architecture of the planet of the apes, anyone?
January 4, 2007 10:03 PM   Subscribe

Say something medically catastrophic happened to human beings and most of them were wiped off the earth. The buildings and monuments and such remained, intact but uncared for. How long would the highrise buildings stand and be relatively livable? How long would it take for a building to come down?

I ask only about highrises because they tend to be more sealed than the average residential abode. But of course if you have an answer about houses and any other buildings, feel free to chime in.

And yes, this is a pretty vague scenario with lots of unknowns.
posted by ashbury to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Thats pretty much the same question as this previously asked question, no?
posted by vacapinta at 10:09 PM on January 4, 2007

I can't cite a source on this, but I've heard multiple times (and maybe this is just a creation of various postapocalyptic SF stories) that if the human species were wiped out, it would be the road networks that would remain recognizable for longest. In particular large highways and interstates which have substantial grading and modification to the underlying geology would be recognizable (when viewed from space or altitude, assumedly) for thousands of years, if anyone was looking.

I am personally aware of reinforced concrete buildings built in the teens and twenties which have been abandoned for more than 50 years and are still mostly structurally sound, at least on casual inspection -- i.e. they're still standing and resemble buildings. (Unfortunately the one I'm thinking of is in the process of being demolished, so the experiment won't continue.)

This question on Yahoo Answers was about the longevity of concrete structures, and although it's short on references, seems to suggest lifespans (barring disasters) of significantly more than a century.

I rather suspect steel skyscrapers or other urban buildings would not long outlast our species. Not because of weaknesses in the architecture per se, but more because they're not designed to exist in a vacuum. If you start one on fire, and there's no water pressure for the suppression systems and no fire department to intervene, it's going to burn up and collapse: think WTC7.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:26 PM on January 4, 2007

Um, not without a few hundred thousand gallons of jet fuel it won't.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:53 PM on January 4, 2007

It would depend quite a bit on the surrounding environment. In Central America, the jungle swallowed the Mayan ruins completely -- trees grew through everything. A city in the desert, like Phoenix or Albuquerque, might survive for a very long time. Think Anasazi ruins.

Kadin2048 has a point about the fires. In Seattle, the buildings would be covered with blackberry vines in a decade or two, like Sleeping Beauty's castle. Lots of growth through the wet winter, with a nice summer drought to dry everything to tinder stage. Natural burns tend to start every 10 to 25 years, right? Within 50 years the building would be covered in dryed up vines, and many glass windows would be broken by wind and hail. You end up with a stack of aerated tinder waiting to be lit. And all it takes is one building to get started and most of the city burns up.
posted by Araucaria at 11:00 PM on January 4, 2007

You miht be interested in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. If you type that phrase into google you'll get a german newspaper with a neat photogallery. It's very striking the extent to which plants and animals have recolonized and are destroying the towns. I've talked to people who've been there recently and heard that the crumbling buildings in the abandoned towns are by far the biggest hazard.

the benefits to wildlife of removing people from the zone, have far outweighed any harm from radiation.

James Lovelock,... wrote approvingly in the Daily Telegraph in 2001 of the "unscheduled appearance" of wildlife at Chernobyl.

He went on: "I have wondered if the small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers".

That's actually a genius idea.
posted by fshgrl at 11:17 PM on January 4, 2007

Look here.
posted by quadog at 1:09 AM on January 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Steel-reinforced concrete could potentially last a very long time, and if it's tall enough it cannot be engulfed with ivy or blackberries or anything like that. (There are limits to how high those kinds of plants can grow above their roots. Beyond a certain point, capillary action cannot lift water to the leaves.)

It turns out that the biggest threat to such buildings is ice. If it rains and then freezes in the winter, water gets into cracks in the concrete and freezes -- and expands -- widening the cracks. Then on the next rain more water gets in, and more ice forms to expand the crack even more. Eventually you get a structural failure.

That turns out to be the mechanism responsible for carving the sandstone in Arizona in places like the Painted Desert.

But in the case of steel-reinforced concrete, what that would eventually do is to break pieces of the concrete off the steel frame. When the steel is exposed, it will start to rust. Eventually the building collapses when enough girders rust away -- but we're talking about something that would take centuries at least.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 2:24 AM on January 5, 2007

You might take a look at some of the memorial structures along the Appian Way in Rome. The ones that haven't been maintained or restored show how substantial stone structures return to the earth in a few thousand years time.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:14 AM on January 5, 2007

One or two issues ago, there was an article about this in the Economist.
posted by Alt F4 at 5:33 AM on January 5, 2007

There was a very interesting article about exactly this subject in New Scientist a little while ago:

Imagine Earth without people

This article covers this specific question, as well as the more general topic of 'what would happen to Earth if we disappeared.'
posted by dflock at 5:35 AM on January 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

the jungle swallowed the Mayan ruins completely

To Kadin2048's point, portions of the Mayan roads are still clearly structuraly sound.
posted by desuetude at 6:11 AM on January 5, 2007

Also consider, depending on the rapidity of the medical disaster, many highrises will be full of decaying corpses, greatly reducing livability over the short term.

Kadin2048, SCDB, and stickycarpet are correct in saying that stone and reinforced concrete structures will (and have) lasted centuries with little maintenance. Your garden variety forest fire will do little to these types of buildings.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:36 AM on January 5, 2007

As Araucaria point out, location would definitely be the determining factor. While Phoenix would remain relatively intact for ages, Indianapolis, for example, would quickly be consumed by an aggressive carpet of dandelions.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:09 AM on January 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'd think the building foundations (which are often as voluminous as the buildings themselves) would last longest and be the most obvious to a future anthropologist. You can burn or knock down a building, but you can't burn or knock down a huge, perfectly square hole in the ground.
posted by watsondog at 7:14 AM on January 5, 2007

Most of the links here were mentioned in the previous thread vacapinta pointed out, which includes a link to this thread in the blue about the New Scientist piece.
posted by mediareport at 7:52 AM on January 5, 2007

Response by poster: thanks for the answers. It's all very interesting. I didn't notice the other question. :(
posted by ashbury at 7:57 AM on January 5, 2007

I can't remember where, but I saw a flow chart of sorts (perhaps on treehugger?) that showed just this thing. Maybe someone else whill know what I'm talking about and post it. :)
posted by Glitter Ninja at 9:10 AM on January 5, 2007

You can burn or knock down a building, but you can't burn or knock down a huge, perfectly square hole in the ground.

...which is why, tens of thousands of years after we're gone, you'll still be able to know people existed -- quarries. Granted, they're not really buildings, but the large limestone and granite quarries will last into geologic time and anyone paying even cursory attention would notice they're artificial (even when flooded and covered by plants).
posted by aramaic at 9:13 AM on January 5, 2007

Oops. I found the boingboing post that links to it, but apparently the link leads to nowhere. :/
posted by Glitter Ninja at 9:15 AM on January 5, 2007

I've always been curious how long automated power systems would continue to function if the human race were wiped out by some kind of fast-moving virus. A week? Several months?
posted by The God Complex at 3:43 PM on January 5, 2007

I can easily imagine concrete-lined tunnels that subsequently filled with sediment which then became lithified -- I can certainly imagine these being recognizablly artificial for hundreds of millions of years (unless they got subducted).
posted by Rumple at 4:41 PM on January 5, 2007

Sorry if this is a derail.
I realize that the point of this exercise is what would happen to man-made structures if man disappeared, but I doubt that all people everywhere would disappear due to any virus, nuclear accident, comet strike or whatever.
The survivors would be more interested in maintaining themselves than in maintaining buildings. The wisest would find the seed banks that are established around the earth and rediscover the backbreaking burden of agriculture without the aid of machinery.
If the fertility and resources of earth survived, mankind would eventually reinvent the things we rely on. Without the distraction of computers and TV, people could get a lot of drudgery done.
posted by Cranberry at 5:06 PM on January 5, 2007

Also keep in mind that a lot of basements in buildings would flood once the pumps died and the drains clogged.

I saw a building which was shut down for demolition in Melbourne. Within a couple of months, the basements were only accessible if you liked scuba diving, and it was high enough above sea level to not be caused by seepage. I imagine that a flooded basement would compromise the integrity of the structure quite a bit faster.
posted by tomble at 5:49 PM on January 8, 2007

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