Construction of tomorrow inspired by insects?

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We think of termites as agents of destruction. Here in North America, the little buggers chew through untreated wood and give homeowners headaches. But in the Southern Hemisphere, colonies of termites—each less than a centimeter long—collaborate to build complex mud mounds rising up to 25 feet high.

The bugs do this without a blueprint or any supervision. There’s no tablet-toting termite foreman directing the workers. Nor is there specialization among workers. Each termite has the same, limited set of skills. As individuals, they’re expendable: If a human steps on some or an aardvark slurps up a bunch mid-task, the others take up the slack. But because there are a million of them to a colony, the insects—sharing a collective goal and a few instinctive rules—eventually get the job done. (It can take a year, or years, just like our own skyscrapers.)

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Harvard’s Kirstin Petersen and Justin Werfel flank a termite-built mud mound in Namibia. (Photo by Radhika Nagpal)

To a few Harvard scientists, these massive mound projects begged the question: Could the same principles be applied to robotic builders?

Justin Werfel, Radhika Nagpal, and Kirstin Petersen form a joint team from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Their ongoing research is so far most notable for the Termes experiment, in which small, simple robots worked independently to build proportionally large structures, without a human or even a smart computer coordinating their efforts—at least, not in the way we might think of it.

The experiment made waves after the journal Science published the results in February 2014. Since then, the Harvard researchers have been traveling to Namibia to learn more about the termites that inspired the project. Werfel, who has also authored a book chapter on the ecology of Fraggle Rock (remember the Doozers?), walked us through the Termes project.

Of whegs and stigmergy

The Termes system was realized both in computer simulations and in a physical lab setting. “In the simulations, you’ve got dozens of robots building enormous skyscrapers flawlessly,” said Werfel. In the latter—i.e., the hardware—came the true test. Built by Petersen, the three Termes robots measure about seven inches long and 4.3 inches wide. Each is equipped with infrared and ultrasound sensors, a clawed arm capable of lifting in the manner of a front-loader, and a kind of tail to aid in carrying cargo.

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Meet the Termes robots. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell)

The robots move about on “whegs”—combination wheel-legs, in a triskelion shape (like on the Manx flag). This is to help the robots climb up and over the blocks they’ve already laid. Though the Harvard team didn’t invent whegs, Werfel recalls learning about wheels with protruding sticks for enhanced mobility when, as a child, he saw the following TV commercial:

As with termite workers, no one Termes robot has a special skill or role. Each is capable of the same few simple tasks—walking and climbing, picking things up and putting them down.

The bots’ building materials are interlocking foam blocks, shaped somewhat like electric beer coasters—the kind that flash and hum when your table is ready at the steakhouse. The blocks fasten together magnetically, so the robots don’t have to be precise when stacking them. They’re also notched at the edges, aiding the robots in gaining a foothold as they climb up or walk across them.

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The Termes robots stack and climb up specially designed blocks. (Courtesy of the Harvard University Self-organizing Systems Research Group)

Werfel’s team fed the robots the design plan for a structure, such as a staircase or a pyramid—which are, not coincidentally, well suited to the robots’ climbing ability. The bots were also coded with a set of “traffic laws” to avoid crashes.

From there, the robots were on their own. To make the system work the way termite colonies do, Werfel said, “the robots need to be independent; they need to have knowledge that only they can sense themselves; they’re going to be building large-scale [structures]; they’re going to be climbing over things they build in order to get to higher places they couldn’t otherwise reach . . . and they’ll be coordinating through indirect communication.”

That indirect communication occurs “via the joint manipulation of a shared environment,” as Werfel wrote in the Science article. In other words, as the robots work in parallel, moving blocks around, they leave one another cues (and in turn pick up on cues) as to what should be done next. This form of communication by implicit coordination is called “stigmergy.”

In this decentralized approach, there’s no prescribed order in which the robots must stack the blocks, just a prescribed outcome. It’s up to the robots how they get the job done. (Not that they plan this in advance, since they’re simply behaving reactively—remember: stigmergy.)

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Images from the simulation side of the Termes project. (Courtesy of the Harvard University Self-organizing Systems Research Group.)

The advantage with such a system of several unsophisticated robots is that there’s no single failure point. If one of the robots falls on its back and can’t get up, the other two keep working and finish the job. That said, little failures in the hardware sometimes added up to an overall failure, as when a robot fell in a spot where the others couldn’t pass it. “And we didn’t have a tow truck,” said Werfel. “Well, we did; it was Kirstin. In a real system, you’d want a tow truck.”

Nevertheless, the robots ultimately succeeded in building a structure ten blocks tall. In Werfel’s terms, they proved that an emergent outcome can be engineered into a system of low-level independent agents. Check out the time-lapsed video, below, showing the Termes robots at work:

Out of the lab

So will giant Termes-style autonomous robots build high-rise hospitals or luxury condo towers in the middle of dense cities with no supervision? Not likely in our lifetimes. However, we might well see such robots in action during a flood, piling sandbags to build emergency levees. Or in another disaster scenario, Werfel suggested, the robots could enter an area struck by an earthquake to shore up a shaky building. “You don’t want to send in people because the building could actually collapse while you’re trying to reinforce it,” he said. After all, the robots are expendable, while people aren’t.

In the more distant future, Werfel envisions similar robots being used to build Martian homes or deep-sea research stations in advance of human explorers’ arrival, or in other situations when it could be considered highly impractical or prohibitively dangerous to employ us flesh-and-blood types.

Paradoxically, if such high-tech facilities can be erected without the loss of a single human life or limb, we’ll have the lowly termite to thank for the inspiration.

This post was a collaboration between Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy and former Suffolk Construction Marketing Intern Jen Howard. 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. You can also connect with Jen on LinkedIn here.

The wows, what-ifs, and “What is that?” of high-rise design

There’s still time to enter your jaw-dropping design in eVolo Magazine’s 2017 Skyscraper Competition. But you’d better draw fast if you want to make the early-bird deadline: it’s today, November 15. (The final deadline is January 24, 2017.)

The contest awards architects with the biggest and boldest imaginations, recognizing “outstanding ideas that redefine skyscraper design [using] novel technologies, materials, programs, aesthetics, and spatial organizations,” according to the entry guidelines. Check out some of last year’s winners below. Even if none of these structures ever end up being built, the renderings provoke thought about what a skyscraper could be, and perhaps some elements of these far-out designs will be incorporated into the tall towers of tomorrow.

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Photo courtesy of v2com

The Hive: Drone Skyscraper, by Hadeel Ayed Mohammad, Yifeng Zhao and Chengda Zhu. (Second place in 2016) The architects envision this vertical drone hangar as “an infrastructure project that can better meet the emerging demand for incorporating advanced drone technology into daily life in New York City.”

 

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Photo courtesy of v2com

Sustainable Skyscraper Enclosure, by Soomin Kim and Seo-Hyun Oh. (Honorable mention in 2016) The design repurposes an existing skyscraper, encasing it in a climate adjusted zone and installing an “energy purifying system” that captures solar energy and harvests rainwater.

 

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Photo courtesy of v2com

Air-Stalagmite, by Changsoo Park and Sizhe Chen. (Honorable mention in 2016) In this towering air purifier, “a gigantic vacuum placed at the bottom of the building sucks polluted air to be cleaned by a series of air filters located on the higher levels. The particles are then accumulated and used as building material to further construct the skyscraper.”

 

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Photo courtesy of v2com

The Valley of Giants, by Eric Randall Morris and Galo Canizares. (Honorable mention in 2016) In a barren area of Algeria, the architects propose “a series of towers that would (1) house plant-spores, (2) produce, collect, and treat water, and (3) pollinate the surrounding landscape, catalyzing the production of an oasis in the region.”

 

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Photo courtesy of v2com

Vertical Shanghai, by Yuta Sano and Eric Nakajima. (Honorable mention in 2016) It may look like a pile of houses that tumbled out of a toy chest, but the architects designed this structure as a homey, diverse antidote to the waves of plain high-rises wrought by China’s rapid urbanization. This one deserves a second look—see the sectional rendering below. Any contractor care to bid on the project?

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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 also connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

Throwback Thursday: Builders at war

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We promise to get back to cutting-edge and futuristic construction technology with the next post, but this week, to observe Veterans Day, we’re highlighting the vital supporting role that America’s builders played in the world wars of the last century.

“Victory seems to favor the side with the greater ability to move dirt.” That’s how Major General Eugene Reybold, head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), described the success of his men in the Second World War.

There’s more to a war than shooting. Troops need to move great distances across an often uncooperative landscape, and the USACE—composed largely of experienced engineers, contractors, tradesmen, and laborers—have helped move, supply, and protect those troops by building roads, bridges, dams, forts, ports, depots and barracks in the nation’s various conflicts since 1775. (That’s in addition to the Corps’ many valuable peacetime projects.)

“American construction capacity was the one factor of American strength which our enemies consistently underestimated,” Reybold continued, in 1944. “They had seen nothing like it.”

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Members of the 1st Engineers building a trench revetment in France in 1918. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Actually, the Germans already had a taste of American mettle a generation prior, during the final phase of the First World War. In 1917 and 1918, the engineers built dams and pipelines, opened up quarries, chopped down tons of timber, built bridges, and graded, repaired or built and maintained hundreds of miles of roads and railways across the mortar-pocked fields of France. Their work allowed hundreds of thousands of Yankee “doughboys” to travel by foot, horse, tank and truck the length of the country.

The engineers performed this work around the clock, through rainstorms, sometimes knee-deep in mud or neck-deep in water. Moreover, they often labored under enemy fire. In fact, the first two U.S. Army casualties in Europe were members of the 11th Engineers serving outside Cambrai, France in September 1917. And the Distinguished Service Cross was awarded to four soldiers from the 7th Engineers who helped construct a pontoon bridge across the Meuse River under fire in November 1918. Three of them jumped into the icy water to hold up a deck by hand until replacement floats could be installed, after a German artillery shell destroyed one section of the bridge.

That was just one of 38 bridges the engineers built as part of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which ended with the Kaiser’s surrender. Indeed, building pontoon bridges with lightning speed was a specialty of the engineers during both world wars. For example, as part of the same offensive, the 2nd Engineers built a foot bridge over the Meuse River in under an hour. During the war’s bloody sequel, the 22nd Armored Engineer Battalion built a 330-foot-long bridge, capable of supporting a moving line of tanks and trunks, in three hours and two minutes—“about the time it takes to see a double-feature movie show,” as Popular Science put it.

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Pontoon bridge over the Meuse, 1918.

It was the kind of feat that could only be pulled off through a massive coordination of manpower and materials and under intense pressure. But how, specifically, did the men do it? Most commonly in WWI, they lashed together one sequence of pontoon boats, topped with wooden decking, between long wooden balks. They rowed this out into position, then followed it with another section, and so on until they reached the opposite shore. If the Army was short on standard steel-plated pontoons, then regular boats, canoes, and even empty wine casks stood in.

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U.S. Army tank and troops crossing the Rhine, March 1945.

During WWII, in many cases a higher class of pontoon bridge was strengthened with longer and sturdier pneumatic pontoons, inflated by motorized air compressors. The construction system was streamlined with a new generation of hydraulic cranes and boom crane trucks, swinging sections of steel treadway out over the water and lowering them onto the pontoons. The sections were bolted together, and the bridge as a whole was stabilized with 200-pound catch anchors. Other bridge types included the portable Bailey bridge, made of lightweight steel. (See video at bottom.) In a pinch, though, the old methods were still employed.

We should also note that during WWII, the Army engineers’ efforts in Europe were matched in the Pacific by the Naval Construction Battalions, a.k.a. the Seabees. In both theaters, the builders benefited from advances in bulldozer technology. Check out the two photos below, brought to our attention by the Journal of Light Construction.

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A Caterpillar dozer fills in bomb craters in Normandy, 1944. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

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Dozers in action in the Pacific in WWII. (Photo courtesy of Yale University Press/US NCB)

In both wars, once the firing stopped, the rebuilding began. The engineers filled in trenches and craters, blew up tank barriers, and tore down machine-gun nests. They charted and destroyed unexploded land mines, dismantled bundles of tree-branch camouflage, and resurfaced the roads that the victories Allies rode en route to Berlin.

As mentioned earlier, the Army engineers have also performed critical tasks in civil engineering during peacetime. The corps is known for designing and constructing dams, canals, flood protections, and wetlands restoration, among other projects Stateside.

So while doffing hats for all our veterans, if you get a chance tomorrow, thank a Seabee or an Army engineer. Often quite literally, they paved the way to a free world.

Click below to see vintage footage of the Army engineers—in training, in the Pacific, and in Europe—as they used old-school power shovels, dozers, and their own ingenuity to build roads, bridges, and airfields, often under enemy fire, during WWII:

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 also connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_SmartThe video, sourced from an archival U.S. Department of Defense film, was edited by Suffolk Construction’s Junior Videographer Danny Czerkawski. Danny can be reached at DCzerkawski@suffolk.com. 

Throwback Thursday: Turning the first sod

As work begins on the expansion of Suffolk Construction’s headquarters—which was celebrated with a high-tech virtual groundbreaking—we explore the ancient roots, and some colorful examples, of the groundbreaking tradition.

Like knocking on wood, crossing your heart, or crossing the street to avoid a black cat (particularly around Halloween), there are some rituals—rooted in antiquity, maybe in prehistory—that most of us carry on to this day, whether or not we consider ourselves superstitious.

So it is with the time-honored tradition of the construction-site groundbreaking ceremony. Just as a shipbuilder wouldn’t launch a craft without first smashing a champagne bottle on its prow, a developer might feel amiss were a structure to rise without a gathering of dignitaries and a plunging of shovels into earth at some early stage of the project. In a few cases, dynamite, sledgehammers, airplanes, or green smoke have been used to liven up the proceedings, as you’ll see below.

The precise origins of the groundbreaking—better known in previous decades as the “sod turning” or “turning the first spadeful of earth”—are obscured by the mists of time, but the ritual exists in nearly all cultures the globe over. In some ancient traditions, breaking the ground was considered an act painful to the earth, requiring a sacrifice to compensate. To take one gruesome example, centuries ago the Tlingit people of Alaska would kill slaves and bury them under the corner post of a new longhouse.

Less horrifying religious rites persist to this day. In India, homebuilders ask permission from Bhoomi (Mother Earth) before disturbing her. To restore equilibrium to the site, an elaborate series of rituals includes burying a box containing gold, silver, coriander seeds, a whole betel nut, and a stick of turmeric, among other items carrying significance.

In the same way, Japanese builders placate the local kami, or god of the land, and pray for the safety of the construction workers with a Shinto purification rite, known as a jichinsai. A priest marks off a sacred space with four bamboo poles and sets up an altar with offerings of food and sake, or rice wine, which is poured on the four corners of the construction site. Wooden tools are then used to break ground.

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An altar used during a Shinto rite to purify a construction site.

In the 1960s, a city assemblyman charged that this spectacle, at the site of a public gymnasium, violated the nation’s constitution (which, like ours, provides for the separation of church and state). The case went all the way to Japan’s supreme court, which found that the civic ceremony did not promote or subsidize the Shinto religion.

In Western nations, too, it’s been common in modern times for developers to invite priests or other clergy to offer a prayer or otherwise take part in a groundbreaking, despite our generally secular public life. As in Japan, old customs die hard. Besides, a little blessing can’t hurt!

And maybe builders should be a bit superstitious. The Panama Canal was initially, in the 1880s, a French undertaking. Count Ferdinand de Lesseps, in our terms the project executive, attempted a bicoastal ceremony: He turned the first sod on the Atlantic end of the planned canal, then traveled by train and boat to the Pacific end. But stormy seas—or too much champagne, according to one account—prevented de Lesseps from landing. He scheduled another ceremony, in which exploding dynamite would kick off the project, but the charge fizzled.

So did the project. That first canal effort ended in failure; the Americans later picked up where the French had left off.

Dynamite was used successfully to inaugurate the Long Island Parkway in New York in 1908 (“a stick of dynamite blew high in the air an impeding tree,” wrote one observer) and the Massachusetts Turnpike in 1962. (“I only wish some of my critics were sitting on top of that ledge,” said turnpike planner William F. Callahan before pressing the plunger and dissolving the offending ledge in a burst of green smoke.)

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Source: The Boston Globe

In Boston in the 1970s, the Lewis Wharf condo development began with a “water-breaking,” in which a huge anchor was lifted from the harbor, and one hotel owner let his 20-month-old granddaughter commence a project with a “sand-turning” in a sandbox.

For ceremonies in California, skydivers have floated to earth bearing golden shovels, and “a two-story replica of a personal computer emerged from the ground in a high-tech industrial park,” according to the L.A. Times. The mayor of Brea once started a project with a backhoe; the machine lurched wildly, scattering the assemblage.

Suffolk Construction Breaks Ground on HeadquartersHow far has the ritual come since the days of human sacrifice, or even green smoke? Pretty far, to judge by the virtual groundbreaking at Suffolk’s headquarters expansion (left). Boston Mayor Marty Walsh joined Suffolk executives in donning virtual-reality headsets and scooping dirt that existed only in a 3D video-game-style environment—visible to those wearing the goggles, and projected as well on a large screen for the benefit of the audience. With each shovelful of pixelated earth, a 3D model of the building-to-be would rise from the ground in stages, as if by magic.

As far as we know, this is the first time a virtual groundbreaking has been done. Can anyone tell us different? Or offer your own unusual or innovative takes on the ceremony? Let’s hear your comments!

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.

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.)

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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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 ›