Exclusive: World Trade Center's chief engineer to build solar houses in the Negev

Hy Brown on why towers fell so fast and why he's in Israel rebuilding.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
September 11, 2007 00:35
2 minute read.
Exclusive: World Trade Center's chief engineer to build solar houses in the Negev

Hy Brown 224.88. (photo credit: Isaac Harari)

 
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Spurred by the 9/11 attacks, Twin Towers chief engineer Hy (Chaim) Brown, who made aliya in 2003, is establishing an Israeli company to build prefabricated solar houses in the Negev. Brown, 65, whose other achievements include the design and construction of Disney World in Florida, will officially launch the REAL Housing (Renewed Energy for Affordable Living) next month at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, where he is a lecturer. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Brown, now a resident of Jerusalem, says his idea to develop the Negev was born out of the Gaza Strip disengagement and lack of government planning for the relocation of the evacuees. His belief that further withdrawals from the West Bank are in the works, leaving another 100,000 Israelis without an affordable alternative, got him going. The model of the 70-square-meter houses, which he says can be added onto as families expand, was the brainchild of his engineering students at the University of Colorado, where he commutes to teach. They twice won a US government-sponsored competition to create a workable home that runs exclusively on solar energy, the second time for building one that families could afford. The house, fully equipped with appliances - including dishwasher, washing machine, refrigerator, oven and tailor-made items such as a Shabbat heating plate (or, for Beduin needs, a courtyard for livestock) - costs $50,000, and can be assembled from start to finish in two weeks. All it requires to run efficiently, says Brown, is four days of sun per month. Though perfect for the climate of the Negev, the house can be erected anywhere. "My idea is to dream big," he says. "Who knew we'd have Israel?" Who knew, as well, that the first project Brown worked on as a young engineer in 1967 would come tumbling down 34 years later as a result of a suicide attack? On the sixth anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings, Brown explains how two 110-story buildings could collapse so quickly and thoroughly, and warns that the only way to avoid similar incidents is to prevent terrorism. "Every building higher than 12 floors is at risk," he asserts. "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." This, Brown elaborates, is because "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... [and] there is no fire-proofing design today that withstands [that kind of heat]." The only way to effectively fire-proof steel columns, he says, is to surround each one with the ceramic tiles used on the space shuttle. "But no one could afford to move into such an expensive building," he stresses. "If you build a building for a public function, such as the Knesset, maybe you have an obligation to put that kind of fire-proofing on it. But if you build for a profit - as we did the WTC - you can't afford to do that." Describing the profound effect the September 11, 2001, bombings had on his overall outlook, Brown says, "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."

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