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 ›