Over its 118-year history, Bechtel has arguably changed the face of the physical world more than any other company, anywhere. Here’s a short list of its signature projects: the Hoover Dam (completed in 1936), the Trans-Arabian Pipeline (1950), the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (1976), NASA’s Space Launch Complex 40 (1992), the Channel Tunnel (1994), and the Athens Metro (2004), not to mention Jubail in Saudi Arabia, where Bechtel has been overseeing the construction of one of the world’s largest industrial cities for over 40 years. It recently completed the Hamad International Airport in Qatar, which is built to eventually handle more than 50 million passengers a year (matching the traffic at New York’s J.F.K.). And with BrightSource Energy, it constructed the Ivanpah solar electric complex, a landscape of 350,000 heat-generating mirrors in California’s Mojave Desert that’s the largest solar-thermal plant on the planet. ... Bechtel is currently overseeing a major portion of Crossrail, the largest infrastructure installation in Europe—a network of tunnels and rail links in London that will connect the city to the outer suburbs. And the company has developed the first liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal in the continental United States. ... The parade of projects has made Bechtel one of the half-dozen largest privately held companies in the U.S., with $40 billion in 2015 revenue, outranking the likes of chocolate giant Mars and grocery chain Publix. ... In an increasingly competitive environment, the company needs to be able to attract the best engineers and managers to thrive. Today those elite recruits demand to understand the values of the companies that are wooing them. “Ours is a people business that depends on fielding the most capable project teams in the world,” he says. Like many other major private companies, Bechtel’s leaders feels they can no longer afford to hide behind its closely held status and let others control the narrative about its business. ... Bechtel must win on competence, not contacts. It’s all about a company’s ability to deliver a job on schedule and on budget, at the lowest cost.
In the US, municipal drinking water is protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, which compels utilities to monitor things like microorganisms and the disinfectants used to subdue them. In 1998 the EPA tightened its standards on disinfectants, many of which can have their own toxic byproducts. One of the worst offenders is a classic: chlorine. Its main replacement, a chemical called chloramine (really just a mix of chlorine and ammonia), has lower levels of carcinogenic breakdown products, but it also makes the water corrosive—enough to eat through metal. ... Lead is insidiously useful. It’s hard but malleable, is relatively common, melts at a low enough temperature to be workable, and doesn’t rust. The Romans used it for plumbing—in fact, that word derives from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. Even the Romans noticed, as early as 312 BC, that lead exposure seemed to cause strange behaviors in people. But as Werner Troesken, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains in his book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, lead pipes solved a lot more problems than they caused. The hydrologists of the 19th century knew that lakes and wells could harbor cholera; they needed large, clean bodies of water that they could pump into the city. Lead made those pipes possible. ... in 1991 the EPA instituted the Lead and Copper Rule, requiring utilities to check water regularly. The critical level has changed over the years as new science has come to light, but today officials are required to take action if lead exceeds 15 ppb in more than 10 percent of residents’ taps. The metric is utilitarian, scaled to spot trouble just before it turns into disaster. It’s a good rule, as long as utilities follow it.
It seems certain the list will never be fixed or finished. Some ask: How high should we build? How high is too high? But these towers, and their persistent climb, stand on a distant edge of architecture’s horizon, buildings that ask and answer a better, beautifully human question: What’s possible? ... The man leading the upward push is Adrian Smith, the legendary Chicago architect who designed the Burj Khalifa, completed in 2010. Now he has designed the next world’s tallest, the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia. When the exterior is completed in 2018, it will top out at more than a full kilometer (or 3,281 feet, for those who live in a country that thinks it’s too smart for the metric system). That’s an entirely different scale of endeavor, its height pushing just slightly short of three John Hancock Centers (if you lose the antennas) stacked one on top of the other. Smith is also working on another massive creation, the 2,087-foot Wuhan Greenland Center in China, which will rank fourth. That’s right, Adrian Smith will soon have to his name three of the four tallest occupiable buildings in the world. ... The limitations on how high these structures can go sometimes lodge themselves in the smaller components. Take the elevators. ... Though the flat cable is lighter, it still represents a massive weight at that length. This demands the development of a new wheel, pulley system, and motor. These all must be engineered.