Geeks Build With Legos

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Reprinted from The Philadelphia Inquirer
Inventor builds modular, plastic-block chateau
By John Markoff
New York Times News Service
Stanley Mazor is one of the architects of the information age, one of three Intel Corp. engineers who invented the original microprocessor, the nerve center for personal computers as well as refrigerators.
So it was not surprising that when Mazor turned his hand to building a vacation house, his approach would be inventive.
The results of his experiment can be seen in the rolling countryside on the outskirts of Ashland, Ore., where he has finished building the first two-thirds of a French chateau, modeled on a 17th-century structure in Normandy. Not being a purist, Mazor, 63, gave the project, which will cost about $2 million, all the pragmatic earmarks of a Silicon Valley engineer.
For example, the house is built not of stone and plaster but largely of polystyrene blocks reinforced with concrete. Much of its decorative trim has been fashioned from extruded plastic foam, and six of the ornate window surrounds on the third floor are made of Corian, material widely used in kitchen countertops.
The materials fit with Mazor's belief that houses should be affordable and modular.
Although building with plastic foam is more expensive than building with wood, and similar in cost to cinder block or brick, the blocks are larger, do not need to be insulated, and offer some advantages. Plaster, for instance, adheres well to them without any preparation.
And modular construction, Mazor said, allows a dwelling to be built over time, a pay-as-you-go approach. His chateau is being built in three phases, but could have been built in as many as six.
He chronicled the project in 2003 in a book, Design an Expandable House: For Present Needs and Future Dreams (Unlimited Publishing, $40).
Mazor, who is retired, sketched his chateau for three years, recording details of buildings he admired on business and pleasure trips to France. He hit upon the idea of building with foam in Japan, when he noticed fast-food containers in a Tokyo alley and began to think about its uses. Later, he discovered insulated-concrete forms.
Mazor's architect, Elvin Spurling, translated his sketches into architectural renderings.
They collaborated, sending sketches and specifications back and forth via e-mail between Mazor's primary home in Los Altos, Calif., and Spurling's office in Prineville, Ore. They did not actually meet until after the first phase of the building was finished.
"I would do a sketch and hit send, and then we could talk about it immediately," Spurling said.
Construction began in 2000. The building, a jumping-off spot for Mazor's rambles around the Northwest, has advanced from the original three-story, 1,800-square-foot "cottage" through Phase 2, a 3,000-square-foot wing, to Phase 3, the final section, under construction.
When completed, the house will be 152 feet wide and its 7,800 square feet will allow for six bedrooms, a music room, and a gym. There will be a tower at each end, one designed to house two cars, the other for the kitchen and dining room.
He drew his idea of designing the complete building first and then constructing it in stages from what is called top-down design in the computer world. The chateau is being built with "interfaces." The floor plan locates doors and windows, to make it relatively easy to add on.
The chateau as an architectural form began as a fortified building that could be used to defend an entire village. It was not unusual for chateaus to be surrounded by moats, so Mazor added a bridge across a small stream on his 25-acre estate, which is on the edge of Ashland, a city known for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
His land, however, feels remote, and his house is increasingly surrounded by red oaks, birches, poplars and pines that he planted.
He puzzled for a few years over the narrow footprints of chateaus, which present a thorny challenge in laying out rooms. But after many experiments with pencil and graph paper, he decided to adhere to the classic proportions.
In 1997, an article in Architectural Digest about a Normandy chateau caught his eye. He wrote to the owner, a marquis, to ask if he could visit.
On receiving no for an answer, he and his wife flew to Normandy and called again when they were about a half-hour from the chateau. The marquis answered the phone and, in perfect English, told them they were welcome to come by and take photographs.
As Mazor wandered the grounds, he observed that the building had been created in stages. "They originally built it sequentially," he thought to himself. "Why don't I build it sequentially, too?"
Back home, he discovered there were several polystyrene products on the market. He decided on Rastra, which combines recycled foam plastic with a concrete slurry to make a block that is strong, lightweight and highly fire-resistant.
The blocks, which fit like Legos, are first glued together. Concrete is then poured into the resulting channels.
The link between architecture and computer design seemed obvious to Mazor. Computer design has increasingly moved to a higher level of abstraction, and computer architects now work by assembling components like Legos.
And so it was fitting that when the Mazor chateau was under construction, the work crew displayed a Lego banner high above the ground.
Thomas J. Watson - WoodDorker
tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet (real email) http://home.comcast.net/~tjwatson1 (webpage)
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Two million is affordable?

Great--it coulda been four million.

40 bucks? Gotta amortize that innovation somehow.

Ahh-just the thing for the struggling young couple with a rug rat and another on the way.

There wasn't a duke or prince available?

Lego my leg, Tommy. You've pulled it far enough.
Bob
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wrote:

This is getting to be a more common construction method around here. One big selling point here is that with this type of construction the walls are supposed to stand up to 140-160 mph winds. Since we have tornadoes here people seem to like the idea. It has a long way to go before replacing normal framing methods though. They stack what look to be Styrofoam blocks on top of the footings around all of the outside walls. Then they bring in a pump truck and fill the cavities with concrete from the top. It's different!
Mike O.
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Sun, Feb 27, 2005, 1:07pm (EST-1) snipped-for-privacy@cox.net (Mike) says: <snip> One big selling point here is that with this type of construction the walls are supposed to stand up to 140-160 mph winds. Since we have tornadoes here people seem to like the idea.<snip>
Wouldn't take a direct hit from a tornado tho. And, if you're not in the direct path, conventional homes stand up pretty well. Might be good in hurricane country (Florida) tho.
I'd like an underground house. Be one Hell of a lot less than $2mil to build too.
JOAT Intellectual brilliance is no guarantee against being dead wrong. - David Fasold
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snipped-for-privacy@webtv.net (J T) wrote in (Mike) says:

I thought they sometimes built homes on stilts (well, first floor basements) in the Carolinas, because of the hurricane floods.
Rather than live in a hole in the ground, I'd find another place to live. We pretty much adapt to whatever we have to, I guess.
Patriarch, from earthquake country...
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Sun, Feb 27, 2005, 9:06pm (EST-1) snipped-for-privacy@nospam.comcast.dot.net (Patriarch) says: I thought they sometimes built homes on stilts (well, first floor basements) in the Carolinas, because of the hurricane floods. <snip>
I suppose some people might - if they're dumb enough to build in a flood-prone area. The really, really, really, stupid ones tho, are the ones that build on the coast, then cry when their house gets washed away. And, then rebuild in the same spot. I live on high ground, and wouldn't live closer than a mile to any coast.
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Sounds like the idiots in Phoenix who build *in* the Salt River, which is totally dry, or just a trickle 99% of the time. But . . . when it floods? They keep going back & building too.
--
Nahmie
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J T wrote:

Depends on how you define "stilts". Houses built above-grade on various kinds of support are commonplace in the South--the one I grew up in in North Florida was about 4 feet off the ground on brick pillars, maybe 16 of them.
As for living on high ground, the highest ground in Florida is about 300 feet if I recall correctly and there's precious little of that. That house was about ten miles inland, although located on a river. The land was about ten feet above mean high water as well. I've seen a storm surge completely cover the yard. High water is a fact of life in hurricane country and the only "stupidity" is not planning for it, and "planning for it" doesn't always include "move to Iowa" as an option.

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Mon, Feb 28, 2005, 10:07am snipped-for-privacy@snet.net.invalid (J.Clarke) says: Depends on how you define "stilts". Houses built above-grade on various kinds of support are commonplace in the South--the one I grew up in in North Florida was about 4 feet off the ground on brick pillars, maybe 16 of them. As for living on high ground, the highest ground in Florida is about 300 feet if I recall correctly and there's precious little of that. <snip>
I seem to be the one being quoted, but I didn't bring up the subject of stilts.
That sounds like it was to keep the house above water to me.
Isn't that hill manmade? I forgot to include this, I wouldn't live in any part of Florida either.
JOAT Intellectual brilliance is no guarantee against being dead wrong. - David Fasold
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J T wrote:

I think I was quoting you quoting Patriarch but for some reason your quote didn't have the ">" marks and indentation so it looks like only one layer in mine.

Might be to keep it away from termites, or to provide ventilation underneath--remember it gets _hot_ down there--or just a place for the cat to get out of the rain. I'm not sure what the logic of it was, it was just something that one accepted and didn't pay much attention to. This house was built in the '20s--most of the other houses of that vintage and older were built pretty much the same way. The newer ones were all slab on grade, but I'm not sure exactly when the transition happened. I suspect that it might have had something to do with the economics of poured concrete in residential construction.

Not sure, it seems to just be a spot by the side of the road. Florida's not really all that low overall though--mean elevation is 100 feet, which is the same as Louisiana and higher than Delaware. OTOH, New Orleans is 8 feet below mean sea level--if the levees go on a spring tide it floods for real.


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Patriarch wrote:

Right on the coast, it's very common. Especially on those overgrown sandbars they call islands. Usually the bottom story is a place to park the cars. Then the living quarters are on top, about 8-12' off the ground. Or, well, off the sandbar anyway.
Being a mountain boy, I find it fascinating that people actually build entire little towns, complete with gas stations, on those overgrown sandbars. Great place to visit, but I can't see buying property there. It's just a bunch of sand.
I don't feel right unless I'm surrounded by gentle, rolling green humps anyway. I don't know how you flatlanders stand it. Get down in flatland, either you can see too damn far, or there's no sense of how far anything is because you're surrounded by trees that are all on the same plane seemingly for eternity. No up, no down, no topography at all in flatland.
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Silvan wrote:

Next time you get a vacation you might want to try Jamaica. It's one of those sandbars in a sense but it also has quite a lot of gentle, rolling green bumps (best coffee growing region in the world--shame it's so small). Many of which have at various places on them houses on stilts with cars parked underneath.
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On Sun, 27 Feb 2005 19:52:22 -0500, snipped-for-privacy@webtv.net (J T) wrote:

They might handle something as small as an f2 since they top out at about 160. They all seem to have conventional roofs though so I'm pretty sure the roof is coming off anyway.
Mike O.
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The more plastic you have in a house, the less likely you are to survive a house fire.

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wrote:

Good point. I don't know if any thing has been done to fire-proof the blocks.
Mike O.
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"Mike" wrote in message

======================I ran this past a friend who has built a house and shop using Rastra.
"The product has a 4 hour fire rating, so the blocks don't burn. You can play a propane torch on them and all it does is melt back the outer 1/16" or so, at which time the cement that bonds the block prevents further degradation at a fast rate. It takes enough time for the cement to degrade before the action progresses.The product, for all practical purposes, is not flammable. Before finishing the exterior, I went over the entire surface with a large propane weed burner, burning back the surface beads such that it left more surface area and contour for the Pleko to grip. Worked great. Rastra may be one of only two products on the market that don't burn. The concept is clearly better than any other foam block on the market."
-Doug in Utah
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Here's an interesting site that documents that "fill in the concrete blocks" style of construction.
http://www.scrapbookscrapbook.com/DAC-ART/small-italian-style-vacation-home.html
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On Sun, 27 Feb 2005 09:17:03 -0500, the inscrutable Tom Watson

That's about 45 minutes from here. I'll have to go gawk at it some time soon.

An "affordable" $2 million, 7,800 square foot home? Right.

Hmmm, sounds like a human-hostile layout.

Cuuuuute.
-- "Menja b, caga fort!"
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<snip>

Well, evidently _he_ can afford it. The neighborhood in California where he came from has $2M homes with a third of the square footage, on a third of an acre. Rather changes your perspective, at times.
I understand he's not the only California exile in southern Oregon, right?
Patriarch
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On Sun, 27 Feb 2005 21:10:02 -0600, the inscrutable Patriarch

Yes, and I usually shy away from whatever someone calls "affordable". I think it's a rich man's term meaning "Way the frack out of the price range of mere mortals."

My buddy in Olivenhain (Sandy Eggo County) just told me that the local median price for a home there was $570k, and two homes on his block just went for $650k and $680k. Those homes sold brand new in the 70s for $32,000. That's a 20x increase to 2/3 of a million dollars. UFR!

I believe the Southern Oregon population is roughly split into 2 categories, Glenn: 10% native Oregonians and 90% LoCal Exiles.
-- "Menja b, caga fort!"
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