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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 ›

Office space of tomorrow: Millennials and “accidental encounters” drive future of office design

This is the first post in our series on the office space of tomorrow. 

“We don’t have a lot of time on this Earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day …”Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 9.03.11 AM.png

— Peter Gibbons, played by actor Ron Livingston, in the 1999 cult movie classic Office Space

If humans weren’t meant to spend their careers sitting in square boxes punching away at their keyboards and staring at their computers, then where should we be working?

That question is being deliberated by forward-thinking developers and interior designers, architects, construction companies and experts on human behavior, as well as some of the most inventive companies in the world like Google and Facebook. Many of these thinkers are attempting to transform the way commercial buildings, office space and even workplace furniture are designed and built.

So, where will we be working in the future? The journey to that final answer might just change the way human beings work, collaborate and innovate today and for generations to come.

Millennial workforce impacts office design

There are major cultural shifts occurring today that are having an unprecedented impact on the commercial office market, including the influence of the millennial generation which consists of the 18- to 34-year olds who make up more than half of today’s workforce.

Commercial office developers and designers understand they must strongly consider the needs of this powerful slice of the population and make their office spaces more desirable for clients who must attract this young talent — studies have found most millennials prefer “activity-based” working environments that place a premium on working collaboratively, sustainability, wellness and the integration of smart technologies to improve performance and optimize productivity.

That’s a lot to take in if you’re a commercial developer or office space designer with new office plans in the works, especially if you’re used to selling clients on corner offices, cube farms and mahogany desks.

Open layouts: Future or fad?

The national publication Real Estate Weekly recently reported that “the real estate industry is in the throes of transformative change … thanks to a fast evolving workforce that continues to redefine corporate space requirements. For companies with ambitious recruiting and expansion plans … this is a pivotal time.”

This means that developers and designers shouldn’t rush to decisions on what makes an optimal work environment without taking a long-term view. Johan Ronnestam, an internationally known brand expert and innovative thinker about workplaces of the future, said, “If you are in the process of change, you need to think 10 years out. How will my employees want to work then? How will technologies affect our everyday lives? How will your office fit into that world? We need to be open to having our beliefs changed.”

Continue Reading ›

Transformable apartments maximize limited space

Imagine rearranging your living space so you can throw a dinner party for 20 of your friends in the same room where you normally sleep. Or transforming your cozy home office into an elaborate home theater for family movie night. And doing all of that with just the wave of your hand or the sound of your voice.       

The home or apartment unit you are living in today, with defined rooms, static walls and immovable appliances, may soon become a thing of the past. Innovative urban planning experts and researchers are designing and prototyping new “transformable” units that will maximize limited square-footage and allow people to easily personalize their space layouts for their changing needs. Transformable units could soon become popular in cities that are facing affordable housing crises and “brain drain” because residential square footage is limited and far too expensive for working class families and young prospective talent.

In many cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami the limited inventory of available residential units are either the most expensive and spacious units or the units that are too compact to accommodate the needs of the people who work and live in town. But there are innovative researchers who believe that size isn’t everything and that the square footage of a residential unit shouldn’t determine its usefulness or value. What if the appeal of a residential unit had nothing to do with the actual size of that unit, but rather the flexibility that space could offer?

Apartment transformations “out of the box”

The Changing Cities team at MIT Media Lab is currently working on a project called CityHome that might just meet that urgent need for housing by helping residents make the most out of the space they can actually afford. CityHome is a slick mechanical box that is roughly the size of a closet and sits inside an apartment. The box stores everything from a bed and dining room table to a cooking range, kitchen surface and closet for extra storage. The CityHome contains all the essential components from various rooms in a traditional apartment unit, all in a single cube.

Continue Reading ›

Best of the Build Smart Blog 2015

Since launching our Build Smart Blog in February, we’ve enjoyed sharing the most unbelievable feats of engineering and innovation in the AEC industry. We’ve written about some of the most talented designers, engineers, architects, trade partners and visionary owners in the business and are amazed by how much they accomplished in 2015.

Highlighting everything from carbon-capturing concrete to a 3D-printed bridge in Amsterdam and Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, we have never been more excited about the future of construction. As we get ready to ring in 2016 we are taking stock of this year’s posts.

Before we sign off for the year, we’d like to share five of our favorite posts from 2015 that you might’ve missed:

1. Hardly a day at the beach: Building an underground parking garage on the Atlantic Shore: The first ever post on the Build Smart Blog dives deep below Miami’s shallow water table to tell the story of an underground parking garage that sits right on the ocean. This is unheard of in South Florida.

2. Harnessing solar energy with windows: By far one of our favorite posts this year was the story of companies turning windows into solar panels. Imagine if One World Trade Center in New York was basically a giant solar panel. How cool is that?

3. California water crisis spurs innovation: All the news media coverage of the drought in California this past summer got us thinking about what the construction industry can do to help. Turns out a lot. Our video about the benefits of using a membrane bioreactor to recycle water within a building is a good start.

4. Lean like Duggan: With the 17th Annual Lean Construction Institute Congress being held right in our backyard this year, we decided to highlight one of our trade partners that has fully embraced Lean manufacturing. E.M. Duggan is a lean, mean prefabrication machine. See for yourself.

5. The sky’s the limit for maglev elevators: For our money, the most exciting innovation to take a major leap forward in 2015 was maglev elevators. We posted about the unveiling of a 1:3 scale model of these cable-free elevators last month, but in May our intrepid writer, Dan Antonellis, explored this groundbreaking technology in full.

We look forward to another amazing year of innovations in the construction industry. You can share your innovations with us in the comment section below or email them to Justin Rice at jrice@suffolk.com.

Happy New Year!