Friday, March 6, 2015

Palapa Structure

I have just returned from Mexico, escaping the snow and the cold for a 10 day stay. My wife and I took a side trip to a small island on the Gulf Coast called Holbox. While there we stayed in a palapa that was totally constructed using local materials. The palapa is a native structure that is usually round with a peaked roof. The basic frame consisted of wood posts sunk into the ground with a raised wooden platform. The walls were infilled with adobe. The roof system consisted of probably 5 inch diameter wood poles running to the peak with lateral purlins of wood only 1 inch in diameter, spaced at around 16 inches on center. The roofing material was a grass material laced into the purlins with twine. I am sure that no licensed engineer was involved in the project. However the structure and others like it have survived at least two major hurricanes in the past 20 years that have struck the Yucatan Peninsula. I am sure there was some repair to be done, however the structures are still standing.

This all made me think of how structural engineering has evolved through the millennia. We would build something and if it fell down, we would try again with either more materials or stronger materials. Structures evolved over time. In this modern age we can build wonderfully complex structures, but I wonder if sometimes we have lost the art and craft of building. The computers and codes tell us what we have to use, but at times we have lost sense of why things work and sometimes common sense seems to have gone out the proverbial window. I guess that is a sign of getting older and ruing about the olden days. As John Waller once told me he could produce a set of drawings for an Elementary School for Virginia Beach on 8 sheets and they were all still standing. I am thankful for all the design aids we have these days, but sometimes we need to remember exactly how we have reached this point in design and try to retain some of the art and craftsmanship.