Thursday, November 3, 2011

Quick Take: Too Much Information?

I've been teaching this semester in the newest building on the Georgia Tech campus, the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons (CULC).

When I first entered the building, at the end of August, I was surprised to see hints of brutalism in the design of the interior: bare concrete on the ceiling and open stairways, as well as on columns and other supporting members. As with classic brutalism from the 60s and 70s, the wood grain of the forms is still visible in the concrete. Unlike classic brutalism, though, there are other elements in the design that serve to soften and lighten the effect.

Here are a couple of pictures I took earlier this semester.

The first shows the brutalist effect of the impressions of wood grain on bare concrete, as well as the way this is off-set by actual wood:

The next gives a broader view of the atrium which, because I first approached it from above - the first floor of the library gives access to the fourth floor of the CULC (there's a hill involved) - I still think of as "the well."

But I haven't yet gotten to the reason for this post. I noticed right away the grey utility pipes running across the ceiling above the "grand stairway" that leads from the atrium down to the lowest level. Only today did I notice they had been labeled.

(They may have been labeled only recently. The building is new, after all, and was opened for the start of classes before all the little details could be attended to.)

The labels themselves gave me pause, though, especially the one on the larger pipe to the right:

(In case you can't make it out, it says: CHEM WASTE.)

Chem waste? Really?

I can see how these labels might be useful for building maintenance, or to people responding to an emergency. But do I really need to know that great big pipe, directly over the heads of students and faculty going up and down the staircase, or students lounging on the benches alongside the staircase, is carrying some unknown stew of chemical waste?

But then, it occurred to me that it might be useful to me after all, as a spur to imagination. It draws my attention to some of the complexity of designing, constructing, and maintaining a state-of-the-art instructional building that includes, among other things, well-equipped labs for courses in biology and chemistry. At least, that's where I imagine chemical waste would be coming from.

Someone had to think: What do we do with the waste from these labs? How do we make it clear to future users of the building what we decided to do, and how do we make it easier for future users to address problems that might arise with the system we design?

It also lodged a question in my mind: I imagine the pipe is connected, at one end, to a system for collecting (some) waste from laboratories on the floors above, but to what is it connected at the other end? And, what happens to those chemicals that could not or should not be sent through such a system?

I am dimly aware that there are procedures for such things, with lots of careful documentation involved. But, had I not seen the label on this pipe, I probably wouldn't have started wondering about those procedures today. Now, though, it's a live issue in my mind. I don't have any particular reason to seek out the answers just now, but I'll have a way of connecting up answers with questions if I come across them at some point in the future.

By an interesting coincidence, this question also connected up with other things that happened today: a discussion of risk in my engineering ethics course that veered into a digression on the phenomenology of driving, a chance encounter with a blog post on risk and the experience of driving, and a subsequent discussion in my environmental ethics class that started with the experience of driving before expanding into a discussion of perception, technological systems, and sustainability.

I think all this will be the basis of my regular Friday post.

In the mean time, one more pretty picture from the CULC, just because. This one is of the rooftop garden as it looked earlier this semester.

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