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In defense of wood: Black locust not to blame for Squibb Bridge’s flaws, expert claims

Woodn't you know: A 40-year veteran of the wood business claims that the Squibb Bridge's black-locust wood is not to blame for the span's recent structural problems, which he claimed were the fault of other engineering issues.
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Wood you look at that?

The sustainable and long-lasting black-locust wood used to construct the soon-to-be-demolished Squibb Bridge to Brooklyn Bridge Park is not to blame for the span’s structural failures, despite meadow stewards’ claims, according to a wood expert who supplies the timber for projects across the country.

“It’s really not the wood’s fault at all,” said Zach Rike, the founder of North Carolina–based supplier Robi Decking, and a self-described 40-year veteran of the business. “It is easy for everyone to blame an inanimate object, but nothing could be further from the truth. The wood is not to blame.”

Bigwigs at the semi-private Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation in July closed the Squibb Bridge, which zig-zags between its namesake Squibb Park and the waterfront lawn, for the second time since it opened in 2013, claiming a single faulty piece of black locust endangered locals walking across the span. Months later, green-space keepers in September announced the bridge would be shuttered indefinitely because a “higher than expected moisture level” caused more than just one of its planks to decay.

“Sadly, that one piece that showed visual signs of problems is not the only piece where we have deteriorat­ion,” said Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation President Eric Landau, president of the semi-private Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation.

And last December, meadow stewards revealed they would spend millions to replace the bridge originally funded by taxpayer dollars, and construct a new steel-and-aluminum span in its place.

But Rike — who supplied the black locust used to build the roof deck at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, and other still-standing projects across the city and country — challenged Landau’s claim that the timber, which is known for its ability to withstand the harshest of elements, simply rotted.

The expert argued that any deterioration found in the wood was instead the fault of the bridge’s designers, who he said didn’t account for how the timber reacts to changes in climate, and too tightly fastened the metal connectors at the end of each plank, resulting in the deterioration.

“The issue with the bridge was the design, and specifically the connectors used. These connectors did not allow for the wood to expand and contract with moisture changes, and when the wood had nowhere to expand, it caused tension, and the wood fibers to press against each other,” Rike said. “The wood did not rot. It’s woodworking 101.”

Rike compared the need for space between wood and connector to the need for space between a finger and a ring. When it’s cold out, a finger may contract, but when it’s hot, that finger will likely expand — and without space to accommodate that growth, a ring on that finger could quickly cause problems, he said.

“Now imagine that the finger is a big piece of wood, and the ring an airtight metal clamp. Imagine what happens when that wood-finger gets humid and expands, with no soft skin and blood to brace the impact,” he said. “This is what happened to the bridge, and the engineers and contractors should have known this.”

Rike followed the story of the $4-million, taxpayer-funded Squibb Bridge for years, he said, from its highly anticipated opening, to its 2014 closure and subsequent $3-million repair, to its 2017 reopening, to its second closure last year. And he concluded that the wood itself isn’t to blame for the recent problems after studying pictures of the span, and consulting with other engineers also familiar with black locust.

“From all the pictures I have seen, I think the support structure of the wood is the issue, and that’s what causing the structural problems,” he said. “Where the wood is deteriorating, it’s simply caused by the design of the bridge. It’s really simple stuff.”

Indeed, even Landau admitted how unusual it is for black locust to rot months before he announced the Squibb Bridge would face the wrecking ball.

“Every wood expert we spoke to said black locust is the best there is — you could put it into a vat of water for 100 years and you’d never have deteriorat­ion,” the park-keeper-in-chief said back in September. “So we were really surprised, as was our wood expert, when they discovered that we had a piece with decay.”

And the beleaguered bridge’s too-tight connectors aren’t its only engineering flaw — its architects did not let the black-locust planks dry long enough to develop healthy cracks before putting them to use, according to Rike.

“The wood did not air dry long enough. We think that because, based on the pictures, there was no cracking of the wood,” he said.

The expert is so confident of the wood’s integrity that he shared his hypothesis with Brooklyn Bridge Park leaders, telling them he’d take the planks off their hands. But he has yet to receive an answer to his offer, he said.

“We’ve been in touch with them to tell them, they haven’t responded. We’d also like to buy the wood and reuse it,” Rike said. “We can still utilize that wood.”

Rike — who unsolicitedly contacted this newspaper, and was not involved in designing, building, or repairing the Squibb Bridge — claimed he did so to set the record straight about black-locust wood, which he admitted is a popular material used by his for-profit company.

“The only motive I have is to make sure that black locust doesn’t get a bad name,” he said. “We did not supply the black locust wood, but we do have a black-locust wood company and want to make sure the true story gets out on this.”

Brooklyn Bridge Park leaders — who plan to shell out $6.5 million for the Squibb Bridge’s replacement span — denied Rike’s claims, but refused to share the engineering report that led them to indefinitely shutter the bridge in September, instead suggesting this reporter file a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain the document.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@schnepsmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
Updated 11:18 am, February 19, 2019
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Reasonable discourse

Frank from Furter says:
"Semi-private"? The land is owned by the city of state. The board is appointed by elected officials. All the capital money comes from the city or state of port authority..It's a public authority. payments in lieu of taxes -pilots-pay its operating expenses.Nothing private about it.
Feb. 19, 8:37 am
Laura from Brooklyn Heights says:
The timing of this "finding" is very suspicious - does anybody else smell a rat?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
Feb. 19, 8:55 am
Former Resident from Fulton Ferry says:
So it was the usual problem... "Heights Attitude", amiright?
Feb. 19, 9:41 am
John Wasserman from Prospect Heights says:
Certainly, there is something more here than meets the eye. I truly hope that you'll be understanding and that you'll pardon this particular interruption. John Wasserman
Feb. 19, 11:56 am
Midge from Mill Basin says:
The 17-year-locust can destroy everything. See "George Washington Slept Here" (1942) with Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan.
Feb. 20, 10:59 am
Judi Francis from Cobble Hill says:
Quelle surprise! Being told a lie by the park administrators about why they will be taking the bridge apart? Falsifying data to cover earlier lies? Just take a look at the huge poster in the window of the 15 story tower at Pier 6 we were told would be for affordable housing (thus, why it "had to be built" according to the Judge in the last law suit against more unnecessary housing inside the park). The sign touts: LUXURY APARTMENTS FOR RENT. Yet another lie and I am sure other lies found as cover.
Feb. 20, 2:20 pm
Andrew I. Porter from Brooklyn Heights says:
There have been problems with other bridges designed by this architectural firm, including a bridge across the Thames in London—which was (wait for it) initially too bouncy—and other structures.
Feb. 20, 3:38 pm
Tim Keating from Jersey CIty says:
As the person who first brought up black locust with New York City Parks 20 years ago, as an alternative to their profligate use of tropical hardwoods logged from Amazon forests, much of what Mr. Rike states here is correct. However, there *have* been other instances of black locust rotting in New York City projects. Indeed, even on some of the benches in Brooklyn Bridge Park, as well as those in Queen Botanical Garden. There continues to be debate within the select group of black locust producers and providers as to whether seasoned or kiln-dried is the best choice for this wood. One of the people who first benefited from my advocating for its use swore on kiln-drying. So far, it seems most of the material that has deteriorated much sooner than anticipated was kiln-dried. NYC Parks began incorporating KD into their specifications for black locust around 2012 or so. That’s not to say it’s impossible to kiln dry it, and still retain the wood’s inherent durability, but it can certainly be done in such a way as to drive out the extractives that give locust much of it’s legendary rot resistance. Regarding putting black locust “into a vat of water for 100 years and you’d never have deteriorat­ion”… well, I’m not sure who told Mr. Landau that, but having read just about every study ever done on black locust, to my knowledge, no one’s ever done that and reported on the results (at least I haven’t seen *that* study), so I’m not sure who were the “experts” he’s referring to in the article. The wood *has* been known to last 90 years in ground contact, without treatment, and still be rock-solid. It can also be seen in still-extant Civil War barracks and other buildings. But it’s not steel. All too often, we see people, now spoiled by 1000-year-old ipê from never-before-logged Amazon forests, 1800-year-old ‘clear’ Western Red Ceder and other woods from primary forests, *and* manufactured materials, expecting wood to act like titanium outdoors. But wood is a natural, organic material. It expands and contracts, gets wet and dry with the weather. Designers need to design around that, like they did with white oak for centuries. Many designers have simply lost the knowledge of how to do that, given how much of their work is in concrete and steel. I’m curious to know what they consider a “higher than expected moisture level”. And simply to say that the high moisture level “caused the wood to decay” is simplistic, since locust used for fenceposts for centuries was usually ‘green’ (that is, a very high moisture content, having recently been cut from the log). Having spoken with the bridge designer years ago, long before the bridge was built, I will say that the leap to create this bridge entirely out of locust, was likely a leap too far. Having at that time advocated for more than 10 years for Parks to try the material — and the first to supply them with samples bench slats (that bench, put out in 2006, still sits in their testing area today, steady as ever), I advocated for tests that were certainly not as massive as the Squibb Bridge. I believe there were too many unknowns and too many design variables to go forward the way the engineers and designers did, also with a ‘new’ material that had never been used that way. Certainly the material choice wasn’t the only thing being done for the first time. One lesson of good testing: test one variable at a time. By the way, Mr. Rike sells black locust from Europe, so if folks are looking to align with Slow Wood principles and support US-based sawyers and crafters, blacklocust.us and other providers are selling only black locust harvested from municipal roadside cutting and rescued from land development projects and invasive species eradication in the U.S.
Feb. 20, 4:42 pm

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