Today, an inventive mind plays with building
blocks. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
In San Antonio the other
day, a friend said, "John, I want you to see
something." He took me to the backlot of the Zachry
construction company. We looked at a long row of
concrete forms -- each the size of a large room.
Nearby was a casting from one of those forms. It
was a 33-foot cell block -- four solitary
confinement cells, all cast in a single piece of
The company was building a prison from these pieces
-- stacking them like Leggos. This strange outdoor
assembly line produces large buildings, one room
one at a time.
Later that night, my wife and I strolled on the
River Walk. We passed under the Hilton Hotel,
looming 21 stories straight up. It was made from a
stack of Zachry's concrete rooms. So we walked into
the elegant lobby where the desk clerk said, "Sure,
take a look." She lent me a key to a room on the
The room was lovely, but hard to believe. All this
luxury had been cast in the same mold as that
four-man cell block. I touched a picture on the
wall. It was bolted solidly in place. It had to be.
They'd completely finished and furnished each
thirty-five ton room before a crane carried it into
the sky. They could let nothing rattle around
I leaned out over the balcony to see where the room
was joined into place. Everything fit within a
quarter inch. Think how hard it is to place a
35-ton room as it swings on the end of a cable,
twenty stories up. To do that, Zachry engineers
invented a strange gadget. They attach a vertical
propeller to each room as it rides the crane. The
propeller came straight from the tail of a
helicopter, complete with its control system. It
holds the rooms rock-steady as they fly into
The economics of these buildings is a surprise.
They don't cost any less. Still, they give an owner
a terrific financial edge. This hotel went up in
less than seven months. It went into service long
before a hotel whose concrete was poured high above
the street. It drew income far sooner. It was the
speed of its construction that increased profits
for its owners.
I have here a statement of the builder's
"Philosophy" -- his one-page credo. Such things are
always overblown. People shouldn't try to express
the inexpressible before they've honed a poet's
skill. Yet one line comes through with odd clarity.
"I want to dream and to build," he says. "I want to
fail and to succeed." I believe him. For if his
cravings had been any less grand, he would never
have created such a radical technology.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds