Posted by Ellen


The ninth annual Solar Decathlon International is under way in Madrid; teams from seventeen universities in Europe, Asia, and the Americas have built solar-powered houses for the competition.

Almost all the entries are box-shaped houses topped by complicated solar panels. This one is different; can you guess where it's from? The Institute of Advanced Architecture in Barcelona, where it was designed for a climate in which cooling as opposed to heating is a major challenge. 

"The twentieth century was the architectural age of form follows function," notes the statement accompanying this entry. "The twenty-first century is the age of form follows energy."

The winning house will be named next week. I'll try to keep you posed.

Posted by Ellen

Ninety-eight winters of salt have done a number on the mortar that was supposed to be holding the bricks together on my front steps. Fortunately, I count among my good friends an experienced bricklayer who was willing to take on the project. Here you see Katrin Maldre chipping away at the old mortar, using my little old rock hammer and a fancy new chisel.

To be fair, Katrin's bricklaying experience was not extensive or recent. But one summer back in Communist times, when she was growing up in Estonia, she and her friends were sent out into the country to work on a large brick construction project. Mostly, they moved bricks to and from piles---but it's a whole lot more bricklaying experience than I can claim.. (Katrin also has a son who has an engineering degree and knows about bricks and stuff, and  who was willing to supervise this project from Estonia via Skype.)

Within an hour or two we got rid of most of the old mortar, slathered the free bricks with new mortar, and set them back in place. We broke one brick, and when the job was finished we somehow had an extra piece of brick left over. But you can't tell by looking at it.

The highlight of the job was definitely the new chisel. Note that yellow foam hand protector thing. Worth its weight in gold! Its inventor is a genius.