September 2012



…to the first issue of The Coffee Break; GKW Associates’ newsletter. A newsletter that brings you the latest news from our corner of the engineering industry as well as entertaining articles on new Geek Tech, Interesting Structures, Historic Figures, and more. In this first issue we’ll be taking a look at a structure so large that it has its own weather, the first recorded structural engineer, and an interesting Forensic Engineering evaluation. If there’s an idea for an article that you think would be interesting, feel free to contact us via email at and we’ll see what we can do. We’re always looking for new article ideas and enjoy expanding our knowledge. So grab a cup of coffee, take a seat, take a break from whatever fires you’re putting out, and, most importantly, relax for a moment.

NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB)


NASA VAB 225x300 September 2012

The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center²

Completed in 1966, NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is an immense structure originally designed for the 363′ tall Saturn V rocket then, later, the now retired space shuttles and booster rockets. Currently the planned use is for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).

Constructed with 98,590 tons of steel, 65,000yds³ of concrete, 1,155,000 ft² of siding, and supported by 4,225 open-end steel pipe piles 16″ø embedded 160′ in the ground, the VAB covers 3.25 hectares (8 acres) and measures 525′ high x 518′ wide x 716′ long. Encompassing 129,428,000 ft³ of space makes it the fourth largest structure by volume in the world¹. How big is that? That’s equivalent to nearly four Empire State Buildings!

Putting the size of this building in a slightly different perspective aimed at those familiar with the aggregate industry, the doors leading into the structure are 465′ high. The preheater tower in Lehigh Cement’s Union Bridge, MD plant—ductwork included—is approximately 460′ high. The preheater tower would theoretically fit inside this amazing structure!

There is enough open area combined with its 52 story height, that the VAB can actually develop its own weather. On humid days clouds begin to form in the interior of the structure at the topmost platforms and, in the past, these clouds have occasionally resulted in a light drizzle. Of course, that doesn’t happen very often. The climate is controlled by 10,000 tons of ventilation equipment that can change the air of the entire building once every hour.

The sheer magnitude of the Vehicle Assembly Building makes quite an impression but, if you really want to get a sense of its immensity, NASA is currently offering tours for $25 (that’s in addition to the admission price of the Kennedy Space Center) while the renovations are completed for the SLS program. This is one building that is definitely worth a visit.

Imhotep: The First Architect


Saqqara pyramid 300x199 September 2012

Step Pyramid of Djoser³

As a polymath, a savant, Imhotep  held many titles such as First after the King of Upper Egypt and High Priest of Heliopolis however, perhaps his two most notable titles were Architect and Physician, both of which he is credited with as being the first.

As a physician he was the author of the Edwin Smith Papyrus in which he defines more than 90 anatomical terms and describes more than 48 injuries. He treated over 200 diseases including tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout and arthritis. Of more interest to the engineering field however, is his role as the first Architect.

In the Third Dynasty (2686-2613 B.C.), Imhotep designed the first step pyramid for the Pharaoh Djoser. Standing 204 feet high with a base of 358′ x 410′, the Pyramid of Djoser was made of six mastabas (rectangular tombs with outward sloping sides) built on top of one another in decreasing size and contained complex burial compartments, tunnels, mortuaries, chapels, and offering rooms4.

Among Imhotep’s other contributions to architecture he quite literally “wrote the book” on architecture for the times. He wrote an encyclopedia of architecture that was used as the main engineering guide for Egyptian builders and defined the training and selection of preceding Architects.

Architecture and Engineering has come a long way in the last 4600 years but, Imhotep’s work and his name are still with us today. It makes one ponder if we will still be remembered in 4,000 years.

Forensic Engineering: Exploding Aerosol Can


In early April of this year you may have a read a brief article in the Morning Call about a small explosion at a home in south Allentown. It seems that a can of hairspray was left on an electric baseboard heater. Said aerosol can subsequently exploded. The damage to the home from fire was minimal however, the explosion did cause significant damage to the exterior walls.

The sudden, small explosion caused an increase in the pressure in the room resulting in the exterior wall being displaced by 2″ along with other damages including the siding and flashing being blown off and significant cracks in the exterior wall.

You would never think that such a small explosion could do this to a home but, as little as a 1/4 psi increase would exert 36 psf on the walls and ceiling in an enclosed space resulting in the types of damages described above.

Brain Teaser


Answer to be posted in the next issue of The Coffee Break or email your answer to to find out if you have the solution.







1 Kluger, Jeffrey. “NASA Renovates Its Biggest, Baddest, House.” May 16, 2012. August 21, 2012.
2 Smith, Richard. “Vehicle Assembly Building.” Vehicle Assembly Building. January 13, 2010. August 21,2012
3 Sharp, Charles J. “Saqqara Pyramid.” The Stepped Pyramid at Saqqara. February 1, 2005. August 18, 2012
4 Bayuk, Andrew. “Djoser Step Pyramid.” Djoser Pyramid. n.d. August 18, 2012


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