. We are almost exactly a mile from city hall. The economics will never add up. If CodeNext feels it could mandate a more traditional Bouldin home, then they better be prepared for the inevitable onslaught from property owners, or their descendants, who feel that they are being cheated out of a much higher legacy. Simply put, a small lot is worth much more if you can built a duplex, or faux-condo on it, than it is with an 1100sq ft single family “character” home.

If the urbanists and densificationists want to see a more uniform, reduced or no setback, then something needs to happen to transport, or for parking. Not all the houses have alleyway access in the rear.

All these pictures were taken between 1:45pm, and 2:30pm on January 22, 2014, between W Oltorf, and W Monroe, S 1st St and the railroad tracks to the west. If I’ve made any mistakes in labeling or guessing at the type of construction, leave a comment, I’ll change it.

(click on any picture to launch slideshow; all the “before” house pictures are (c) Google Maps.)

Lavaca – Off road slalom course

Next week sees the much heralded launch of the “rapid bus” in Austin. That’s a subject of


huge importance and not to mention, massive debate and possibly deception. In order to prepare for this, the city has been making major changes, especially downtown creating priority lanes for buses, and new bike lanes.

What is abundantly clear is the main in town south north route, Lavaca won’t be ready. While the priority lanes were being created, there has been major sewer work going on, the road surface has been ripped up, not just re-striped, lanes have been out for days just to accommodate a portable toilet.

At least as far as I read it back in August, the city was supposed to have been finished at the end of September. Today it took me a record time to get to 24th/MLK from my street off South 1st, just a mile from city hall. 23-minutes, at a walking pace of 4.5MPH, but sadly, in my car.


I took this picture this morning while stationary at 10th St. 1-mile traveled, 17-minutes, 6MPH. Prior to the roadwork starting it took just 7-minutes most days to get across the S 1st St bridge, up the synchronized lights on Lavaca to 24th/MLK. There was no point in speeding as you’d just reach a light just before it would change, or just after.

I wrote to the Austin works department asking about this a few weeks back and was told the repairs and upgrades won’t be finished until April. The email helpful included the following reasons for the problems

it is important to note that there is a large amount of private construction taking place on Lavaca as well.  Public Works’ Street and Bridge crews are working diligently to complete the street resurfacing of Lavaca in anticipation of the Bus Rapid Transit kickoff date of January 26; however, due to unforeseen utility conflicts, inclement weather and special events the schedule has had to be revised with an anticipated completion date of April 2014.

This is another example of small city planning, big city desires. For the major routes, private work needs to be totally coordinated with public works. Major lanes and blocks of the major north/south route should NOT be out for this long, let alone with lanes closed for a whole block just to accommodate a porta potty. Anyway, whatever Mike thinks, whatever the truth, RapidBus won’t be rapid on Lavaca anytime soon.