The group I had joined was supposed to be considering an exciting topic: the future of construction. Wow—where to start? So many potential breakthroughs: design, materials, methods, techniques. And then there are the new building sites: the oceans, outer space—limitless possibilities in the Digital Age.
Hardly anyone had ever thought of the future that actually confronted our group, indeed confronted the human race, on that fateful day. No one was considering what if, instead of the Digital Age, we found ourselves thrust back into the Stone Age or beyond.
It had happened before, 65 million years ago, when a comet from space collided with the earth, killing off the dinosaurs and two-thirds of all other species. Experts used to say that the chance of repetition was one in a hundred million years.
Odds are odds, but the unlikely did happen, with another collision off the coast of California generating forces that within seconds turned the nucleus of the comet from solid-state material into vapor. A large amount of material from the earth’s surface also vaporized, forming gases that mixed and expanded upward in an incendiary plume.
Some of the vaporized material rushed harmlessly into outer space, but most of the material did not escape the earth’s gravity. The speedily disbursing vapor particles quickly condensed into tiny solid globules, reentering the atmosphere radiating heat and—unthinkable but horrific as it was—engulfing nearly the entire earth in flames and also stirring up enormous tsunamis in other regions. The inevitable result was the almost total destruction of civilized society.
Our group, engineers on a conference cruise off the east coast of South Africa, an area known as KwaZulu-Natal, found ourselves in one of the few regions that was far enough from the site of the disaster, an area of potential salvation. Dreams of futuristic construction would have to be delayed for our immediate needs: finding fresh water and sources of food. We also had to find or create basic shelter. Ironic for this group, which was used to building giant towers.
When we eventually landed on a beach, the only building materials available within a practical distance, aside from a bit of driftwood, were grasses, shrubs, bamboo, and short, slim trees. As modern construction engineers we wondered how best to use such flimsy materials.
That problem, at least, was solved soon enough when we encountered other survivors, a group of Zulus, skilled at using native materials to build dwellings. One by one, using a number of pliable sapling trunks or branches stuck in the ground and fastened together at the top to form a dome, they created their traditional structures known as indlu. They covered these with woven grass mats and then added thatch.
We watched as they showed us how to use grass roping to bind the structure together. Using delicate boughs and natural threads, they made solid and utilitarian structures.
While the concept of building an idlu seemed simple enough, our group watched in wonder at the techniques of these master builders.
Now it was our turn. With their help we tackled the floors, which are traditionally made from crushed termite soil or anthill material mixed with clay and cow dung. Our group made do with sand and pounded dirt, and most felt that this was just as well. Later on, however, some of the more adventurous young people in our group discovered that floors made of a cow-dung paste dry to a hard, smooth surface, not at all malodorous or unpleasant. The early Boers learned this technique from the Zulus and also adopted the use of thatch for roofing. For walls, however, they used mud bricks baked hard in the sun.
Eventually, our group became eager to move into the modern age, and some members now make bricks in kilns and built more conventional houses with cornered rooms.
There is iron ore nearby, and plans for smelting have been developed. Limestone and clay are also on hand, so cement will soon be available and soon followed by mortar and concrete mixes. Production of glass is in the works.
Even so, some members of the group led by an eminent Vietnamese agricultural engineer, have persisted in using natural-growing plants such as bamboo, which is abundant in this region, as construction material. Some are even experimenting with seeds and seedlings. We are told that since bamboo can be propagated by dividing root clumps or by planting certain segments of the shoots, as well as by sowing seeds and planting seedlings, prospects are excellent for this versatile and serviceable material. Some species grow quickly, as much as one foot per day, and achieve heights of up to one hundred and thirty feet. The stems, lashed together with grasses, provide a good structural material. The largest stems can be cut into planks for buildings and rafts, or used to make buckets and pipes, fishing poles and much more. The architects in our group are particularly interested in using bamboo to make furniture.
And so, while the cosmic catastrophe has thrust us back into what we see as an ancient world and frustrated our dreams of the future, we have tried to make the best of things.
Some religious members of our group have mentioned the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel and wonder whether we have been punished because of our efforts to build towers tall enough to reach the heavens.
But engineers have always looked for a challenge, and here we have certainly found it. While we physically have been thrown back to another time, we also have thousands of years of learning and experience to build on. Of course, we won't be building enormous towers or space stations any time soon. But the adversity shows signs of becoming a source of renewed determination and creativity.
(Portions of this story are adapted from Florman's 2001 novel, The Aftermath: A Novel of Survival.)
Samuel C. Florman is chairman of Kreisler Borg Florman General Construction Co., a 58-year old firm, located in Scarsdale, New York. He is the author of seven books, most recently "Good Guys, Wiseguys and Putting Up Buildings: A Life in Construction." His most widely known and honored book is "The Existential Pleasures of Engineering," published in 1976, second edition, with additional material in 1994. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1995 for "literary contributions furthering engineering professionalism, ethics and liberal engineering education."
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