One on One: 'Dream big - who knew we'd have Israel?'

6 years after 9/11, oleh and Twin Towers engineer Hy Brown unveils blueprint for Negev solar houses.

September 10, 2007 21:06
One on One: 'Dream big - who knew we'd have Israel?'

Hy Brown 224.88. (photo credit: Isaac Harari)


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Running into Twin Towers chief engineer Hy (Chaim) Brown on the eve of what has come to be known as 9/11 is about as chillingly coincidental as the venue of the chance encounter is comical. It turns out we share the same hairdresser, though Brown, here for a trim prior to a trip abroad, prefers to call him a barber. It is Brown, however, who is engaging in all the barbs. Rattling off amusing anecdotes about his aliya and other exploits with the ease and wit of a Jackie Mason, he seems more like an entertainer than a retired construction giant with grandiose plans for developing the Negev. It sounds so familiar as to be tiresome. Except for one thing: Brown's blueprints are actually in the final stages - not only conceptually, but contractually, as well. In a subsequent two-hour interview at the Inbal Hotel, Brown - who also designed and built Florida's Disney World, among scores of other structures, from hotels and casinos to medical centers - gives The Jerusalem Post an exclusive preview of "REAL Housing (Renewed Energy for Affordable Living)," the business he is officially launching next month at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, where he teaches. In simple terms, Brown is bringing fully equipped solar homes to the Holy Land. Inexpensive ones, that is, almost ridiculously so. The house was the brainchild of Brown's engineering students at the University of Colorado, where he also continues to teach. The idea to bring it to Israel in bulk was the result of the disengagement from Gaza and Brown's anticipation of further withdrawals from the West Bank. "Seeing the way that no preparations were made for the evacuees of Gush Katif, and the way things have been going since then with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the US government, it became obvious to me that at some point in my lifetime they're going to give away part of Judea and Samaria," he says. "If so, there are going to be 100,000 people we'd better figure out where to put." BROWN MOVED here in 2003, less than two years after watching the first building he ever worked on go up in flames - and down in history. Whatever else Brown, 65, feels about the tragedy that would change the course of his life (that, and his wife's conversion to Judaism and deep desire to relocate to Jerusalem), the Brooklyn boy who made it big says he harbors no guilt. Quite an accomplishment for a Jew with a sense of self-deprecating humor. "It's not the responsibility of the designers and builders," he says of the collapse of the WTC, following the airborne suicide bombings master-minded by Osama bin Laden six years ago today. "It's the government's responsibility to prevent terrorist attacks." Considering Brown's explanation of structural engineering and why it was and still is easy to inflict that kind of damage on any existing edifice, one is left with no choice but to agree with that statement. Given your young age, how could you have been chief engineer of the Twin Towers? When I was just out of college, I was retained as a project engineer on the first building. What most people don't realize is how boring it is to build a 110-story building. After the first 20 floors, you've done the same thing 20 times. Then, you look up at the 21st floor, and you think, "I've got to do this 90 more times. That's three and a half years of my life. After that, I have to make a U-turn and build that same floor 110 more times. That's another seven years of my life." So, by the time we'd reached the 20th or 30th floor, anybody with any options left to work on something else. By the 35th floor, I was in charge. When the first building was completed in 1971 - it began being built in 1967 - I was 29. I then hired myself a new project engineer for the second building, and within two months, I was in California designing and building Disney World in Florida. Since then, of the 13 of us who served in a management capacity, only the structural engineer and I are still alive. But he really won't speak, because he assumes some responsibility for what happened - though I don't believe he bears any. Was any aspect of the construction faulty - and therefore at fault - for the collapse of the buildings? No. Simply put, to explain it to the non-structural engineer: If you put a paper cup on top of 20 pieces of spaghetti, and then break two strands of the spaghetti, even though 10 percent of the columns holding up the cup are broken, the cup doesn't come down. If you break 10 strands of spaghetti, even though 50% of the columns holding up the cup are broken, the cup doesn't come down. You could even break 19 strands out of the 20, and the cup could still stand. In other words, it was not the plane crashes that brought down the World Trade Center. What did? Let's go back to the 20 pieces of spaghetti. Let's put them in boiling water. At some point, all 20 strands become noodles, and the cup comes down. What brought down the WTC was that the steel melted. The fire suppression system in most buildings involves containing the blaze by shutting off five floors - the floor with the fire, two floors above it and two floors below. What do you mean by "shutting off" five floors? There are fire-control panels that come out of the ceiling and the walls, encompassing the fire so that it cannot spread in any direction and eventually burns itself out. There have been many major fires in buildings that did not collapse. So - you may ask - what's the difference between those fires and the ones at the WTC? The difference is in the temperature. Nothing in a building burns above 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and steel doesn't melt at that temperature. Airplane fuel, on the other hand, burns at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the airplane fuel that melted the steel. When the steel melted, all the columns turned into noodles, and the whole building collapsed onto itself. The question always asked is whether Osama bin Laden knew this. The answer is: Of course he knew it. He was a civil engineer who owned the biggest construction company in the Middle East. In any case, he said so on tape. What he didn't know is that the buildings would collapse. What he really thought was that the top of the buildings would fall off and crush all surrounding buildings. But the WTC was built differently from any other steel structure, in the sense that its columns were all on the exterior. So, the buildings first tipped, then straightened themselves out and finally came down, without crushing the other buildings in the vicinity. The other most frequently asked question is why the second building collapsed before the first. The answer is that it was hit lower than the first, which means there was more weight pressing down on it. Going back to the spaghetti and the noodles: Press down on the cup, and it will fall faster. Was the speed at which they collapsed surprising? It took 35 minutes, which is all it takes to melt anything. Did you not anticipate any of this? Planes had crashed into buildings before, after all, even into the WTC. And you must have known that airplane fuel burns at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. So what happened there? In all of the interviews I've given over the years, no one ever asked me that question, and I was happy they didn't. [He laughs] After we designed the WTC, the question was raised as to whether it could withstand the crash of a plane. The biggest plane in 1968 was a 707. After calculating what the force of a 707 was, we realized that, by accident, we had designed the buildings to withstand that plane - though buildings are never designed to withstand plane crashes. However, at that point, I don't think any of us considered the fuel. In any case, there is no fireproofing design today that withstands 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Is it possible to design fireproofing that does? Yes, if you surround every column with the ceramic tiles they put on the space shuttle. But no one could afford to move into such an expensive building. If you build a building for a public function, such as the Knesset, maybe you have an obligation to put that kind of fireproofing on it. But if you build for a profit - as we did the WTC - you can't afford to do that. Nor do I think it's the responsibility of the designers and builders. It's the government's responsibility to prevent terrorist attacks. When you questioned whether the buildings could withstand the crash of a 707, were you taking terrorism into account or only accidents? You raise an interesting question. If a plane accidentally hit a building today, could the same thing happen as did with the WTC? Obviously yes. Is there anything you can do about it? Obviously no. If you look at it this way, you will understand that every building higher than 12 floors is at risk. A terrorist can take a 55-gallon drum of airplane fuel up in an elevator, pour it on the floor of one of the stories, ignite it and bring the building down. So why worry about planes? Where were you on 9/11? I was lying in bed in Boulder, Colorado. My daughter phoned to tell me that the first building was hit. That morning, I was scheduled to play golf before going to a dentist's appointment. And I did. From the golf course, I went to the dentist. When I exited the dentist's office, dozens of reporters and TV crews were waiting for me. That was when I discovered I was the only one left alive to interview. In 1993, after the first attempt to blow up the WTC, there were a lot of us. I figured they'd get to me sooner or later, after interviewing the people in New York. But this time, they had no choice, which is why they were all waiting for me to respond. With Novocaine in your gums? Yup, with Novocaine and trying not to bite my lip while I spoke. [He laughs and mimics talking with a numb mouth.] When I was done, I called my wife and told her that I was going back to finish my round of golf, and she said, "Oh no you're not. Everybody's here at the house - all over the lawn." So I went home and faced the music for several more hours. Four days later, I organized an international conference via Web cam at the University of Colorado - with 20 bright students and fast computers - on why the buildings collapsed. It was a whole Sherlock Holmes thing: Throw out what isn't there, and what's left must be the answer. It was on-line all over the world; the tapes are still there. The government then spent $45 million over the next five years in order to come out and say, "Boy, they got it right." Where does Israel fit into this picture? About a week after the event, it dawned on me that these are the same terrorists who have been attacking Israel since 1947, and I felt I had to do something about it. I don't know exactly what I had in mind, but I wanted to make some kind of statement. That statement was offered to me when Yigal Cohen-Orgad, the chairman of the executive committee of the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, asked me if I would consider accepting a teaching position. (I had lectured before at the Technion and Ben-Gurion University.) My accepting the offer to teach in Judea and Samaria was my statement to the terrorists. But there was more to it than that. Seeing the way that no preparations were made for the evacuees of Gush Katif, and the way things have been going since then with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the US government, it became obvious to me that at some point in my lifetime they're going to give away part of Judea and Samaria. If so, there are going to be 100,000 people we'd better figure out where to put. In the meantime, we still have David Ben-Gurion's dream of developing the Negev. As it happened, in 2002, my students at the University of Colorado entered a competition held by the US government for houses run on solar energy. The concept was to build a house on your campus, then take it apart and ship it to DC for display and the contest. Twenty houses built by 20 colleges were displayed, and - much to our surprise - we won. The same competition was held three years later, in 2005. Again we decided to enter, but this time, we decided to try to make the house affordable, since the first house cost half a million dollars just to build. Again we won - this time with a 70-meter house that only cost $50,000. This is not only 30%-40% cheaper than any house you can build in Israel, but this house includes all electrical appliances. This gave me the idea to adapt the house for Israel. Which means, in addition to the dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, refrigerator, stove and oven, I put in a Shabbat heating plata and a kum-kum (I had to explain to the people in America what a plata and a kum-kum are). I also put in two kitchen sinks and had a rabbi tell me how far apart they have to be. Then I thought that if my idea is to have these houses for families moving to the Negev, why not erect whole communities? Maybe, instead of individuals buying the houses, we find some American to invest in erecting 500. If we build a community of 500 at $50,000 per house, we can make enough profit to build roads. This would mean not needing the government for road construction, electricity [which will be run on solar energy] or water - we'll dig down 270 feet to the aquifer. We'll build a synagogue. Then we'll have a school. Then we'll have a pool. Then we'll have a library. And for expanding families, there will be an add-on unit with two additional bedrooms and bathrooms. The more kids a family has, the more units they can add on. This is how REAL Housing (Renewed Energy for Affordable Living) was born. It will be an Israeli company - with a rabbi on board [he laughs], so I don't makes mistakes with the sinks and the mikve and the eruv. I have a partner, Shaul Amir, whose father, [Pinhas Amir], was the military governor of the Negev [1956-1963]; I hired Allen Singer to handle the actual service of the houses [Here he laughs and quips, "Can you imagine taking a job that involves having to deal with all those Jewish women calling to say some appliance isn't working - when they probably forgot to plug it in?"]. We'll have what I call "proactive service" for the first year, coming there every month to make sure everything is functioning properly. The president of the company is Paul Chinowsky, who will manage the company from the United States. When is this all actually getting off the ground? It's already gotten off the ground, but the final papers will be signed when I return from the US in October. I just signed a deal to bring these houses to Africa. And we have orders all over the place. I have to produce the first houses by July, for students and other people who have already made a commitment to move in. Now I need a factory. I was told that I can build one on a kibbutz in the Negev, because they have the zoning. But if it isn't up by April, the houses might not be ready. So, I just made a deal with a kibbutz in the Galilee which has a plant we can use for a year or so, which means I can now start having the parts delivered there. At the moment, we are desperately trying to make a model house to show here on November 1, because the only existing model right now is in the US. You say the houses are affordable. Doesn't it cost a lot of money to have them assembled? Good point. This is where Project Base Planning comes in. I'm going to train the students from [the College of Judea and Samaria in] Ariel or Ben-Gurion in assembling the houses as part of their service to the community. How do the houses actually run on solar energy? Four days of sun a month, and you can operate all electrical appliances limitlessly. How long does it take to prepare a house? Two students can prepare the kit in two weeks in an assembly plant. I can get it to the Negev in two days, and the house can be up four days later. From the day the parts get to Israel - if I wanted to rush it - within 30 days, the house is built. Can the parts be built in Israel rather than shipped from abroad? With an expansion of consumer need, I will offer suppliers exclusivity if they agree to put their factories in the Negev. This will also create jobs. Has anyone raised the question of how the Beduin will respond to this? Of course we've raised that question, which is why we are also designing houses with courtyards for goats and sheep. I will provide whatever is needed for whomever it is needed. My idea is to dream big. Who knew we'd have Israel? How did you come to make aliya? I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. I also married an observant Jew. We kept kosher and Shabbat and all that. But then my wife died of cancer at the age of 43, leaving me with three children. I was working in LA, New York, Detroit, all over the place. It's hard to mourn in places like that, where everybody wants to party all the time. So, I decided to take a job in Tucson, Arizona - building the Tucson Medical Center - where I didn't know anybody and nobody knew me. It was there that I met Nancy - a Quaker - and fell in love with her. It took seven years before we married, with my traveling and raising the kids in Los Angeles and her working for United Airlines. After getting married, we moved to Los Angeles. In 1993, there was a big earthquake which destroyed our house. I was prepared to fix it, but it turned out that Nancy not only hated the house, but hated LA and our whole lifestyle. So, we decided to start from scratch in Boulder, Colorado, where she was going to do her Ph.D. (A year after we got married, she went back to school at Pepperdine University in California to complete her BA, which she hadn't done, because she had put her first husband through school. After that, she went on to get two master's degrees.) Before we'd even had a chance to unpack, she received a phone call from Pepperdine, asking her to teach a Holocaust course in a summer study abroad program, which included spending two weeks in Israel. She accepted the offer. In preparation, she read, for the first time in her life, several books on the Holocaust and became horrified that, as she put it, "the Christians of the world did nothing about the atrocity." So she took the kids to various camps in Germany and then to Israel. When she arrived in Israel [here his eyes tear], she got off the plane and started to cry. She told me she felt she had come home. When she returned to the US, she began to study the Holocaust more intensively, lecturing on the subject and setting up high school programs for Holocaust studies. One day, after 14 years of marriage, she came to me and said she wanted to convert to Judaism. I said, "If you're going to convert, have an Orthodox conversion." But it turned out that the beit din [court of Jewish law] no longer existed in Denver, Colorado. The Orthodox woman she studied with in Boulder consulted with a rabbi on Eastern Parkway in New York, where she was told her conversion would take seven years. I said, "So what - we're in a hurry?" In the meantime, she decided to do her Ph.D. on the expropriation of Jewish property in the film industry in Vichy France. She studied at Yad Vashem and presented papers there, so it made sense that she write her dissertation here, while I take a teaching leave. At the same time, as part of her conversion process, she was told she had to live in Israel, among the Orthodox, for a year. So, she went to Israel, and I joined her six months later. When I got off the airplane, I took one look at her and knew she didn't want to move back to America. She completed her Orthodox conversion here in Israel. What did you see in her that made you realize this? She had a glow. And I thought that if this is what makes her happy, so be it - even though it means I've got to wear a yarmulke again and go to shul. Well, today, in addition to lecturing and hosting Shabbat meals with an eclectic bunch basically every week, she volunteers three days a week for Melabev with Alzheimer's patients. I, on the other hand, initially thought I was coming here to retire - you know, play golf in Caesarea and stuff like that. But my wife is convinced that coming here to develop the Negev is actually my purpose in life.

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