Thursday, July 7, 2022




In the dark and haze two men in uniform stand between an oversized chunk of plane and leaping flames.
July 7, 1946: Firefighters view damage from the crash of a plane flown by Howard Hughes. Flames spurt from a gas-main break in what had been a home’s kitchen. At right is a tail section of the plane. (Los Angeles Times)

Seventy-six years ago today, on July 7, 1946, Howard Hughes was nearly killed in the spectacular crash of a plane he was test-piloting. The Times’ headline the following morning read, “Howard Hughes Near Death After Plane Hits Four Houses.”

Heading over Beverly Hills in the Army’s XF-11 photo reconnaissance plane, he was aiming to crash-land at the Los Angeles Country Club but came up short. A 2004 story in The Times recounted: “The landing gear and right wing smashed through the roof of dentist Jules Zimmerman’s home. No one was hurt, and the plane kept going. A wing sliced through the upstairs bedroom of the house next door, narrowly missing the owners: actress Rosemary DeCamp and her husband, Superior Court Judge John A. Shidler. The plane demolished the DeCamp-Shidler garage, mowed down a row of trees and crashed through the rear wall of another home before exploding into flames. One of the engines, which had been thrown 60 feet, hit the corner of a house owned by Swedish industrialist Gosta B. Guston, then embedded itself in the frontyard. The Gustons’ Pomeranian, Tido, was hurt by flying debris.” The plane burst a gas line, and the Fire Department arrived just as a gas main exploded in the home of Lt. Col. Charles A. Meyer. The house was destroyed.

Hughes suffered second- and third-degree burns over most of his body. The July 8, 1946, Times report said a doctor had given Hughes a 50-50 chance of survival: “Hughes was reported to have been conscious upon arrival at the hospital and to have almost laconically remarked, ‘I’m Howard Hughes.’” Later, the Army blamed the billionaire aviator-moviemaker-businessman for the crash. An official report said that, although the craft had propeller trouble, Hughes had overloaded the fuel tanks and remained in the air almost an hour longer than the Army’s time limit.

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Home-building needs some rehab


Home-building needs some rehab

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A chart showing productivity gains in construction.

People have long complained about the cost of housing, but the problem is getting only worse as the gap between prices and wages widens.

There’s a long list of contributors to the affordability crunch, but one in particular stands out — the home-building industry itself. Even with prices rising and demand high, the sector has been held back by its own hidebound business models.

One important number tells the story. Productivity in construction has been flat for at least a generation. Homebuilders to a large degree are erecting houses the way they did half a century ago, an approach that now is buckling under the weight of inflation, material shortages and a lack of skilled labor.

The result: The U.S. economy is struggling to deliver a basic human need — shelter.

Why do we care about productivity? Put simply, productivity is a measure of output per worker.

It’s always been important, but productivity matters more than ever in the current economy, with its dearth of skilled labor and rising rents. When productivity increases, wages typically increase, too. When workers are paid more and produce more, construction costs fall. That means lower rents and cheaper houses.

In the big picture, productivity gains are the economic version of a free lunch, said Robert Dietz, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders.

“Construction is one of those sectors still using methods proven successful over time but that haven’t changed a lot,” Dietz said.

Because the industry is highly decentralized and dominated by small players, no one company has market power to push systemic change or the deep pockets to invest in new technology.

Modular construction, in which parts of a house are built off-site, is one way to boost productivity and once seemed promising.

In the late 1990s, off-site construction was incorporated into 7 percent to 8 percent of new single-family homes. But as building has shifted from urbanized parts of the U.S. to the more rural South, that figure has fallen to about 3 percent, Dietz said.

So what? Housing is so fundamental to the economy and society that market failures in the space have outsize consequences for everyone.

The most obvious is affordability. The median price-to-income ratio, a widely used measure of affordability, hit an all-time high in 2021, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, with the median price of an existing home reaching 5.3 times the median household income. The last record, 4.9, was notched in 2005.

And in March, home-price appreciation nationwide hit 20.6 percent, topping the previous year-over-year high of 20 percent in August 2021. It was the biggest jump in three decades of record-keeping, according to Harvard.

A chart showing the acceleration of home price growth.

Now the industry itself is sounding alarms. In June, Ed Brady, chief executive of the non-profit Home Builders Institute, declared a labor crisis and called for improved cooperation between the home building industry and its trade unions. The overture signaled a major shift on the part of builders, who historically have been antagonistic toward organized labor.

“We are in a new era of need and opportunity that requires serious collaboration,” said Brady, whose group offers industry training and job placement.

“I trained in high school and college under a master union carpenter. We’re losing those people because they’re aging out,” Brady said. “We’ve missed an opportunity to mentor and train from masters. If we don’t invest now it’s going to get worse.”

And technology companies are using the labor crisis and inflation as an opportunity to disrupt the sector with techniques that cut waste, speed production and require fewer hands on the job site.

Black Buffalo 3D Corp., a Pennsylvania subsidiary of South Korea-based Big Sun Holdings Group Inc., says its technology can cut material and labor costs by 15 percent to 30 percent over stick-built homes and as more than 60 percent over block construction.

Installed on a track and equipped with cement-based “ink”, the company’s multi-story robot is, in essence, an on-site factory that can run 24 hours a day and speed production of entire neighborhoods that are energy-efficient and cheap to maintain.

“The sustainability factor is really a monster here. You’re producing a product that’s going to last 50 years,” Black Buffalo CEO Michael Woods said.

“We’re beyond, ‘Hey, does this work?’” Woods said. “Builders have no choice. They have to embrace technology.”


A printed house in the Netherlands.

A cozy printed bungalow in the Netherlands. | AP Photo/Peter Dejong

In the U.S., high-tech construction is getting one of its first big tests in Appalachia, where affordable homes are being printed in Pulaski, Virginia. Would you live in a 3D-printed house? Tell us what you think.

The Long Game is your source for news on how companies and governments are shaping our future. Team Sustainability is  editor Greg Mott, deputy editor Debra Kahn and reporters Lorraine Woellert and Jordan Wolman. Reach us all at and

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— The U.S. has two job openings for every available worker. CNBC has the latest labor data.

— Gabon is seeking to profit from climate changeBloomberg reports.

— More people were hungry last year. The U.N.’s 2022 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World has the grim news.


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$10 million a year on a 3,000-year-old material


  • 6:00 AM

Why a Portuguese company is investing $10 million a year on a 3,000-year-old material

Cork has long been key to the wine industry, but Amorim is pushing this highly versatile material in surprising directions.

Why a Portuguese company is investing $10 million a year on a 3,000-year-old material
[Source Photos: Getty]

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “cork”? Chances are, your mind wandered to that bottle of crisp Chardonnay sitting in your fridge, and for good reason. Capitalizing on cork’s porous nature and its resistance to liquids, winemakers have been using it as a stopper for centuries. But one particular company is pushing the material in surprising directions.

Amorim is the world’s largest producer of cork. Based in Portugal, which produces half the world’s cork, the company makes more than 5.5 billion cork stoppers per year—but it also invests 10 million euros a year in R&D to find new ways to use the material. Since 2018, the company has developed around 20 new materials that run the gamut from cork granules that can clean oil spills to rail pads that can absorb vibrations caused by trains and make tracks quieter.

[Photo: Getty]
Cork has long been considered a sustainable material: It’s resilient, durable, and naturally fire retardant. But the material’s potential has mostly been restricted to wine stoppers, pinboards, and flooring. Now, technological advances—and decades of extensive R&D—are opening new doors for the 3,000-year-old material.

Just about every tree has an outer layer of bark, but most cork products come from one particular species: the cork oak. The process is slow but regenerative: It takes around 25 years for a cork oak to grow its first layer of cork, after which it can be harvested every nine years or so. If you’re making wine stoppers, you need to harvest the cork three times for the quality to be high enough.

But if you’re making cork composite materials, the first and the second harvest are enough. Either way, the cork eventually grows back, and a cork oak tree can be stripped more than 15 times over the course of its 200-year life span.

[Photo: Courtesy EDP]


Cork has a long history. In 3000 B.C., it was used as fishing tackle across China, Babylon, and Persia. In the 4th century, Romans used it to warm their feet, while later, Spanish and Portuguese monks lined monastery walls with it. Then came glass bottles in the 17th century, and cork entered mainstream culture in the form of cork stoppers, almost eclipsing everything else the material was capable of.

Over the past 15 years, however, a growing need for a sustainable material has helped showcase cork’s versatility in a variety of ways. For one, 50% of cork is air. The material is light enough to float on water, which makes it perfect for the base of floating solar farms, but also for the transportation industry, where lighter materials can save on energy consumption.

The Siemens Inspiro metro trains (coming to London’s Picadilly Line in 2025) are lined with Amorim’s cork composite panels. The electric Mazda MX-30 sports a cork dashboard. And Rolls Royce’s all-electric Spirit of Innovation plane, which recently broke speed records when flown at a U.K. test site, used Amorim’s fireproof cork laminate to line its battery case and reduce fire risk.

[Photo: Courtesy Siemens]
This brings us to the material’s second most important property: thermal insulation. A 2017 study at Princeton University found that trees around the world develop thicker bark when they live in fire-prone areas. In fact, Portugal has been restoring areas destroyed by forest fires by planting fire-resistant cork oak trees, making cork a naturally fire-retardant material.

“I’m not saying that cork isn’t flammable, but cork burns at a very slow and controlled pace,” says Eduardo Soares, the innovation and product management director at Amorim Cork Composites and founder of i.cork factory, the company’s in-house lab. He says the material’s fire-retardant properties have been particularly useful in the aerospace industry.

Since 1969, NASA has been using Amorim’s cork in its spacecraft and rockets. First, it was Apollo 11, then it was the Titan, Delta, and Mars rovers, plus the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Soares says that 80% of all NASA launches have been equipped with some form of cork composite, usually placed at the tip of the launcher where temperatures can reach 1,500-1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Cork withstands that and it’s there precisely to protect the payload from the heat,” he says.  (The European Space Station and SpaceX use it, too.)

[Photo: Courtesy Google]


Amorim was founded in 1870, but by 1963 the company needed a solution to the cork waste it was producing. “When you produce natural cork stoppers, you take the bark from the tree, you punch, and you take the stopper,” Soares says.

That process uses only 30% of the cork, so Amorim Cork Composites was founded to explore applications for the remaining 70%. Today, the company uses 99.9% of the material (this includes burning leftover cork dust to meet more than half of its energy demands).

In 2018, however, another problem arose: The company had all of these ideas for new cork materials and no practical ways of turning them into products. So the i.cork factory was created to explore the technology, machinery, and equipment needed to design and test these new materials, like injection molding machines designed especially for cork composites.

These days the i.cork factory focuses on technologies that haven’t yet had industrial application in the sector. Soares says the company gets constant requests that range from trendy millennial (toothpaste with cork granules that can better clean your teeth) to laughable (adult toys made of cork). Sometimes material requests come from other units within the company; sometimes they come from “very famous” architects who want a cork facade that looks pink from a distance and multicolored up close. (The latter is in development.)

[Photo: Courtesy Gaspar]
About half of these materials never make it to market, like a moisturizing lotion with cork extracts. (Incidentally, Birkenstock launched a similar line in 2019, though it appears to no longer be sold.) But the other half does.

There’s Corksorb, a product made of cork granules designed to absorb oil from oil spills; Corkeen, which can be found in half a dozen playgrounds from Norway to California; AcoustiCork, a cork-based underlay that can sit beneath ceramic or wooden floors; and Amorim Sports, which includes a cork-based infill that can replace its rubber counterpart, reduce the temperature of the field, and remove that burnt-tire smell. (This has been used across football and rugby fields in France, as well as for the SG Malsburg-Marzell Sports Club football field in Germany.)

Ultimately, cork is a sustainable material, but it can have a meaningful impact only if there are enough ways to use it. Amorim is part of a vast ecosystem of brands, designers, and other companies pushing the boundaries on this ancient material. So next time you pop the cork from your favorite bottle, remember there’s so much more to it than wine.

Why a Portuguese company is investing $10 million a year on a 3,000-year-old material

Cork has long been key to the wine industry, but Amorim is pushing this highly versatile material in surprising directions.