How to build your Martian dream house

Some day, humans will live on Mars. That’s the vision of some of today’s highest-profile forward-thinkers. This week, in an op-ed for CNN, President Barack Obama wrote that he hopes America will send humans safely to Mars and back by the 2030s. And late last month, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced plans to colonize Mars within the next 50 to 100 years, with the help of the most powerful rocket ever, sending up a reusable spaceship that could carry a hundred humans at a time to the Red Planet.

But once the expat Earthlings land, what kind of structures will they live in? Scientists are working on myriad answers to that question (among others). One major obstacle to homebuilding on Mars is the limited capacity of any realistic spacecraft to carry all the materials needed to erect substantial, durable habitats. Ideally, the pioneers would use local materials, just as early European settlers in North America chopped down pines to build log cabins. With no forests on Mars, what can 21st-century space settlers use?

Frosty reception

There is water on Mars—most of it frozen. That’s one of the attractions that make the fourth rock from the sun a good candidate for colonization. (It also has an atmosphere to absorb radiation, a surface temperature range that could be bearable with the right protective gear, and a day/night cycle similar to ours at 24 hours, 37 minutes.)


Source: Mars Ice House

So when NASA held its 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge last fall, one team of designers tapped H20 as its substance of choice to fabricate homes. Team Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch) and Clouds AO topped 165 entrants with their design, Ice House. The design takes a page from Alaska’s Inuit people, who for centuries have built temporary shelters out of snow during hunting expeditions. Envisioning a settlement in Mars’ northern climes, the NASA competition winners proposed that frozen water be harvested from the subsurface and run through a massive 3D printer to craft a sleek shell of ice that would cover the astronauts’ lander (which would serve as the living quarters), sealing it in a pressurized, habitable environment. Then another, still larger ice shell would be created to cover the first, not unlike a Russian nesting doll.


Source: Mars Ice House

The multi-layered setup is designed for redundancy—you’d probably feel safer with a backup shell, wouldn’t you?—but the general purpose of the ice shell is to give the colonists a kind of artificial yard: they could obtain a feeling of being outdoors without having to suit up and venture out into the planet’s harsh environment. That’s because the translucent outer ice shell, while repelling cosmic rays, would let in sunlight, something vital to the colonists’ food garden, not to mention their sanity. And with temps in the region (Alba Mons) consistently below freezing, the shell would stand year-round without melting.

But what if the explorers wanted to conserve that water for other uses, like drinking it? Continue Reading ›

Throwback Thursday: Rebar in old-time ballparks

As baseball fans in New York, Tampa Bay and other American League East towns are painfully aware, the Boston Red Sox have clinched the division title. Naturally, being builders, we got to thinking about the team’s ancient home, Fenway Park (above). Built in 1912, it belongs to the first generation of sports stadiums constructed of steel-reinforced concrete, a material gaining widespread acceptance in the wake of San Francisco’s devastating earthquake of 1906. Other examples include Stanford Stadium (1921) and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (1923) in California, and of course the original Yankee Stadium (1923) in New York (pictured below).yankee_stadium1920s

Believe it or not, when crews erected Fenway’s “spacious grandstand” (as the Globe called it then and nobody does now), the process was so cutting-edge that the local Society of Civil Engineers visited to observe (below). Nevertheless, much of the project’s construction practices seem outdated today.

For example, carpenters built the formwork for the columns and deck slab out of oak timber, according to Glenn Stout, a former concrete foreman and the author of a history of the park’s construction. “They had to do everything with wood,” Stout said in an interview. “They didn’t use plywood back then; they used wooden planks—usually oak, which was readily available.” In fact, you can still see the marks of wood grain on the concrete in some places.fenway3a

Today, said Fred Collins of Liberty Construction, formwork is typically a composite of plywood and steel—a modular steel frame, with plywood facing. “For efficiency, for speed,” said Collins, who is Liberty’s northeast regional general superintendent of concrete field operations. “It enables you to pour larger quantities of concrete.”

The pouring process in 1912 was different, too. As Stout wrote in his book:

Unlike today, concrete was not mixed and then hauled to the site by truck. Instead a concrete plant was built on-site [where] cement, sand and an aggregate of crushed stone and water were mixed together [then dumped] into a concrete dump bucket. The wet concrete was hoisted to the appropriate place and the concrete emptied into wheeled sidecars . . . essentially wheelbarrows, but with much larger wheels and a much greater capacity.


Wrigley Field, an early reinforced-concrete stadium, under construction, circa 1914. (Photo courtesy of 

Workers then “manhandled” these wheelbarrows into place and, “where possible, simply dumped the concrete onto the deck [then] raked it into place and agitated the concrete to remove any air bubbles,” Stout wrote. Where the deck sloped, the mix was “dumped into chutes, and workers then had to force the concrete down manually, using shovels not unlike canoe paddles.”

It was dirty, dangerous work, Stout added. A scratch from the rebar carried the threat of tetanus. “Shoulders and arms ached from the burden of shoveling the heavy mixture, which typically weighed 150 pounds per cubic foot. . . . For this, the workers earned perhaps fifty cents an hour.” Continue Reading ›

Buoyant buildings: better than boats?

With hurricane season at its peak, we explore how floating homes might help us adapt to bigger storms and rising seas.

The Dutch have a head start when it comes to dealing with water. The extreme weather events and rising sea level that scientists predict this century will affect millions around the globe—most of the world’s largest cities are along the coasts. But that problem has long been acute in the low-lying Netherlands, where two-thirds of the population live in flood-prone areas. Over the centuries, the Dutch have honed technologies—dikes, canals, and pumps—that keep their streets and houses dry.

Now, a new generation of Dutch engineers and architects is modeling another method. Rather than fight to keep water out, they say, why not live on it? The basic idea is not new—hundreds of free spirits live on traditional houseboats in quirky communities like Sausalito, California, and Key West, Florida. But in the Netherlands over the past few years, novel technologies have allowed developers to build roughly a thousand (and counting) stable, flat-bottomed, multi-story homes connected to land-based utilities yet designed to rise and fall with the tides and even floods. House boats, these ain’t.

And this is just the start. The Dutch are thinking bigger, and they’re exporting their floating-home vision worldwide, betting that the rest of us coastal clingers could use it. Some projects exist already, others are on the drawing board or coming soon. Let’s take a look at a few, from the workaday to the fantastical, and from overseas to right here in the States.

Photo by Roos Aldershoff, courtesy of Marlies Rohmer Architects and Urbanists

A “normal house” on water

The first of its kind, Waterbuurt (above and top) is a planned neighborhood of about 100 (eventually 165) floating houses in Amsterdam’s IJmeer Lake, part of a freshwater reservoir dammed off from the North Sea in the 1930s. Waterbuurt broke ground—er, water—in 2009, and was largely complete by 2014. Connected by jetties, the structures are three-story, 2,960-square-foot houses built of wood, aluminum, and glass.


Source: DigitalCommons@CalPoly (colorized for clarity)

And the foundations? Floating concrete tubs. Each house is designed to weigh 110 tons and displace 110 tons of water, which—as Archimedes could tell you—causes it to float. (The bottom floor is half submerged.) To prevent rocking in the waves, the house is fastened to two mooring posts—on diagonally opposite corners of the house—driven 20 feet into the lake bed. The posts are telescoping, allowing the house to rise and fall with the water level. Flexible pipes deliver electricity and plumbing.

Because any crack in the foundation tub could cause the house to sink, there can’t be any joints; builders pour the entire basement in one shot—much like the parking garage of the Jade Signature condo complex in Florida. In a facility 30 miles away from the IJmeer Lake site, crews use special buckets that pour 200 gallons per minute to finish all four walls and the floor in a single shift.

Just four months elapse before the entire house is built; then it’s towed by tugboat—30 miles through canals and locks—to the plot. The transportation is a major reason the houses cost about 10 percent more than an average home in Amsterdam, though they’re still aimed at the city’s middle class. The houses were designed by architect Marlies Rohmer, for developer Ontwikkelingscombinatie Waterbuurt West.

Once secured to its mooring posts, the structure is formally considered an immovable home, not a house boat. (Although owners have the option of naming their waterborne homes as sea captains do. One couple calls theirs La Scalota Grigia—Italian for “The Grey Box.”)

With high ceilings and straight angles, a house in Waterbuurt “feels like a normal house,” wrote a New York Times reporter who toured one. But some residents say they do feel their home swaying when the wind kicks up.

One other drawback, or at least challenge: Residents have to decide before the house is even built where they’re going to place furniture, because that will affect its balance. The walls are built to varying thickness, depending on the layout submitted. What if you inherit a beloved aunt’s piano after you move in? Or have another child and need to buy a bunkbed? To compensate, homeowners can install balance tanks on the exterior or Styrofoam in the cellar, or carefully move furniture around or even deploy sand bags. A bit of a hassle, but perhaps with an eye on rising sea levels, that’s a risk Amsterdammers are willing to take.

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Rendering courtesy of architect Koen Olthuis, Waterstudio.NL, and developer Dutch Docklands

Continue Reading ›

A ray of sunshine: Solar power makes strides in Florida

Solar townfeatured

Construction is underway on the nation’s first solar-powered town, in a state just beginning to realize its potential.

For a state that gets 230 days of sunshine a year, Florida has long been in the Dark Ages when it comes to solar power. The state ranks as low as 17th in terms of solar energy output, despite ranking third in solar potential. But the outlook for that most obvious of renewable energies seems to be getting, well, sunnier by the day.

This week, Florida’s citizens voted by a sky-wide margin (73 percent to 27 percent) to approve a constitutional amendment that will provide significant tax breaks for commercial property owners who install solar panels. It will also allow leasing of solar energy: Going forward, landlords can sell solar power directly to tenants. Expect to see shiny panels sprout on the rooftops of apartment complexes and big-box stores from Pensacola to Miami.

But one Florida developer is going further than that, aiming to change the home-by-home, building-by-building paradigm. Syd Kitson, the chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners (and a former Green Bay Packer) is building an entire town that will draw most of its energy from the sun.

Breaking ground last fall, Babcock Ranch sits on 17,000 acres in rural Charlotte County, outside Fort Myers. By 2041, this ambitious planned community will house up to 50,000 residents who can stay cool, reheat chicken, Skype with relatives, and even head to the hardware store with the help of the world’s largest photovoltaic power plant. In Kitson’s vision (see rendering above), this sustainable town’s example might inspire large-scale changes in the way Americans live and work.

A series of hamlets, villages and neighborhoods, Babcock Ranch will have its own schools and a downtown district—already under construction—featuring six million square feet of retail, commercial, civic, and office space. Designed on a smart grid to optimize energy efficiency and lower utility costs, the town will make use of current and emerging technologies such as electric vehicles and solar-powered charging stations. And a system of shared, driverless vehicles will move people and goods throughout town.

Slated for completion next year, Phase 1 of construction includes 1,100 homes as well as the downtown district, which will feature a state-of-the-art wellness center, a market café, lakeside restaurant, and educational facilities, all connected by a system of walking trails.

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Members of the media toured the solar plant at Babcock Ranch on Earth Day in April. (Photo courtesy Babcock Ranch)

The entire development will be powered by the 74.5-megawatt-capacity FPL Babcock Solar Energy Center, being built in conjunction with Florida Power & Light on an adjacent 450-acre site. Excess power collected during the sunniest days will be pumped back into the electrical grid, to be stored for use on overcast days.

During nighttime hours, at least in the short term, the town’s power will be supplied by natural gas. Although natural gas is not a renewable resource, it emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide when burned than coal. Moreover, the new homeowners will also have the option to purchase rooftop solar panels—a process that, presumably, will become even easier thanks to the amendment passed this week.

From an environmental standpoint, these are all encouraging developments, showing that solar’s role is on the rise, and perhaps a more sustainable energy mix is just on the horizon.

This post was a collaboration between Suffolk Construction’s Insurance Coordinator Lindsay Davis and Content Writer Patrick Kennedy. If you have questions, Lindsay can be reached at and Patrick can be reached at or connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

If it’s broke, it’ll fix itself

How 200-year-old bacteria might heal the cracks in concrete

Concrete has been used in construction for thousands of years. Think of the Colosseum and the aqueducts of Ancient Rome. In the modern era, builders have sought to make improvements to the mixture’s strength, durability, and eco-friendliness. During the Industrial Revolution, engineers discovered better materials and faster ways to produce concrete. They began strength testing different mixes in 1836. The first concrete road in the U.S. was laid in 1891, and it handles modern auto traffic today. Recently, one company produced a concrete that locks in carbon dioxide as it dries. But through all these changes, one problem has remained unsolved: cracks.

These cracks start out small, but widen over time, which can make structures unstable: when water gets in the cracks, the metal rebar supports will rust and break. Workers can seal the cracks if they are spotted, but by then the damage could already be done, which leads to costly and time-consuming repairs. Even worse damage can occur if the cracks open in places where they won’t be noticed until it’s too late. To solve this problem, a new concrete revolution is under way. Someday, workers won’t have to inspect the dried concrete for cracks, because these cracks will seal themselves. That’s right—seal themselves!

Inspired by the way the human body heals itself after breaking a bone, Professor Henk Jonkers (pictured above) wondered whether it was possible to introduce healing abilities to a man-made material. As a microbiology researcher at Delft University in the Netherlands, Jonkers is particularly fascinated with bacteria. He began to envision embedding concrete with microscopic repairmen.

Knowing that bacteria produce limestone under certain conditions, he theorized that he could help cracks self-heal by adding a couple extra ingredients to the standard mix of sand, cement, and water. The first is a strand of bacteria called Bacillus, whose spores are sealed in biodegradable capsules. The other is the bacteria’s food source, calcium lactate. As a crack forms and water gets in, the water dissolves the capsules and activates the bacteria. The bacteria then consume the calcium lactate and produce limestone, which seals the cracks and protects the structure from further damage.

In the course of developing this concrete, several problems arose. The first was finding the right bacteria to use. Eventually Jonkers selected Bacillus because of its ability to survive in the high alkaline cement mix. Before being mixed into the concrete, the bacteria spores are placed in pods to prevent early activation, where they can survive for up to 200 years. These pods are made of a clay material that is weaker than the original concrete—that’s the second problem. To solve it, Jonkers and his team at Delft are now trying to pinpoint the highest percentage of the healing agent that can be added to the concrete mix before the strength and integrity of the structure is compromised. At the same time, the percentage
cannot be too low, or there might not be any healing agent in any given area where a crack appears.

Self-healing concrete is not in use yet, but scientists are optimistic that it will be soon, as reported in Smithsonian magazine. Right now the pricing is too high for most construction jobs, about double the cost per cubic meter, due to the high cost of calcium lactate. Jonkers hopes to get the cost down as the demand for his concrete increases, and he expects the product to be available in the next few years. Until then, cracks will continue to widen, unnoticed, until someone decides to fix them.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Marketing Intern Morgan Harris. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

3D-printed buildings: Is the future already here?

“Soon, we will be able to construct an entire building … with a printer.”

That was the headline for our blog story posted back in March 2015. It is now August 2016 and “soon” has arrived. A company called WinSun, which was featured in our previous 3D printing blog post, recently took another bold step forward in the “3D printed building movement.” The company announced — through its partnership with the country of Dubai, which is aiming to be the world leader in 3D printing — that it has built the world’s first fully-functional 3D-printed office building, dubbed the “Office of the Future.”

At more than 2,600 square feet, a building of this size would typically take five to eight months to build using traditional construction means, methods and materials. However, C|NET Magazine reported that it took a mere 17 days to print the building components layer by layer using a cement mixture. The 3D printer used for printing the building components was a massive machine, the size of a warehouse that stood 20 feet high, 120 feet long and 40 feet wide. It also took only two days to assemble those building components, with just a fraction of the manpower that would be required to construct a similar building this size.  In all, “Office of the Future” cost only $140,000 to build, saving approximately 50 percent of the normal labor cost.

Saif Abdullah Al-Aleeli, CEO for the Dubai Future Foundation, which is the organization that occupies the new building and is charged with the creation of other futuristic structures for Dubai, believes that “20 years down the road entire cities will be 3D printed.” So what do you think? Is the future of 3D-printed buildings really here?  We’d be interested to hear your thoughts…comment below!

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Marketing Intern Simone McLaren. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

The future of work: Physical office, remote … or something else?


The following is the third and final post of our series on the office space of tomorrow. 

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 2.12.38 PM.pngAfter our past blog posts about expansive new office buildings built by innovative companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple, office furniture designs of tomorrow, and the future of cubicles, it might be time for us to step back and ask a question that might be on the minds of many commercial developers, architects and business leaders as they look toward the future — will the workers of tomorrow even need office space in the first place?

The jury is still out, but the most recent data gives us hints about where the future of office space might be heading. According to a January 2015 Gallup report called “State of the American Workplace,” almost 40 percent of full-time workers in the U.S. work remotely, and of these, approximately 15 percent are permanently out of the office, and those numbers continue to rise. And many of these workers are not necessarily working from home but are working in coffee shops, shared spaces and other outside-the-office locations, which shows that many people simply want a change of scenery outside the office. Another noteworthy Gallup study concluded that the most engaged employees in the workforce actually spend up to 20 percent of their time working remotely.

And The Muse reported that research conducted by Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford professor who studies workforce trends, confirmed that working remotely actually increases productivity, overall work hours, and employee satisfaction. Over a nine-month period, Bloom observed 250 employees at a Chinese company where half the employees worked from home and half worked in the office. The data from studies like these speak volumes. Bloom found that removing the time it takes to physically commute to work and the distractions of the in-office environment made a huge difference. People who worked from home completed 13.5 percent more calls than the office workers, performed 10 percent more work overall, left the company at half the rate of their colleagues who worked in the office, reported feeling more fulfilled at work, and actually saved the company $1,900 per employee.

With that many people working remotely, and working more productively, the need for more office square footage must be unrealistic, right? Karim Rashid is just one of many industrial designers who is raising that important question  — “We’re losing institutions, losing banks, colleges. Do we even need physical space anymore? What about the office context? Does it need to physically exist anymore or not?” Continue Reading ›