Throwback Thursday: Rebuilding Old Ironsides

Imagine a ship is docked at your local port, and it towers over nearly every building in town. That was the awesome sight of the U.S.S. Constitution in the 1790s, as it was under construction off Boston’s North End. Only the steeple of the Old North Church competed with the frigate’s 210-foot-high mainmast. Even without the mast, the ship was twice as tall as most houses in the Hub then.

We bring this up not only because the Tall Ships just visited the Northeast, but also because if you think about it, shipbuilding is a sister industry to our own land-based form of construction. Like a city high-rise, a ship is a unique, standalone structure (with its own name) that can take years to design and build. This feat was all the more impressive in the age of sail, when the endeavor relied on human brain and brawn alone.

And yet, in the case of the Constitution—the last ship standing of the U.S. Navy’s original six, and the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat—what might be more impressive is the dedication to re-building. Since she first put to sea in 1797 to protect Yankee merchant voyages, every American generation has produced engineers, architects, carpenters, and other builders who pitched in to patch up a national treasure. That holds true today, as the current crop of restorers apply high-tech tools to the preservation of “Old Ironsides.”

To see for ourselves, we descended into the dry dock.

The eagle of the sea

Undefeated in the War of 1812, Constitution was already a legend when she entered the brand-new, Quincy-granite dry dock in Charlestown, Massachusetts, on June 24, 1833. (That’s 184 years from this Saturday.)

That’s where and when the story of Constitution’s repeated extensive overhauls begins in earnest. At minimum, the frigate needed new planking, masts, rigging, decking, stem, head, and quarter galleries. After an erroneous report got out that the Navy planned to scuttle her, a young Oliver Wendell Holmes published an ode to “the eagle of the sea,” which rallied Americans to her defense and assured her survival. The Navy decided Old Ironsides would be the first ship to get a new treatment.

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USS Constitution Section in Dry Dock No 1 (Rendering courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston)

After six years of construction, the Charlestown Navy Yard’s Dry Dock One opened a week after its twin in Norfolk, Virginia. Both designed by Bostonian Loammi Baldwin, Jr., they were the first large-scale dry docks in the States. Now the Navy could repair its fleet without resorting to the arduous process of “careening” a ship—that meant grounding it on a mud flat and tipping it over, first on one side then the other.

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Dry Dock One’s 1940s expansion. (Photo courtesy of Charlestown Navy Yard Boston National Historical Park)

The dry dock was considered a marvel of engineering even decades later, and it was still used to service vessels during WWII. Although the dock had to be lengthened twice—from 341 feet to, eventually, 415—its width has remained the same, 86 feet at its widest point. “The interior of this dry dock was so well designed in the late 1820s,” said Margherita Desy, the official historian of the Navy’s Boston detachment, “that with the right shoring, you can put a flat-sided vessel in here, you can put a submarine in here—you can put vessels in this dock that could not have been conceived of by Loammi Baldwin 184 years ago.”

The coolest thing about the dry dock is how it works. Start by thinking of it as an artificial inlet. After a ship is towed in, another vessel called a caisson is towed to the entrance. (It’s not unlike other kinds of caissons you may have read about, here and here.) The caisson is filled with water and sunk into place. While the ballast water at the bottom of the caisson weighs it down, the pressure of the harbor beyond holds it at the dock’s seaward end, creating a watertight door.

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Your fearless blogger drops in to the dry dock. (Photo by Patrick Kennedy)

Then the dock is drained—slowly, so as to ease the ship onto its keel blocks. When repairs are finished, the dock is flooded again, the caisson is emptied and floated out of the way, and the ship is towed back out into the harbor.

The operation requires a complex system of reservoir, tunnels, culverts, valves, and gates. In the 1830s, a steam engine powered eight pumps that could empty the basin in four to five hours. The caisson itself took 24 men working hand pumps 90 minutes to drain.

That old wood caisson is long gone, and even its 1901 steel replacement was replaced in 2015. And today’s pumps are diesel-powered. But though the dock’s technology has changed over 184 years, its basic principles remain the same. “It’s like with any tools,” Desy said. “We still use planes and saws; it’s just that we plug them in.”

Check out the time-lapse video of Constitution entering the dry dock in 2015:

Plugging in

Just as the pumps have been updated, the means and methods of restoring the ship itself have kept pace with the times. For Constitution’s current round of renovation, a naval architect used computer-assisted drawing (CAD) software to redraw plans for the work, make precise measurements, and document the project.

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This CAD drawing shows the spar and rigging plan for Constitution as she will be rigged at the end of the 2015-2017 restoration. (Photo courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston)

The 3D virtual model is a far cry from the quill pen that Joshua Humphreys used to design the Navy’s first six frigates in the 1790s. (A frigate, by the way, is a war vessel with at least three masts and one covered gun deck. It’s also a fun thing to say aloud, especially when you’ve given up on something.)

And whereas 18th-century loggers seemed to have their pick of trees from an infinite supply—the thick wild woods that covered most of the East Coast—modern timber concerns know to practice sustainable forestry. Indeed, there’s a grove in Indiana devoted solely to timber for the Constitution. To procure the white oak timber for the ship’s hull planking, the Navy set aside 150 white oak trees in the forest around a naval facility in Crane, Indiana. “Constitution Grove” was dedicated in 1976.

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White oak delivery in Charlestown. (Photo courtesy of the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston/Margherita M. Desy)

“It’s a managed forest,” said Desy. “As the trees grow, their lower branches are trimmed and each tree is allowed a lot of sunlight. Because, to qualify as trees for Constitution, they have to be at least 45 feet in length from base to crown, and at least 40 inches in diameter at the base.” In 2015, the best of the trees were felled, and eventually 350,000 pounds of white oak were delivered to Charlestown.

Here we should point out that “Old Ironsides” is just a nickname, earned when cannon balls bounced off her hardwood hull. It was the sturdy white oak (from Georgia), not iron, that repelled the attacks. However, below the water line, the frigate’s hull has always been sheathed in copper, to keep out rot-causing shipworm. In fact, master metalworker Paul Revere imported an innovation from England (by way of a little industrial espionage) when he opened our nation’s first copper rolling mill to provide the Constitution’s second copper coating, in 1803.

Another innovative tool used in today’s restoration work is the Gemini Universal Carving Duplicator in the Charlestown Navy Yard’s restoration workshop. The decorative carvings along the ship’s bow—like much of the ship—have been replaced time and again. The most recent set (based on earlier drawings and models) dated to 1930. To produce a new set, carpenter Josh Ratty used the Gemini duplicator to trace the 1930 carvings with a dud stylus hooked up to a router that mimics its motion, making the real cuts in fresh planks.

“It’s like a manual 3D printer,” said U.S.S. Constitution Museum spokesman David Wedemeyer. Check out Ratty and the duplicator in action:

The Constitution wraps up its current phase of renovation next month. Still seaworthy, still officially in service, still tough, in theory she could sail into battle as soon as she leaves dry dock. But perhaps it’s best that she stay at the Charlestown Navy Yard, where generations of Americans can continue to enjoy visiting her and hearing her stories.

Special thanks to the U.S.S. Constitution Museum and the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston. There’s plenty more info about the restoration work on the detachment’s blog. And consider a visit to the Charlestown Navy Yard this summer. (Note to our readers in California: you get your own dose of tall ships in September! See http://www.ocean-institute.org/tall-ships-festival.)

P.S. Safety being a prime focus here at Suffolk, we especially appreciated the following PSAs posted at the Charlestown Navy Yard…

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This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart. 

We have the technology … why not wear it?

As the wearable technology market continues to grow, we round up a few of the newest and most innovative articles of attire intended to boost safety and productivity in construction.

Lending a bionic hand

Ekso Bionics’ Zero-Gravity Arm aims to make operating heavy hand-held machinery easier and safer. The company gained its rep producing exoskeletons—wearable robotic aids for soldiers and the partially paralyzed—and is now branching out into bionics for the construction trades.

Ekso’s new Zero G arm renders power tools (up to 36 pounds) virtually weightless. Though exoskeleton technology takes some getting used to, noted a Wired reviewer, the effect is to enhance the user’s strength, mobility, and endurance. The system works on the same principle as the Steadicams used in Hollywood, swiveling about on springs and counterweights. The bionic arm also absorbs the powerful feedback produced by power tools, reducing strain on the worker.

When put to the test (see video below), a worker using the zeroG arm completed a jobsite task not only faster, but with more accuracy and much less fatigue. Meanwhile, a worker using the traditional method tired sooner, and took far longer to complete the task:

(For a less polished but more comprehensive video exploration of the Zero G Arm, check out Marko Kaar’s review.)

Tactical textiles

In Britain, more than 10,000 insurance claims have been made for vibration white finger and carpal tunnel syndrome over the past decade, according to the British Health and Safety Executive. That’s a cost of £20 million to £250 million (or roughly $25 million to $322 million). And these conditions result from continuous operation of vibrating hand-held machinery.

Seeking to combat these permanent industrial diseases, a new wearable technology being developed at Nottingham Trent University in the UK warns construction workers when a hand injury is imminent. The e-gloves, not much bulkier than average heavy-duty work gloves, are embedded with tiny sensors that warn workers when they’re exposed to dangerous levels of vibration.

Only 2 millimeters long, the sensors are imbedded into a yarn textile and knitted into the gloves. The seemingly simple technology performs an impressive safety duty. When triggered by dangerous levels of vibration, these tiny sensors warn wearers to stop work.

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A prototype of the e-glove. (Photo courtesy of Nottingham Trent University)

Vested interest

Redpoint Positioning has developed an innovative safety vest that protects workers and has the potential to improve incident reporting, drive efficiency, and cut costs.

Embedded with Redpoint’s indoor GPS tracking system, this high-tech personal protective equipment (PPE) gives full visibility to jobsite operations. When a worker enters a designated “danger zone” on the jobsite, it triggers the vest’s flashing red lights and audio feedback, while managers receive customized digital data on the worker’s location. The data is tracked and logged to help manage on-site safety practices.

Redpoint calls the technology a “wireless safety net,” lending an integrated approach to PPE. Of course, some workers might chafe at the thought of being tracked, and it is important not to abuse the technology, said Gary Cunningham, recently retired as Suffolk’s national safety director. “It has to be a partnership,” Cunningham said, with the shared goal of reducing injuries.

But “if you’re afraid of a tracking device,” said Suffolk Senior Safety Manager Joe Villela, “throw away your cell phone!” At 1700 Webster in Oakland, Villela gave workers radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to wear. “The whole point is safety,” he said. “In case of a catastrophic event, such as an earthquake—which on the West Coast we know is not a matter of if but when—we can make sure everyone is out of the building.”

The RFID tags, from Trimble, were effective, though they weren’t as flashy (literally) as the Redpoint vests:

A step forward for construction footwear

SolePower founder Hahna Alexander was recognized by Toyota’s “Mothers of Invention” female entrepreneurs’ series. Her innovation: generating electricity through footsteps. Alexander found a way to harvest kinetic energy from the human motion of a heel hitting the ground. The energy then transfers into a mechanical system, which, in turn, uses it to spin a micro-generator. In simple terms, human energy fuels kinetic chargers, providing a better, lighter power source.

This power source, when placed inside the back of a work boot, wirelessly gathers data and measures worker safety, efficiency, and productivity. The SmartBoot technology promises to keep workers safe, fit, and productive, and could be valuable on a worksite in lowering accident rates, tracking hours and monitoring workers’ locations in the event of an emergency. In turn, these incredible Smartboots could save money, lives and time, and improve incident reporting accuracy on the jobsite.

This post was written by Suffolk’s Insurance Coordinator Lindsay Davis. Content Writer Patrick Kennedy contributed additional reporting. If you have questions, Lindsay can be reached at ldavis@suffolk.com and Patrick can be reached at pkennedy@suffolk.com, or you can connect with him on LinkedIn here or Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

Throwback Thursday: Water Under the Bridge, Danger Under the Water

This blog post was written by Dan Antonellis in honor of Brooklyn Bridge Opening Day, which was Wednesday! After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic on May 24, 1883, connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn for the first time in history. Dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world,” the bridge changed New York City forever.

Fill a bathtub with water and find a drinking glass. Flip the glass upside down and push it to the bottom of the tub. The water from the tub won’t get inside the glass because of the air trapped inside. It’s about air pressure, physics and other science-related topics I won’t even attempt to explain in this post.

Now stay with me. Picture tiny people standing inside that glass on the bottom of the tub, chipping away at the porcelain with miniature picks and shovels. The air in that glass will eventually run out, so you’ll need a tube poking out of the top of the glass and up and out of the water so that good air can come in and bad air can get out. After all, these tiny people need to breathe as they continue picking away and digging at the bottom of your tub.

Holding a glass upside down at the bottom of the bathtub is the basic premise behind one of the most intriguing and dangerous feats in U.S. engineering and construction history — the building of the underwater foundations that would lie at the bottom of New York’s East River and support the massive towers of the historic Brooklyn Bridge.

The Great Bridge

The vision for “The Great Bridge” (later named the Brooklyn Bridge) was simple enough — to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn and open travel and trade between the two independent cities. (Brooklyn was its own city until it was annexed by New York City in 1898.) The bridge would eventually span 1,600 feet across the river, connecting two masses of land that had been separated by water for millions of years.

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An early plan for the Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

The Brooklyn Bridge was designed like most suspension bridges. While they differ aesthetically and hold distinct places in history, they all share certain visual and engineering characteristics in common. Cables that stretch from bridge towers to the highways like giant spider webs. Roads seemingly suspended in air — many of which can span from 2,000 to 7,000 feet long. And of course, the massive towers that stand tall and strong, anchoring the bridge components to the earth and literally holding it all together. Those towers need to be firmly grounded and dug into bedrock, like any other tall structure.

Back in 1869, long before the days of pounding piles into the ground using sophisticated equipment and heavy machinery, there were men, picks and shovels. And plenty of danger to go around. Continue Reading ›

Stop the sway, a simpler way

Streamlining the counterweight systems that limit a building’s wobbles

Take note, high-rise builders and daring designers. You know those giant counterweights, called tuned mass dampers, that keep spindly skyscrapers and bridges from swaying in the wind? Well, now there’s a pint-sized portable tuned mass damper.

Wait a second. How does a regular tuned mass damper even work? A little background: especially at great heights, a structure can be strong without being stiff, and when it lacks stiffness relative to the forces acting on it—wind, footfalls—it can swing perceptibly. The building won’t topple, but the movement can cause occupants alarm, discomfort, even nausea. A notorious example, Boston’s John Hancock Tower, swayed as much as three feet off its base before dampers were added.

Increasingly common in Manhattan, the typical tuned mass damper (TMD) is essentially an enormous counterweight on springs or a pendulum, built into the top portion of a tower. When high winds push on the building, the weight swings in the opposite direction, staying the tower’s shift. But in order to make it work, engineers have to “tune” the damper to match the building’s natural frequency, ensuring that the weight swings just enough to counteract the wind. (Frequency being the speed of a vibration.) Practical Engineering explains it all with a fun video here.

The drawbacks are size and cost. For example, the 728-ton steel ball that stabilizes the 1,667-foot-tall Tapei 101 tower in Taiwan cost $4 million—and it takes up six stories of prime real estate.

A lighter package

By contrast, a portable tuned mass damper, under development at Virginia Tech, weighs about 275 pounds. And a building owner with no technical training can adjust the damper’s settings with a five-dollar iPhone app.

Of course, the damper itself will cost more than $5, but it will be affordable, says its inventor, Mehdi Setareh, an architecture professor and the head of the Vibration Testing Lab at Virginia Tech. “What I’m trying to do is reduce the cost so it can become more common,” Setareh told us. “It’s like what Henry Ford did with cars.”article-image.img.490.high

Setareh’s invention is best suited to those modern buildings constructed of lightweight materials and given swooping, eye-catching shapes with computer-aided design. Setareh is himself an award-winning structural engineer who helped design the dramatically cantilevered headquarters of MFP Automation Engineering (right).

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Such bold designs have become more common—and along with them, so have complaints about noticeable vibrations, according to Setareh. His lab has studied and helped modify structures such as a theater balcony in Detroit and the monumental stair in the Zaha Hadid–designed Broad Art Museum in East Lansing, Michigan (left). “The floors are designed for strength,” Setareh hastened to point out. “When people walk on the floor, it holds the load, no problem.” But a slight bounce gives users the unwelcome impression of shakiness. “It can be scary, or at best annoying.”

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A prototype portable tuned mass damper. (Photo Courtesy of Virginia Tech)

Rather than sacrifice aesthetics or boost costs by building with heavier beams, said Setareh, architects (or, after the fact, building managers) can apply a simple fix. Acting like a shock absorber, the portable tuned mass damper (PTMD) consists of a weight on springs, tuned to have a natural frequency close to that of the floor. When the floor is rattled by foot traffic, the springs are activated and the movement of the weight pushes back against the movement of the floor, neutralizing it. “When the floor goes down, the damper mass goes up,” Setareh said, “and when the floor goes up, the mass goes down.”

The device sits two feet high and weighs a fraction of the floor, but it compensates by moving ten to twenty times faster than the floor vibrates. “So even though the mass of the [PTMD] is, say, 200 pounds, it’s like 4,000 pounds of force moving against the floor,” Setareh said. “That’s how it reduces the vibration substantially,” up to 60 percent in the Virginia Tech lab’s testing facility (see below).

A result of rocketry

That’s a fine solution for a variety of unique buildings—hospitals, theaters, corporate headquarters. But what about a straightforward residential high-rise? It’s hard to imagine a small, convenient version of the titanic TMD at Tapei 101.

And yet, a team at NASA has developed a damper the size of a coffee can (though it sits in a long pipe filled with water) that can stop a tall building’s shakes in a heartbeat. Spun off from rocket technology, a variation of this “disruptive tuned mass” has been installed on the new 32-story 461 Dean in Brooklyn, the world’s tallest modular building. It turns liquid into a secondary mass that absorbs and dissipates the energy of a building’s vibrations.

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461 Dean, the world’s tallest modular building.

Engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti licensed the technology and adapted it to 461 Dean (right), which is built of lightweight steel modules. Thornton Tomasetti’s rooftop system, which they call a fluid harmonic absorber, consists of four U-shaped PVC pipes, each 50 feet long and three feet in diameter. Air springs are fitted to the outside of the pipes and tuned to a certain “sloshing frequency,” explained Michael Wesolowsky, a Thornton Tomasetti engineer. The tubes are pressurized so that during a wind or seismic event, air pushes on the water, and then vice versa.

“The liquid is tuned to slosh back and forth at exactly the same frequency as the building’s movement, but out of phase,” said Wesolowky, “pulling the building back in the opposite direction,” thereby keeping it steady.

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Installation of fluid harmonic absorbers on 461 Dean’s rooftop. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

“It’s like the air spring in your car,” added Elisabeth Malsch, another Thornton Tomasetti engineer, “if you have a newer, fancier car.”

Already, the system has performed well on high-wind days, Malsch said. And it has advantages over the gargantuan conventional TMDs. The absorber at 461 Dean (the first of its kind in a commercial application) is “cheaper, lighter,” said Malsch. “It required very little reinforcement” to the building below. It’s also easier to tune, not to mention maintain. After all, “we know how to patch leaks in pipes,” Malsch said.

Like the PTMD out of Virginia Tech, the fluid harmonic absorber can be installed after initial construction is complete, if a structure turns out to behave differently than predicted in high winds. The Smithsonian speculated that historic landmarks built before earthquake codes might be retrofitted with the NASA-bred system, another benefit of which is its fast-acting nature. (Skyscrapers can still sustain damage during the few seconds it takes for a quake to activate a conventional, pendulum-style damper.)

Malsch can attest that older buildings are good candidates for the addition of such a cutting-edge streamlined damping system. Her office is in Manhattan’s 40 Wall Street, at 71 stories the world’s tallest tower when it was completed in 1930 (before being surpassed by the Chrysler Building a few months later). On windy days, the structure’s age is apparent—or audible.

“Every six seconds,” said Malsch, “you can hear it creak.”

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

A park or farm in the last place you’d look

Inventive designs cram bounties of vegetation into unexpected spaces

In dense and growing cities, plant life is at a premium. Urban planners know the benefits of a bit of botany. As San Francisco-based advocacy group Canopy explains, trees suck up carbon dioxide while they pump out oxygen, making our air cleaner. Trees’ leafy cover provide shade, while their roots mitigate flooding. Grassy parks visually break up our concrete streetscape with green space, and they promote community interaction and physical activity. All of this makes city living healthier than it would be otherwise.

But designers have to be pretty creative to pursue these goals in the midst of a development boom. That’s why around the world, architects are finding innovative ways to carve out some elbow room for greenery in the built environment.

green2Pictured above and at right, the Botanic Center in Brussels represents one such solution. The architect, Vincent Callebaut, has proposed dramatically sprucing up a 1977 concrete apartment block with the addition of 274 planter beds to the façade and a striking “Chrysalis” on the roof—a steel-and-glass observation pod filled with a variety of plants and topped with wind turbines and a solar panel array.

From Tapei to New York City, from structures that reach the sky to tunnels that run beneath our feet, here are a few other designs that feature flora in unlikely quarters.


Agora Garden

Another Callebaut creation, this twisting tower in Tapei topped out last November and is slated for completion next September. (Inhabitat has a very cool slideshow of Agora Garden under construction.) As you can see from the above rendering, every one of its 22 stories will be packed with tree- and shrub-laden balconies. And these aren’t simply aesthetic amenities. Callebaut intends for residents to have sufficient outdoor space to grow their own produce. He estimates the plants will absorb 130 tons of carbon dioxide a year. On top of that, the building will incorporate solar energy, rainwater recycling, composting and other measures to further limit its impact on the environment.

Low Line

The Lowline

You may have heard of New York’s High Line, a park running along a disused section of elevated rail tracks. The Lowline takes that idea underground. An abandoned trolley subway tunnel beneath the streets of the Lower East Side will serve as the site for the world’s first underground park. How will the park’s plants flourish? Solar irrigation. A network of mirrors brings sunlight through pipes down into the tunnel, where the sun, normally, wouldn’t shine. The development team built a proof-of-concept Lowline Lab that proved a popular attraction over the past year or so. That bodes well for the full Lowline, projected for completion in 2021.

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Pier 55

British starchitect Thomas Heatherwick designed this 2.4-acre park to be sited atop an artificial island in New York’s Hudson River. Alternately called Diller Island after its developer, Barry Diller, Pier 55 is slated for completion in 2019. A distinctive element of the island is its support system. Heatherwick designed it to lie upon hundreds of concrete columns rising out of the water to varying heights, for a rolling landscape effect, up to 62 feet. While traditional steel piles have already been driven into the bedrock in the center of the site, the mushroom-shaped columns about the perimeter will be hollow precast concrete piers, to be filled with concrete on site.

Although the Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the design, the project recently stalled in federal court. However, it has weathered several court challenges so far, and it has the support of the mayor, the governor, and neighborhood groups. In any case, the design suggests the possibilities opened up by building on water—a long tradition in coastal cities. (Stay tuned to this blog for more on artificial island construction.)

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Mashambas

Skyscrapers are typically found in cities. But the winners of the eVolo Magazine 2017 Skyscraper Competition, Polish architects Pawel Lipiński and Mateusz Frankowski, instead direct our attention to rural, sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 40 percent of people live in absolute poverty. (The United Nations defines absolute poverty as a condition in which people suffer from not only low income but also a lack of access to food, safe drinking water, shelter, and other resources.) To attack this problem, Lipiński and Frankowski imagine a farming and educational center in a temporary, modular high-rise that can be assembled, disassembled, and transported from one site in need to another.

The Polish team’s prize-winning concept, Mashambas (from a Swahili word meaning farmland) would feature a permanent farmer’s market on the ground floor, with elevated “fields” for farming on the floors above. The structure would also contain warehouses—for fertilizer, seeds, drones, and equipment—and classrooms. In the architects’ vision, staff would use those classrooms, as well as the farming modules, to train local subsistence farmers in modern agricultural practices. The farmers would then move on to growing crops in their own fields nearby. Eventually, the community would become self-sufficient, and the Mashambas tower could be dismantled and shipped to the next village, leaving behind the anchoring farmer’s market and one-story warehouses.

To be sure, a vertical farm might work at least as well in a cramped urban environment, but by siting their winning eVolo design in a developing rural region, Lipiński and Frankowski are raising awareness of the struggle farmers there face.

Mashambas interior

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy, with additional research by Suffolk Intern Simone McLaren. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

The Space Needle, the Jetsons, and what today’s futurists see for tomorrow

It looks like a flying saucer, perched atop spindly, upward-swooping legs. It’s as if a UFO and its exhaust trail were frozen mid-takeoff. Like something out of a sci-fi movie. And that’s the point.

In case you missed it, the Seattle Space Needle recently turned 55—old enough to get the senior discount at Old Country Buffet. Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Space Needle was built for a World’s Fair; attracted its share of criticism; and is now a landmark that defines its city’s skyline. And while this Space Age artifact may seem a tad dated now, its influence has rippled across the decades and perhaps—if a company called Arconic fulfills its vision—will continue to alter skylines in 2062.

Speedy in Seattle

The Space Needle was conceived as the centerpiece of Seattle’s Century 21 World’s Fair, a showcase of tomorrow’s technology. It was vintage midcentury: can-do optimism, tinged with Cold War urgency. The Soviet Union had shocked Americans when it sent the first satellite into orbit in 1957, kicking off the international space race. But in the JFK era, with federal dollars flowing to scientific research, and finned automobiles speeding down superhighways, anything seemed possible.

Rising 605 feet high—then the tallest structure west of the Mississippi—the Needle was built in just 400 days, at a cost of $4.5 million. The foundation, which was 30 feet deep and 120 feet across, took 467 cement trucks about twelve hours to fill. It was the longest continuous concrete pour attempted in the West at that time.

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Work on the Space Needle’s immense foundation. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry)

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The Needle’s top house under construction. (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Including 250 tons of rebar, the foundation weighs 5,850 tons; the Needle structure itself weighs 3,700 tons. This means its center of gravity is just five feet above the earth’s surface. The Needle is fastened to the foundation with 72 thirty-foot bolts.

Not only can the Needle survive earthquakes (e.g., one in 2001 that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale), but it was designed to withstand winds of up to 200 miles per hour—double the code requirements in 1962.

But what struck most was the daring design of the tower and its bulbous top house. The spacecraft look was deliberate. Initially, the building was painted with colors “Astronaut White,” “Orbital Olive,” “Re-entry Red,” and “Galaxy Gold.” As the building seemed to reach for the stars, it signaled a nation’s upward progress.

Construction was completed in December 1961. The Needle’s signature rotating restaurant held an opening gala on March 24, 1962. The Century 21 World’s Fair officially opened on April 21.

Seattle_Space_Needle_CropUnlike other architectural relics of the period—e.g., unloved Brutalist exemplars such as Boston’s City Hall and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California—the Space Needle appears on T-shirts and postcards, earned official Seattle landmark status at age 37 (in 1999), and remains one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. While many Sixties buildings raised eyebrows, the Needle prompts smiles as well. It may be that, along with its aspirational spirit, the tower’s very cartoonishness is what makes it so endearing—and enduring.

The Jetsons connection

That drawn quality quickly translated into actual cartoon form when The Jetsons debuted on TV in September 1962. The series imagined a family in 2062. The Jetsons and their contemporaries drove flying cars, employed robot maids—and lived in high-rises that looked a lot like the Space Needle. In case you were deprived of re-runs as a child, here’s the program’s opening:

The resemblance of the Jetsons’ home to the Space Needle was no accident, animator Iwao Takamoto told the New York Times in 2005. The “skypad” on stilts took direct inspiration from the Seattle tower.

Art imitates life, and vice versa. A new engineering company called Arconic—spun off the aluminum giant Alcoa—has taken inspiration from The Jetsons to reimagine the world of 2062. Arconic’s updated Jetsons drive flying cars and live in skypads that make use of technologies currently in development or, in some cases, available already. The company hired filmmaker Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond) to illustrate their vision with this video:

Arconic’s futurists predict that three-mile-high skyscrapers will be built using 3D printing. The technology will allow for more organic, nature-inspired shapes. “I think you will see less of the square, boxy shape of current skyscrapers,” Arconic’s Don Larsen says in another promo video.

Arconic skyscraper

Furthermore, Arconic hopes those skyscrapers will employ their products such as Bloomframe. This is a motorized window that transforms into a balcony in less than 60 seconds.

hofmandujardinwelcomebloomframe03tileMoreover, those windows would clean themselves—and the environment—if coated with EcoClean, an Arconic product already on the market. This titanium dioxide coating absorbs light and water vapor, activating free radicals (the atom-sized variety), which suck up and eliminate dirt as well as pollutants in the air around a building.

Will Arconic’s vision come to pass by 2062? Nobody can answer that. But the company is making a big bet on it, investing millions in advanced materials and technologies. At a time when much of the talk nationally is about fear of the future and a return to the past, Arconic’s embrace of a bright tomorrow is refreshing. So it’s no surprise we can trace the roots of this campaign to the audacious tower that rose over Seattle to celebrate and imagine the 21st century, back in 1962.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

Our preference for detail? It’s by design

The case for basing buildings on biometrics

A developer caused a minor uproar late last month when he criticized the Boston Seaport’s “uninspiring architecture.” Of course, it’s common for ordinary citizens across the country to air complaints about plain, boxy towers—for example, Curbed readers rated their choices for the ugliest buildings in San Francisco and New York. But in the February incident, an audience of architects found it jarring to hear an industry insider speak ill of their work.

Yet nobody seemed to notice back in November when architect Ann Sussman made even stronger comments about the corridors of glass boxes built lately in the Seaport, which is sometimes called the Innovation District. People just don’t like sheer walls, Sussman said in a talk at last fall’s ABX conference. “That’s one reason why the Innovation District fails. Too many blank facades.” The district’s streetscape even poses a “health issue,” she said. “Our cortisol level goes up” in such bland environments.

Maybe builders and designers should start paying attention to this argument. Sussman wasn’t merely expressing an opinion. A growing body of research suggests that humans are hard-wired to prefer lush details over clean lines, thanks to millennia of evolution in the wild. And Sussman says there’s nothing architects can do about that preference, except design to it.

Mind over matter

When she lived in Paris for a time, amidst the Mansard roofs and street-level cafés, Sussman noticed that her fellow visiting Americans walked everywhere. Back in the States, the same people would rather drive everywhere. She began to wonder: Why is that, really?

Sussmann sought real data on why people seem to prefer some kinds of buildings over others. Last year, relying on biometric-measuring software, Sussmann and co-researcher Justin Hollander analyzed eye movements and unconscious response to a variety of images. Their findings were eye-opening.

In one test, two sets of volunteers were shown two different photos of the Stapleton Library in Staten Island, New York—one with the windows Photoshopped out, and one unretouched. See the images side by side below. The dots indicate what parts of the building one subject looked at in each. (The human eye can make four to five rapid movements between fixation points per second.) Notice that the de-windowed walls got hardly a glance.

Stapleton Library

The researchers found the same preference in test after test. Subjects barely registered the blank or sheer walls of a library in Queens and a museum in Brooklyn, focusing instead on billboards, cars, and pedestrians.

This raises two immediate questions: First, how the heck does the eye-tracking software work? And why do people unconsciously avert their gaze from plain facades?

Programs that measure people’s reactions to images have been around for years, Sussman pointed out in her ABX talk and in a later e-mail exchange. At multi-billion-dollar companies, the designers of packaging and automobiles use the insights they gain from biometric testing to determine a look that will have mass appeal.

Fortunately, the cost of such software has come down recently, to the point where curious architects can get in on this research. For her study, Sussman used a program called iMotions to measure eye movement as well as facial recognition—e.g., picking up on our barely perceptible lip and forehead movements that indicate joy, fear, or surprise. (Other features of iMotions include tools to measure heartbeat and electromagnetic activity in the brain.)

As a test subject looks at an image on a computer, an infrared light shines on her eye. A high-resolution camera records the eye’s rapid movements, capturing the flashes of infrared as the light bounces off the eye. If the eye is looking up and to the left, a burst of red will appear on the lower right part of the eye. (At least, that’s the broad-strokes explanation.) That data is linked to the photo being shown, and the software spits out a graphic representation. For example, the below video shows the gaze path of one subject viewing an image of the Villa Rotunda in Italy.

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