2023-02-13 8 min read

Notes, 2023-02-13

NOTES, 2023-02-13.

The built environment is shaped by local factors. The distinct geography, history, language, and available building materials at any given place enable unique building styles and afford different infrastructures. Natasha Balwit-Cheung calls this a buildingshed. Like a watershed describes the area from which water flows to a particular point, a buildingshed describes the systems of energy, labor, and materials that contribute to a particular building. I’ve spent the last decade getting obsessed with the buildingsheds that surround me. In my hometown of Toronto, I was fascinated by tracing how the clay bricks that built the city are ground up to build out new land on the shoreline. When I moved to Montreal, I learned about a limestone quarry that once provided stone for buildings downtown and now gets filled with truckloads of snow from the city’s streets each winter.

Recently I moved to Hamilton, a city west of Toronto where the buildingshed is permeated by steel. Of course, every modern city is built with steel, but Hamilton is shaped by it – the city’s been a major steel producer for over a century. And while many North American cities have either pushed industrial uses out to the suburban fringes or deindustrialized, Hamilton’s active port and steelmaking works abut its downtown. I love driving along the overpass that slices through the industrial sector, and looking out at the sprawling networks of factories, railroads, and warehouses that work in concert to produce and move over four million tons of steel every year. Access to Lake Ontario first attracted manufacturers to Hamilton, and the port still ships in iron ore through the St. Lawrence seaway into Great Lakes. It was also the first city in Canada to electrify. AC electricity, developed at nearby Niagara Falls, was installed in 1898, enabling rapid industrial expansion. From a catchment area that encompasses mines and powerplants, resources are brought together to forge steel that holds up the world around me.

-Hillary Predko

The most clicked link from last week's issue (~6% of opens) was a Twitch-streaming fish that committed credit card fraud. In the Members' Slack, the reading group has taken inspiration from Adam Minter's Secondhand and divested carloads of stuff. Adam will be joining us to discuss the book this Friday, 2023-02-17 – join us!


Scope of Work is supported by our awesome Members, and through generous support from:


  • The largest steel mill near me, a plant run by the multinational ArcelorMittal, is investing $1.8 billion CAD in reducing carbon emissions. The project will phase out coal-burning blast furnaces for direct reduced iron (DRI) electric arc furnaces, powered by gas. These furnaces will process both scrap and reduced iron ore, targeting a 25% reduction in carbon intensity by 2030. While gas-powered, the company claims the plant will be built “hydrogen ready.” That isn’t necessarily a guarantee fossil fuels will be phased out, as blue hydrogen is derived from gas.

    There is no panacea – steelmaking requires heat as high as 1700°C, which is difficult to achieve without fossil fuels at the moment. But finding opportunities to limit atmospheric carbon emissions and develop alternative fuels is critical, as steel accounts for ~10% of global emissions. This article covers how steel is made today and the available pathways for lower-carbon production. Besides the DRI approach ArcelorMittal is pursuing, a number of companies are working on alternative solutions – including lasers to achieve high heat and very high temperature heat pumps. Also see this Twitter thread on policy opportunities to ensure new steel technologies don’t lock in more fossil fuel use.
  • A compelling review of Knowledge Regulation and National Security in Postwar America, which covers the history of export controls in the US. Export controls emerged after WWII as a tool for protecting national security, used to keep technology out of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, they evolved into a tool for economic security, when the US’s semiconductor industry was threatened by chip production in Japan. The reviewer takes issue with the book's firm delineation between national security and economic security, arguing instead that the two have become fully entangled. Globalization in manufacturing has muddied the waters – particularly in US/China relations – and the recent ban on exports of high-performance chips and associated “know-how” to China will have implications for both economies. At the heart of the relationship between the two countries is “a tradeoff between hegemony (monetary and military) and manufacturing capacity.”


Africa – a Designer’s Utopia is a research project that celebrates the ingenuity of anonymously designed products used in West African cities. The project page is a bit scant on details, but this interview with the founder, Lagos-based designer Nifemi Marcus-Bello, covers the two Nigerian designs he’s researched so far. The first is the kwali, a portable convenience store for making sales while walking through traffic. The second is the meruwa water barrel, for rolling jerry cans of water between suburbs. Nifemi says, “[African] design language is different from the standardized design language of say Europe or North America, but I think it’s important to build an archive of products and ideas that embrace how we live, rather than dictating how we should want to live.”

The project made me think of what (I assumed) must be the most prolific anonymous design on the planet: those sturdy woven zippered bags, used around the world to carry anything and everything. Known as red-white-blue bags, they’re made of nylon, polyethylene, or polypropylene. I first noticed them stacked on luggage carts in the Toronto airport, as a cheap solution for transporting goods to far off family members. But as I did some research, it turns out the bag’s inventor is known! Hong Kong-based Lee Wah started making them in the 1970s before knockoffs proliferated globally. This quotidian bag was even knocked off by none other than Louis Vuitton.


  • Oil is the primary source of revenue in Nigeria, accounting for 90% of foreign exchange earnings. This article explores the country's vast informal economy of artisan refining, or oil bunkering. People from all walks of life, from single mothers to militia members, make a living siphoning and refining crude oil from pipelines. Estimates of the volume of oil diverted vary widely, typically between 200,000 and 700,000 barrels a day – or between 10 and 30% of Nigeria’s total production. These artisan refiners heat crude in steel containers over a fire, capturing and cooling the vapors to condense into gasoline, kerosene, or diesel. It’s dangerous work, and oil production in both the formal and informal economy is damaging the surrounding ecosystem. But for many, it’s the best work available. As one refiner in the article puts it, “We call it drinking from your well. It’s not theft. It’s our resources.”
  • One of the joys of post-industrial cities is the excess building stock, ripe for creative reuse. In San Francisco, I lived in a warehouse converted into a warehome – a space plastered with art with well-used circus equipment hanging from the rafters. But the deadly 2016 fire at Ghost Ship, an artist space in an Oakland warehouse, serves as a reminder that not all re-adaptations are safe or advisable. Following the disaster, architect (and SOW Member) Jeffrey McGrew started working with artists and makers to get spaces up to code. He’s adapting those insights into a guide to navigating building codes for people looking to adapt spaces creatively. I found this quote particularly useful:

    [T]his isn’t computer code, it’s legal code, and intent counts a great amount therein. While there can be ‘loopholes’ you can find that sometimes can work to solve a specific minor issue, trying to apply said ‘loopholes’ when you’re honestly trying to cheat is only going to make building officials mad at you and thus make your project much harder to do…In other words, just because you put your tiny house on wheels, and now call it a ‘trailer’ so it’s technically ‘not a house’ anymore, doesn’t mean the Fire Marshal is going to let you get away with anything they think is unsafe.


  • Costco’s flat topped jugs eliminate the need for crates when shipping pallets of milk.
  • An archive of waste management PSAs compiled by the NYC Department of Sanitation’s artist in residence.
  • Securing access to both copper and tin was a necessary part of any Bronze Age society, and complex supply chains emerged to move tin from over 3,000 years ago. This article details how archeologists traced the trade relationships between Central Asia and the Mediterranean by analyzing tin ingots found in a 3,300-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Turkey. Using isotopic profiles many of the ingots can be linked back to the specific ore bodies they were mined from in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.


I am delighted and impressed by these textile testing apparatuses built by Dave Cox for Sheertex, a company that makes very strong pantyhose. The machines perform textile quality tests (akin to the ball bust test for strength and the Martindale test for abrasion), modified to better evaluate the properties of high-stretch fabric. Beyond swapping in better fixturing to hold springy samples, Dave added some playful (and frankly uncanny) details that I love: The burst strength test is performed by a 3D printed thumb, and the abrasion test is performed by a pantyhose-clad silicone foot, affixed to the end of a cobot.

Full disclosure: I used to work for Sheertex, and they’re a business Member of SOW, and Dave is a good friend. But, that gives me some insight into the company and the problem this project tackles. It’s challenging to demonstrate the performance of a high end product in a succinct and marketable way – I have never considered or cared how many kilopascals it would take to burst my clothing, and if you told me a number I wouldn’t know how to contextualize it. Beautifully filmed test footage, contextualized in relation to other products, gets the message across. GORE-TEX also does this extremely well!


Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members for supporting Scope of Work. Thanks also to Andy for being game to chat about steel and to Kai, Dave, Reilly, Andrew, and Skyler for the links.

Love, Hillary

p.s. I’ll be publishing a bit more on Montreal’s buildingshed before shifting my attention to my new city. If you want to talk about hydroelectricity in Quebec, send me a note.

p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

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