Would you live in a highrise that was slowly tipping over?

For the record, there has never been a catastrophic failure by overturning of a high rise building. With the possible exception of the WTC towers on 9/11, no skyscraper has ever fallen over in an uncontrolled manner.

But there could always be a first time.

Enter the Millennium Tower in San Francisco.


Opened in 2009, the 58-story condo tower has sunk nearly a foot, and actually leaning 6 inches off plumb at the top.

Engineers are mixed on the exact amount the building has settled, but it is hard to argue with gravity. Take a look at one condo owner’s experiment with marbles:

According to the Associated Press:

The tower’s troubles are apparent in its five-floor underground garage, where Porsches and Lamborghinis sit near walls bearing floor-to-ceiling cracks, many bracketed by stress gauges to measure growth.



This is shaping up to be the exact plot of the 1984 novel “Skyscraper” by Robert Byrne. It’s a fun (and naively pre-War on Terror) account of an overly-ambitious real estate tycoon who builds a shoddily-constructed highrise and tries to escape as it collapses around him. The hero of the story is a plucky civil engineer who tries to raise the alarm at the last minute. It’s my kind of story for sure, but a little far-fetched.



Dodson and other residents blame developers for what they say is a flawed design. The tower’s foundation, for instance, uses piles driven 60 to 90 feet into landfill, rather than the pricier option of going down at least 240 feet to bedrock.

When collapse is only a matter of time

When collapse is only a matter of time

As we speak, a battle is taking place in the towns near Mosul Dam to free the region from ISIS control. This would not normally be notable, except for one thing: the dam is slowly dissolving from the inside out, and the fighting is keeping engineers from mitigating the problem.

Mosul Dam was built on a foundation of Karst Limestone, which is widely known to dissolve under pressure. The underside of the dam is slowly being eroded away by water piping through the foundation rock layers, which means its only a matter of time before the Tigris River takes back the valley. Incremental piping like this is possible to slow and even stop by injecting the rock with quick-drying cement (a process known as “grouting”), but its a race against the clock and has to be monitored constantly. There comes a point where more material is being eroded away than can be filled in with cement, and the battle is over.

Hales Bar Dam

This exact same scenario happened in the 1960s at the Hales Bar Dam on the Tennessee River. The 30 year old structure had long been susceptible to leaks, and over the time the problem got worse and worse. The Hales Bar site would never be considered for a dam today – the limestone rock layers are guaranteed to erode over time. Just like at Mosul Dam in Iraq.

In 1968, the Tennessee Valley Authority constructed Nickajack dam a few miles downstream of Hales Bar, inundating the old dam site and effectively replacing it altogether. Saddam Hussein had the same idea for the Mosul Dam site, but construction of the replacement structure (downstream of the old) was hampered by finances and the occasional war. Today, Mosul Dam is leaking like a sieve sitting on a block of Swiss Cheese. But nobody can do much about it because…ISIS.

Hales Bar Dam

If the rate of erosion gets high enough, the dam will be compromised from the inside out, leading to a total failure of the earthfill embankment, and release of the water behind it. Without dramatic intervention (lots of grout), it’s only a matter of time.

Today, you can visit the old Hales Bar Dam site in Southern Tennessee and see its powerhouse still sticking above the water of the replacement reservoir. The structure is used for indoor boat storage by a local marina operator. River traffic glides effortlessly over the old spillway, no longer a threat now that the water pressure has been neutralized. Sometimes you remodel an old house, and sometimes it makes sense to tear the whole thing down and start over. In the case of Hales Bar, the choice was clear.

We will see what the government of Iraq decides about their own fixer-upper.

For an in-depth look at the geology of the Hales Bar site, check out Missouri S&T’s Dr. J. David Roger’s presentation: View PDF of Presentation

The Bridge to Nowhere

I love the history of roads in the American West, and all the peculiarities you find along the way. It’s not hard to come across abandoned right of ways or older versions of current highways (like the old Columbia River Gorge Route 30).

It is rare to find a highway that is abandoned outright with no replacement in a parallel alignment. It’s even more rare to find an abandoned highway that still has significant structures intact! This is the case with the “Bridge to Nowhere” in the San Gabriel Mountians north of LA.


This beautiful open-spandrel deck arch was constructed as part of a planned route connecting the Azusa suburbs to the desert north of the mountains. The hillsides are unstable, and the road was deemed unbuildable after a flood wiped out a long section of it in 1938. The canyon walls has taken back a good portion of the old roadway, resulting is a bridge that is high and dry but impossible to drive to from either end.

The far side of the bridge seemingly ends in a rock talus, although I’m sure the road originally went for several more miles. Considering its age and lack of upkeep, the bridge appears to be in great shape. The site is currently privately owned, and is home to a bungee-jumping attraction.

Bridge to Nowhere on Bridgehunter: https://bridgehunter.com/ca/los-angeles/bh38466/