Cheaper Windows

I discovered windows one afternoon and after that, nothing was ever the same.”
Anne Spollen

A “high efficiency” window in an insulated wall works much like a hole in a waterproof container. Insulation and windows can be viewed as opposites.  If you have R-90 in the floor, ceiling and two walls of a cube, and glaze the other two walls with a state of the art triple glazed, low-e, argon-filled, high-priced floor to ceiling window, the overall insulation drops to around R-61, or a 32% drop in efficiency.  If you start with R-30, the overall effect is  smaller, to around R-21, only a 28% drop in insulation value, but the plunge remains. There is no way around it.  The 5th Dimension of Letting the Sunshine In for the Age of Aquarius costs a lot of energy.  And it costs lots of money, if that helps you feel better about it.

Of course there are some profound solutions.  An array of televisions with a camera outside is cheaper than deluxe windows — both installation and energy consumption.  An added benefit is you have a record of the days to rebroadcast when the gloom rolls in.

Another practical solution is higher walls, as I discussed in Art of Architecture for Art.  While this will not change the amount of illumination, it will change its character.

More conventional thinking (yet often ignored) suggests ways of capturing light and directing it through small spaces.  Light comes from the south in the northern hemisphere, so southern glazing makes sense, even in rooms on the North side of a structure.  Directing light through the ceiling/floor joists via bright, reflective ducting works just great, and it provides advantages: one, the light is easily diffused and introduced high in the room, and two, the darker the season, the more direct the source of light into the southern exposure. Yet another is greater security.  And privacy. And fewer drafts.

Speaking of porting light, all square feet of glazing are not all equal.  The advantages of material thickness to insulation is proportional, as is the insulation value of space itself.  If you replace a gazillion dollar low-e, triple-pane, etc. etc., window with a glass block port and a couple of panes of glass along the way to the outlet,  the R-value keeps increasing while the light itself keeps pouring in.

Finally for this article, if you just have to have lots of huge windows so the world can look at you making payments on glazing and spending energy, make them temporary.  Create your own clever system of closing the walls against the windows as much as you know how to close the windows against the storms and cold.  The main times for loss of the most energy tend to be the exact opposite of the times most people want the view (namely, nights and inclement weather) so close the walls when you are not watching.

Or, just turn the TV screens back to yesterday.


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Vernacular Architecture

My passion for structures has its roots and primary fascination in the world’s houses, and the people who built and lived in them.  (Scuppers, the Sailor Dog, was first.) Of the people, by the people, for the people.

The unusual term for the overwhelming majority of people’s homes applied by the architectural elite, “Vernacular,”  is out of place, borrowed from linguistics.  Vernacular conventionally means domestic, native, indigenous, but not really.  It really means verna cular or “small homes of the slaves.”  We can forgive the “polite” architect, however, because he rarely is an English major who studies Latin.  “Vernacular” architecture should be something any architect yearns for and greatly respects, rather than contributing to the notion of We, the People, being the chattel of a lesser grade.

Definitions for “vernacular” in architectural literature usually fail because they generally ignore the most vital aspects of what makes people’s houses such engineering marvels: comfort, experience, environment, occupation, climate, family size, culture, and history in practice head the list.

The vernacular (here, I mean the true vernacular of language) is well illustrated by the telephone.  It rings, and we need to convey an audible acknowledgement that we recognize there is no visual feed to give the caller notice we are ready to converse.  We therefore indicate our readiness to engage in the first words of conversation, and assure that we are paying attention, by saying, “hello.” It didn’t originate at MIT or Cambridge.  It works universally.  It is the vernacular of the hoidy-toidy as well as the lowly commoner.

So the design of our homes is not an architectural achievement of some higher class, but the vernacular language of the people, revised, standardized, and often bastardized by architect and engineer.  Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, or Le Corbusier, immediately comes to mind.  Snob, genius, and idiot.  Great technical ideas, lovely views of architecture as true art, but a hideous example of contempt for mankind.  To be fair, he never tried to do this, but people with six names and titles tend to be that way.

Just a machine?

A house is a machine for living in,” he famously said, though he never reconciled that with, “You know, it is life that is right and the architect who is wrong.”  He simultaneously venerated history and tried replace it with his ideas.  That, in a nutshell, is the expression of arrogance and authoritarianism.

An architect should be the mechanic for the people’s vision — not its source. The biggest problem is that “great architects” have stolen our bits of individual history, collected genius, personality, joy and inspiration, and given us tract homes.

The “vernacular” of architecture should mean “what has developed from thousands of years of development, refinement, joy, preference, and personal taste and character.”  The architect of the people — all of us — needs to be from us.  To be great,  the architect simply says, “hello.”

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Art of Architecture for Art

You want to raise the stage and make it diffuse.” – Brad

That bit of advise from an audiophile is true for all arts.  Beauty in creative space is “up there.” Light, sound, and energy all seem to originate overhead. Our appreciation for space starts when it gets to mingle with itself above us and drift down.

No matter how good the architecture, it will be better up higher. “Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of light, who does not change like the shifting shadows.” James wrote in his letter to the Christian Church. That reality extends to every good purpose, especially the creative and noble.

We used to understand this. Cathedrals and great halls benefited from open spaces overhead.  We want our light from above.  Glaring lights to the left and right, or directly in front of us at our brow, can never replace the joy of diffuse light from above.  The artist, whether culinary, cabinet maker, musician, columnist, stone cutter, painter, potter, or tailor, will thrill at the highest ceiling.

An architect will always be appreciated and long remembered if he designs at least the artist’s studio, whether kitchen or sewing room, shop or gallery, to be as high as possible and full of light and resonant space.

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Design of Buildings with Fabric

“O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.” – Psalm 104, 1-2 ESV

Ultimately, the joy of studying textiles and working with fabric applies to my interest in structures — whether handbags or buildings. Fabrics are incredibly flexible, and their wear strength and shear strength are phenomenal. This comes from the shared load of tension across more than one direction.

“Fabric,” of course, includes any woven material, not just wool, cotton, and clothing materials.  While we generally think of fabric as a plane, it can be woven zig-zags, trusses, etc. as well.

Simple fabric weaves, like the woven plastic straps that create a lawn chair, transfer loads in two directions. Straps of fabric go both side to side (weft) and front to back (warp.), Wherever you sit, your body weight is carried in both directions. Not only that, but the tension becomes a compression on the next piece of plastic, which then translates to the tension on that next strap. In other words, the load transfer is not linear, but bidirectional. As this bidirectional shift in loads occurs, the weight transfer continues to travel, creating a virtually circular distribution that ultimately extends to the very edges.

This non-linear aspect of fabric results from changes in geometry that occur under load, even though the materials remain linearly elastic.

This change in geometry creates a wonderful quality. If properly designed, the load bearing capacity of stretched fabric increases to carry loads as the fabric deforms. In fact, these structures are capable of maintaining a very high ratio of applied loads to self-weight, in contrast to steel, concrete. or other rigid structures of the same spans.

Make no mistake. The design possibilities are enormous to an almost ridiculous level, and perhaps even more surprising, the engineering limitations are virtually non-existent. It is almost a safe statement that the engineering possibilities in the mechanical, structural, design, appearance, or textural use of fabric are limitless!  (Imagine tapping into the “fabric of light” and “stretching the heavens as a tent”!  While that is God’s domain, we probably have a taste of it available to us.)

The primary challenge of using fabric is the relatively quick decay of materials used, meaning that fabric, while incredibly strong and flexible, has to be replaced quite often. The decay results primarily from UV radiation and from the extremely high surface area of the fabric to thickness. By nature, fabric is made of individual strands, woven into a moderately solid sheet. Every “thread” is almost completely and thoroughly exposed to decay factors. Decay results in significant changes in the fabric. Loss of tensile strength, flexibility, and shear can be catastrophic.

To me, this calls for a very simple (in theory) solution: Better fabric materials! By combining the use of surface coatings, shifting the insulation to the exterior and the interior, and adding a second layer of “roof” or external covering to absorb the UV and atmospheric gases can protect the fabric from corrosives by simply reducing contact, etc.  It may also be possible to create the fabric assembly to be suspended in a very light hydraulic fluid or inert gas so that it can be repaired or replaced by simply sliding out the old or damaged section without significant disassembly of the entire structure.

Of course, fabric is only useful in tension, not compression, but consider how this could be resolved by massing fabric into compressive bundles like bolts of fabric, stiffened by . . . tension! — pulling the fabric very tightly around itself, or around a rigid core, increasing the compression to take advantage of its greatest asset, namely, using tension to form a compression reaction in opposition. The resulting posts would have all the tensile characteristics of fabric, making them almost infinitely flexible while providing tremendous strength from the non-linear tension holding them.

This is not an essentially novel idea – just not fully implemented. Fabric has been with us forever. It is suggested in the nature of steel reinforced concrete, where steel grids and cables add the tension that concrete lacks, and concrete provides the compression resistance that can limit steel. It is also used for some domes and other roof structures. Converting steel cables to interconnected fabric would solve all the existing problems in current practices of pre- and post-stressing concrete.

Another great benefit of such innovation is weight reduction. If a structure that requires 100 tons of concrete, say, were reduced to a comparative weight of 20 tons, and gained the flex and load distributing properties of fabric, you could theoretically gain an additional 80 tons of support and load capacity for the contents of the structure without an overall change in weight. Improved stability and flexibility of a fabric foundation, and the use of adjacent structures (primarily roads, sidewalks, and parking lots) as part of the fabric foundation in building design would bear weight normally transferred directly to the ground structures directly beneath a building or other structure.

One final note on fabric as a building material is cost. Steel and concrete are reasonably cheap. Way outside of my capacity, however, are cost estimates over time. If load capacity, stability, duration, safety and design can be improved or “solved,” we are in a solid position to make headway and some needed change.

Consider that the last 30 years have yielded an increase of triple the number of deaths from natural disasters. We have witnessed structural failure and loss of service to buildings and other structures like towers, dams and bridges (meaning displacement and isolattion of populations, loss of production, storage, utilities, communication, transportation and services.) If fabric construction can end or significantly reduce these problems, then building costs plummet.

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New Architecture

We have nearly exhausted our old architecture.  Not that it hasn’t served very well.  Not even that it can’t continue to serve.  We need something more, not necessarily something else, and there are several principles to follow and goals to achieve as we head in that new direction.

Of course, if you know me at all, “new” means old and primitive, reused, basic, fundamental, available, local, efficient, cost effective, self-operating and self-sustaining, and cheap.  Free is almost always even better.

The best building materials of all time are stone, mud, sand, wood, grass and sod, clay and things like cactus juice and animal dung.  Buildings still remain that were built of these materials thousands of years ago.  In our modern era, we have produced some excellent additions to those wonderful materials: used tires, bottles and cans, ash and fly ash, packaging materials and cardboard, several more or less permanent plastics, and a creative list of household and industrial waste as long as your arm.  And leg.

Our landfills and hillsides are packed with excellent building materials, soil builders, landscaping materials, walls and bridges, you name it.

The “Tiny House” movement represents a somewhat narrow, but magnificent start.  It allows the wonder of fine workmanship, creative materials, and efficiency to stand out.  Tiny, however, is just one step.  Though it is quite unlikely to happen, we’re ready to use this stuff to build the next apartment or office complex, shopping mall, school or hospital.

All it will take in most areas of our country is a decade long war with code enforcement.  There are some places where these ideas are being used very successfully.  New Mexico and some areas of Colorado mostly.  California used to be a hotbed of creative building genius and innovation . . . but we all know California these days.


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Cheap Land Deals

Can you own and live on 100 acres, build your house on that property for less than you currently pay for rent?  Yes, certainly, and find time you never knew existed, enjoy your “work,” and do almost anything.

The qualifications are simple: an enduring desire, adaptability, moderate intelligence, and a little faith in God’s provision.  Anything else is optional, but always useful.  Once you can save a few thousand dollars, you’re in.

The cheapest land is rarely a gorgeous “finished painting,” but rather a bare pallet, just waiting for anything and everything you want to include.

My wife and I chose our last two homes, going back over 20 years, on land where pavement refuses grow.  We would still consider a bunch of acres in a remote area if we were in our 50s.  Most states have places to buy big chunks of land for next to nothing.  We have them out here in the great Southwest, but they exist in areas of TN, KY, LA, MS, and AR, too.  Probably almost every state has them, but I haven’t checked.  The value increases as your demands shrink.  If you can “make do without,” it isn’t difficult to find 100 acres for $10,000 or less.

Sometimes the trees and water included are worth thousands of dreams, even if you only want a “get-away.”

“Doing without” means serious hardships for some people.  Living without running water, electricity, plowed roads, neighbors, nearby stores or hospitals, for instance, can plow down interest for a lot of people . . . but that is precisely why those great deals exist.  Imagine the life you could establish on 100 acres!  If you can live without TV or a cell phone, maybe.

My wife and I talk about it often.  Just 10 years ago we could have turned our lives around with such opportunity, but we just didn’t know what we didn’t know.

The biggest obstacles may vary.  Some properties, for instance, are inaccessible.  You can’t reach them.  That’s not inexpensive, that’s worthless.  Or, the property can be completely under water.  We actually looked at 5 acres in New York State that was a pond.  There were less than 200 sf of dry land along a dinky strip beside the road.  Not impossible, of course — even exciting if there was somewhere to park and store building materials.  What a great property for hydroponic and water gardening, fishing, swimming, etc., and a cool place to simply anchor a floating house.  We decided against trying — mainly because it was New York, and almost certainly more hoops than jumps left in us.

Water?  At first that issue can kill a deal, and in a very few places (like the badlands) it may prove impossible, but bear in mind that one inch of rain collected from one square yard is over 5.5 gallons.  We live in the “high desert” of Arizona, getting 15 inches of rain per year.  Every square yard of our property gets 84 gallons of rain each year.  A basic 20×40 foot roof (800 square feet) would provide 7,480 gallons of water per year —  slim pickings, but over 20 gallons of stored water per day just off the rooftop!  In the desert.

The cost of wild living is unlimited, in both directions.  It’s easy to live cheap or flamboyant, hidden or pretentious.  Withdrawn and alone or all lit up with guests and parties makes no difference to anyone else — it’s up to you.  On the extremely low side, here are some numbers to work with:

Land:  Currently, “the average house” costs somewhere around $165,000.  That generally includes about 1/4 of an acre, driveway, maybe a garage and fence, and a patch of land.  You will be plugged into the sewer (or septic) water (municipal or private well) and electric, and your street will most likely be paved and somewhat maintained.  There’s a pretty good chance of cable access, cell phone coverage, and reasonably local shopping.   On a cheap property, whatever you paid is paid.  Unlike the conventional mortgage, that’s it.  Once you plunk down $5,000 or $20,000, you’re done paying.  Better still, land taxes are usually based on “value,” and “remote” usually translates into “cheaper” at the tax office.

Food:  On a big lump of land, you can raise rabbits and chickens for almost nothing, eat eggs, vegetables and fruit you grow.  You can also hunt and fish, buying just staples like rice, flour, potatoes,  lard and oils, for about $100 per year per person.  You will most likely need that much plus an allowance for “treats.”  Farm animals are also quite possible.

Utilities: What utilities?  The rustic ideal is heat and energy from the sun, wind, your own wood, and water.  It gets very comfortable with a small windmill, a few solar panels, and/or a gas generator.

Taxes and fees: That will vary from place to place, State to State, but most of New Mexico land is known for “no code” and cheaper taxes.  Plan on $500/year and prepare to spend the overage on gasoline or another rain collection tarp and bottles.

Transportation:  One of the benefits of remote, barefoot living is you don’t have to go anywhere, but you can probably use a 30-year-old 7 cylinder 3/4 dead $250 Chevy or even a tractor for emergencies.  You probably need a tractor, and they cost between 10% of a used pickup and 5x as much as an Italian sports car.)

Building costs:  A safe and nominally comfortable lean to, yurt, or very small rustic cabin from your own timber start around $0.  Realistically, you probably need a few thousand, especially for a quick move-in and basic plumbing.  We have an old RV that cost us nothing, so we’re ahead of that game.  Ingenuity always counts double.

Other: Really, it’s more about what you want than what you need.  Children can cause added considerations too numerous to name.  (But they’re worth every one of them, and might be the very best reason to leave our current, polluted “advanced civilization”!) and a bad marriage can doom the whole idea.  My love and I both have health issues, so we had to decide that death is as viable in the middle of nowhere as it is within the speedy range of a hospital.  It happens to the rich and famous in jets over the ocean or on safari in Africa, so why not at home in our peaceful desert?

I’d like to spend a lot more time on this topic.  Some of the interest is global (the benefits of remote living coupled with high productivity and spiritual peace) much is truly architectural (what can and should be done to make homes better, more efficient and comfortable, without the terrible impact of the processed, expensive, dangerous, short-lived and ruinous “code approved building materials.”  And some of the interest falls directly on the experiences we have had and want to continue.

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Sky Scrapings

The purest joy of architecture is designing and building an appropriate, satisfying home.  One look at any truly magnificent school, hospital, office, commercial or industrial structure tells us that its design has enormous appeal for someone other than the occupants.  As a rule of thumb, this problem increases with the size , and even more with the height of the structure.

Some of the problems are practical extensions of reality.  As with people, a building’s character is not cheap.  We can understand wanting more within budget, and “more” means size and efficiency, or perhaps impact and awe, but rarely character.

As mentioned before, the corruption of the idea of “code” helps lead to communal architecture, too.  Creative, individualist, unique, inspiring, etc. become enormous challenges when the specifications call for “exactly like this.”

Another problem inherent in the design of hugeness is logistical.  Simply moving people and products from points A to B means a bunch of roads, tunnels, and bridges across the vast lobbies and corridors of real estate.  Highways, with telephone poles, merging lanes, warning signs.  Beside this, how do you decorate and personalize elevators or make them warm and cozy?

The biggest problem in skyscraper design and technology is the mass marketing effect.  The ideal design ultimately appeals to everyone, and the inevitable result is a design that appeals to no one, or just a few.  We can understand that, and even accept it.  Vulgar means common.  Like all communist ideals, mass production for the masses spells vulgar.

A home, however, is only intended for a few.  It is so easy to please the occupants, but we’ve turned the sky scraping conundrum the wrong way.  Rather than liberating us from our workday commons by letting us go home to our joyfully individual existence, architects design one house to satisfy the masses.  With one, or maybe two or three tweaks in the design, they build entire subdivisions to satisfy us all equally.  It never works, even when we live there and try to pretend.

Between this marketing approach and the vulgar regard for putting us in common homes, it would be exciting to see how people might respond to choosing a place — not just of their own, but of their own choosing.

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The Best of — Not Good

Back in the mid-20th Century, Le Corbusier fidgeted with a notion for a church to pour in Firminy, France.  I call it the Barracks at Firminy.

For some reason, it impresses many professional designers who often rank it near the top of the 21st Century architectural achievements.  So far, anyway.  They refer to it with glowing terms that put it on the great continuum from holes and caves through architectural development.

So do I.

It looks very much like the evolution of a hole and a cave, suitable for shooting at low flying airplanes and soldiers, or maybe for holding back water. Inside, a section of bleachers provides uncomfortable seating.

There is a cross on it, so it might be a Christian stadium.   There are no banisters, so it fails code.  Thank God.  It will not be reproduced in America.

The question then becomes, what makes this great 21st Century architecture?

The answer, I believe, is that it is not great, or even good, but “the best of.”  It is the 21st Century, after all.  That helps explain a pathetic design of the mid-20th Century.  Le Corbusier was something of a weird sensation in his own day, with strange ideas and bizarre thoughts combined with freakish goals and a very limited pallet of concrete and . . . well, more concrete.

All of a sudden, the prospects for improvement come into view.  If this thing qualifies as “among the best since the turn of the millennium,” then our growth potential is staggering.  First we should try for something better than this 50 year-old design, then as good as the best of the 20th Century, working backwards until we produce something as fine as the 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th Centuries, eventually building a fine building, new, creative and beautiful in its own right.

This is clearly not it.

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Architectural Books

Too many architecture books have been written.  Most of them are severely lacking in several areas, and only a few really stand out as stellar.  It seems that there is exactly one great book for each favorite category of study for me, making the list easy to create!

The best reference to the houses in America is Lester Walker, American Shelter.  This book makes sense, offers all the identifying details and origins for the styles, includes excellent illustrations, and has virtually every type of residence from caves and mud huts to neomodern and space.

The top notch book on world houses is Paul Oliver, Dwellings.  Homes around the world, from tents and yurts to dung huts, bamboo, dugouts and almost every local material you can (and can’t) imagine.  Far more text than Walker, necessary to explain some foreign concepts and conditions, but good words in good order.

The premier reference for design notions, terms, and details: Francis D.K. Ching, A Visual Dictionary of Architecture.  Ching has several good books geared to students, and this clever presentation is surprisingly useful, and almost stupidly simple.  Need a refresher on how elevators work, or how much clearance they need?  It’s under E, right after electricity.

Lloyd Kahn, HomeWork, or Shelter II, or almost anything he wrote.  Just a hoot, especially if you grew up in the 50s, 60s, or 70s.  Hippies and freaks.  This stuff is to architecture what joints are to cigars, or bongs to pipes.  I can never get enough.  Just plain fun . . . and good . . . and I’d gladly live in one of these places.

The best book for worldwide how to, ingenious simplicity, and absolutely first rate diy architecture and ideas is Johan van Lengen, The Barefoot Architect.  With just this one book, you can design and build a whole community of comfy houses, with proper sewage, water supply, public schools and roads, sidewalks, etc.  Anywhere in the world. . . except the “civilized” world.  This wonderful and useful stuff won’t pass CODE.  (My friend Jeff D says CODE is an acronym for Can Only Destroy Excellence.)  Every architect should have this book, if only as a reminder why he or she should be grateful to have a job working for the stud and plywood industry.

The following make the short list of good books for your library, but I can’t give them GREAT ratings for a variety of reasons.  (Mostly, they aren’t great.)

David Larkin, Farm.  Romantic, fun, and full of superlative photos.
Anthony Quiney, The Traditional Buildings of England.  Ditto.  Well done.
Mario Salvadori, Why Buildings Stand Up.  Decent non-tech intro to structural engineering.
Jonathon Glancey, Architecture, and Marc Kushner, The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings.  Between them, an interesting collection of possibilities, and not a bad variety of choices.

There are two more that deserve mention, even though they represent the worst of architecture for two different reasons.  The first is LeCorbusier’s Towards a New Architecture.  Possibly the best representation of everything that changed and fell apart in the era of “Control, Universalism, Socialism, Safety.” (CUSS)  And Leonardo Benevolo’s two volume, History of Modern Architecture, presents a comprehensive list of what happened to make the sickness and horrors of LeCorbusier and his peers possible.


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Building a Great Passion

Architecture is structural poetry.  Most buildings are like cheap newspapers or bad manuals we must live and work in.  They are as obvious as bad breath or a leaky diaper, and we must endure them almost constantly.

Some people excel at disguising the annoyances they spend their time enduring.  That is a different art form, but even the genius of a master decorator only clothes Frankenstein in a tuxedo.  You can never hide the monster well enough to sleep peacefully in its presence.

Recent buildings are examples of bad architects more than hideous architecture because there are too many rules in modern Western society to even hope for truly bad architecture.  It’s almost all the same poor mediocre thing, but that never prevents architects from competing to make it worse.  To be entirely fair, architects have had their eyes plucked out and their hands cut off by the scourge of modern building.  It’s called “CODE,” a four letter word for POS, and an acronym for Creative.Opportunities.Don’t.Exist.  The greatest architecture of all time would not meet code.  99% of the dwellings of mankind would not meet code.

Since I was a little boy I’ve studied, admired, and dreamed architecture, and watched it rapidly vanish from civilization.

It might be fun to consider what architecture could be, but doubtful it will ever change back into something exciting and creative.

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