The Very Slowly Falling Building

Or, as I’ll explain, Sunk Costs.

millenium tower

In 2010, the owners of a a 58-story condominium in San Francisco learned that their building was sinking at the rate of 1.5 to 2 inches per year. The building has sunk 17 inches since construction and tilts 14 inches off center. There are cracks in the basement, deviations in the surrounding sidewalk, and a mysterious popping window on the 36th floor.

Skyscrapers have always fascinated me as someone with low mathematical intelligence. How do these buildings stay vertical? (I’m also fascinated by airplanes. How do you engineer rotary blades and an engine that turns fast enough to keep a one-ton Cessna aloft, much less a 747 or supersonic F-16?) But apparently the basic skyscraper model is pretty simple: you drill holes in the dirt until you get to the bedrock that rings the whole planet. Then you drive piles into the holes and fuse them with the building’s foundation–that’s what holds up everything.

This is real simple in places like Atlanta, Georgia, which is geologically just a few feet of dirt on top of solid granite.

atlanta skyline
Midtown Atlanta looking Downtown
stone mountain
Stone Mountain a few miles east

In San Francisco, this is more complicated and expensive since the bedrock is 250 feet down, so the developer relied on 80-feet long “friction piles” driven into sand. The “friction” of the surrounding sand keeps the pile stationary, like hammering in a tent stake at the beach. Of course, the soil on the San Francisco peninsula is kind of a fluid medium, and there’s also the causation theory that an adjacent project desiccated the soil when they pumped out groundwater, so now the tower has sunk and is out of plumb. Now what?

If it were me with unlimited resources and thinking about one of the planet’s more notorious fault lines running right underneath, I’d start dismantling the Millenium Tower. I figured the reason the City hadn’t was because of sunk costs: the building’s public costs are “sunk,” i.e., unrecoverable; the building hasn’t fallen down (yet); and the costs to un-screw things haven’t yet been incurred so there’s incentive to say they shouldn’t be.

The players are, you might say, sticking with the devil they know. Once you’ve built 58 stories of glass, steel and concrete, how do you go about tearing it down? I actually thought about this and hypothesized you would do it the opposite of how it went up, starting at the top and working from the facade inward.

As it turns out a lot of very smart, well-paid engineers have studied this and come up with a $100 million solution, a lot cheaper and less disruptive than Anti-Gnostic’s desperate plan to just take down that whole effing thing. The plan calls for piles to be driven the 250 feet necessary to hit bedrock under the wobbly corner of the building, which will shift 20% of the load on to the bedrock, where it belongs, and the building will settle to repose.

Of course that other 80% of the load would still be on my mind but again, these are the top people in their field doing amazing things. So I hope everything works out, and it probably will.

Anyhoo, the sunk costs fallacy stuck in my fevered brain after reading about all that. We keep on doing what we do because the costs are sunk, and God only knows what happens when we take things in a different direction. In the meantime, there are always plenty of people with their livelihoods and identities reliant on the status quo. Radical change becomes unthinkable.

This seems to drive decision-making in all sorts of institutions like, say, the Orthodox Church! Many years ago–over 500 of them in fact–the Church’s whole model for ecumenical governance blew up. Constantinople fell (it had actually been falling for a couple of centuries) and a whole Greco-Roman civilization just disappeared. But–sunk costs–nobody ever got around to reforming the ecclesiology and there were plenty of people invested in the status quo.

Now, even the successor nation-state model is breaking down with transnational migration but oh well, sunk costs, and lots of people who benefit from the status quo. Or, the Old Calendar, that is, the Julian Calendar, which is celestially wrong and gets more wrong every year. But doggone it, sunk costs.

Or US policy! We’re still in Afghanistan–how do we even leave? Who wants to be the person who makes the call to the parents of the last soldier to die there? Immigration, a now-venerable socio-political narrative dedicated to the premise that everybody else on Earth is an American who hasn’t gotten here yet.

The universal franchise, as democratic politics become a cruel, dysfunctional joke. Moral permissiveness. Federal Reserve balance sheet purchases. Public education!

And so SCALE* increases until resolution to the angle of repose really and truly can’t not happen. One day, Orthodox ecclesiology will reflect the facts on the ground. One day, the United States’ socio-political contradictions will be resolved. In the meantime, we wait for things to work themselves out in our very slowly falling building.

* – Size Complexity Atomization Liberalism Elitism

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