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.

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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

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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 ldavis@suffolk.com and Patrick can be reached at pkennedy@suffolk.com 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?

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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 ›

MIT celebrates 100 years of innovation in Cambridge

Recently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology celebrated the 100th anniversary of its move from the original MIT campus in Copley Square in Boston across the Charles River to Cambridge. The elaborate day-long ceremony was complete with fireworks, music, artistic performances, mobile art sculptures, robots and a quirky procession (over land and water) that pitted 30 teams against each other to see who could come up with the best parade contraption based on creativity, speed and MIT spirit.

But the eccentric party was about paying tribute to MIT’s spirit of innovation and invention as much as it was about recognizing its campus move across the Charles River back in 1916. But most importantly, the celebration was also an opportunity for school officials, alumni, students, inventors and citizens of the surrounding communities to recognize the incredible impact this prestigious institution has had on the region. And the world.

To acknowledge this historic milestone for MIT, in this post we celebrate one of the most groundbreaking inventions in construction, which was first conceived and tested on MIT’s Cambridge campus — reinforced concrete.

A stronger idea

Arguably, MIT’s most enduring construction invention was its development of reinforced concrete, which is concrete embedded with wire mesh andiStock_000017471545_Medium
steel bars to dramatically increase its strength. In fact, reinforced concrete was first tested and implemented on the MIT Cambridge campus during the construction of some of its earliest buildings, which means the campus itself was an active and operational incubator for ingenuity and ideation.

Before MIT inventors conceived this brilliant idea, buildings relied on masonry-bearing arches with steel infill that couldn’t hold much weight, relegating buildings to only five stories in height.

“Reinforced concrete changed all that,” said Gary Tondorf-Dick, program manager for Facilities’ Campus Planning, Engineering and Construction Group. “MIT architects and engineers were basically leading the design of this new type of concrete. It was perfected in the implementation of these buildings. It evolved in the 1920s and 1930s and was architecturally reinforced in the 1950s and 1960s. It was all designed here.”

This one invention helped open the door to the high rises and skyscrapers we see in cities throughout the world today. And the reality is that reinforced concrete hasn’t evolved or been improved much since the original concept was unveiled, which is yet another tribute to the thoughtful and innovative solutions that have been shared by the MIT community.

“MIT is about innovation and it’s a campus built for innovations,” said Tondorf-Dick. “There’s a whole series of MIT innovations that involve construction and the evolution, design and engineering of future construction materials that will change the industry.”

Look for more construction innovations coming out of MIT, including green incandescent light bulbs that conserve energy through “light recycling” and vacuum insulated glass that provides the thermal performance of modern double-glazed windows with the same thickness as a single pane of traditional glass. Stay tuned, and congratulations MIT!

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications Dan Antonellis, who can be reached at dantonellis@suffolk.com. Connect with him on LinkedIn here and follow him on Twitter at @DanAntonellis.

Ending the slump: Office furniture redefining employee-workstation relationship

The following is the second post in our series on the office space of tomorrow. 

Screen Shot 2016-04-22 at 1.21.40 PMSince the 19th century, factory machinery and office desks have been static, immovable objects that forced human workers to adapt to them. That means for centuries, workers have stood at machines, sat and slouched at work stations, and toiled in offices that were hardly conducive to normal human behavior and posture. The office space of the future promises to turn this traditional ideal of office furniture on its head, which will surely impact the ways that office space will be designed and used for generations to come.

While office floor plans and creative perks are still considered critical factors for adapting to the workforce of the future, some organizations are focusing on incorporating futuristic office furniture and flexible office partitions to create a work environment that promotes privacy and a more inviting and transparent approach that improves productivity.

One company on the forefront of this movement is Steelcase, the largest office-furniture manufacturer, and arguably the most innovative, in the world. Steelcase is creating new ways for employees to work individually and as teams. From stand-up desks and soundproof enclaves to drop-in-and-out video conferencing suites to strangely shaped office chairs, Steelcase’s primary goal is to develop the smartest, most informed take on trends in the contemporary workspace and then build products around those insights.

At Steelcase, teams conduct interviews with employees but also use sensors to track employee movements (i.e. in-chair squirming and general mobility), and then Steelcase designers create furniture prototypes onsite based on those experiments. Steelcase is committed to designing work furniture that encourages people to work, and feel, like humans again.

Steelcase launched its Brody WorkLounge system just last year based on a wealth of data focused on human work habits. By studying data from examining how students spend time in libraries, Steelcase developed the ultimate work-friendly lounge chair for the office. When sitting in the ergonomic cocoon, the worker’s body is positioned in an “alert recline” with the upper and lower back supported. And angled work surface holds your laptop at eye level while an arm support relieves pressure on the shoulders. Continue Reading ›