Demo, hold the dust

Safer, smarter practices in demolition

Sometimes, before a new building can go up, an old one must tumble down. Whether it’s fallen into disrepair and been deemed unsafe, or a new development can’t feasibly incorporate the old, some structures end up on the wrong end of a wrecking ball.

But modern demolition entails more than just smashing things or blowing them up. Complicated layouts such as aging power plants and bridges present unique challenges. Asbestos or other hazards might well lurk. And to be green, reusing and recycling are de rigueur. Let’s explore a new wave of innovation in the art and science of deliberate destruction. 

Hats off for the hat method

Three rival Japanese firms manage to demolish high-rises without smashing or blowing up anything at all. Across the nation, hundreds of towers more than 100 meters (328 feet) tall were erected four or five decades ago. Most aren’t up to the nation’s current, more stringent earthquake codes. That means a big demand is nigh for efficient, environmentally responsible demolition that doesn’t disturb the neighbors. (In densely-built Tokyo, as in many cities, there’s hardly even room to swing a wrecking ball today.) To meet that demand, the Taisei, Takenaka, and Kajima corporations are in a race to perfect a technique whereby a building is dismantled floor by floor.

In the Taisei and Takenaka systems, a protective “hat” or “capping” hangs from a high-rise’s roof. Covering the top three floors, this suspended scaffolding is covered with dust and noise barriers. Inside, crews cut holes in the floors and install temporary columns and giant hydraulic jacks. Then with jackhammers and excavators, they break apart the floors and walls. A ceiling traveling crane brings the refuse to an opening where a telpher crane lowers it to the ground floor. There, workers load the broken-up concrete and steel onto trucks that ferry it to a recycling center.

An illustration of the Taisei Ecological Reproduction System. To truly geek out on this, see the sequential diagrams in this slide show. (Source: Taisei Corp.)

Once a floor is demolished, the jacks lower the capping, and the cycle repeats. In this way, Taisei shrunk the 139-meter (456 feet) Old Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka by two floors every 10 days.

That project was covered by Wired and other American outlets. However, the Italian engineering firm Despe has been taking down buildings in a similar manner for years. They call their method Topdownway:

Taisei takes the method further by using a telpher crane that actually generates electricity. Though the crane itself uses electrical power, the motion of the crane dropping and rising creates energy that is captured and stored in a battery. The new energy powers lights and fans inside the capping.

Kajima’s demolition method is similar, using giant hydraulic jacks to shrink a building, but they dismantle from the bottom. The Kajima Cut and Take Down Method takes inspiration from a Jenga-like traditional Japanese game, Daruma Otoshi. See the time-lapse video of a Kajima project:

Cons and pros of these seemingly painstaking methods? It takes months to deconstruct a building, and it isn’t cheap. But Taisei estimates it reduces carbon emissions by 85 percent, noise levels by 20 decibels, and dust by 90 percent. Despe says its system contains 100 percent of the dust. Plus, the Italian company provides clients with advertising space on its highly visible protective tent.

Work in the enclosed space is not subject to the whims of weather. And best of all is the safety benefit. Whether inside the “hat” or operating from the ground floor, there’s no danger of debris or equipment falling on workers or passing pedestrians.

When failure begets success

Even the more dramatic form of demolition—using explosives to effect a controlled implosion—can be done in a smarter, more efficient way. A new entity in the UK offers a streamlined, tech-enhanced process, using robotics as well as explosives honed in the military.

The Atom Project comprises three firms that came together in the wake of tragedy. In February 2016, the conventionally planned demolition of the UK’s Didcot Power Station went awry when the building partially collapsed, killing four workers. For months, it wasn’t even safe to enter the teetering ruin to retrieve the workers’ bodies.

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An AR demolition robot at work.

The power plant owners fired the previous demolition contractor and brought in Arcadis, AR Demolition and Alford Technologies to collaborate on a solution. Pooling their experience, they used point cloud laser surveys to assemble a 3D model of the site to plan the number, placement, and strength of explosives. Top-of-the-line Kiesel demolition robots—capable of switching attachments in minutes—rolled in to cut and remove anything that could be salvaged.

The robots then placed linear cutting charges in the planned locations. These are explosives engineered to blast a knife-like cut into steel or concrete. They’re common in the military, but not yet in commercial demolition. “There’s a reticence about adopting the technology,” Alford Technologies Managing Director Roland Alford told the Construction News, “but it is totally reliable.”

The effort succeeded in bringing down the rest of the power plant—entirely remotely. The three companies decided to continue their partnership. Alford declared, “This is the iPhone moment for demolition,” a potential sea change in the way demo is done.

Rise of the “robots’” relevance

Of course, demolition robots themselves are not new. Swedish-based Brokk sold its first such vehicle in 1976. But their use is growing, for safety and cost reasons. Although they’re not, strictly speaking, robots.

“‘Demolition robots’ is the generally accepted term,” said Peter Bigwood, VP of sales and marketing for Brokk’s North American division. “It sounds cooler and trips off the tongue better than the more accurate nomenclature, which would be ‘remote-controlled demolition machines.’”

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Precision cutting with a Brokk machine.

Human technicians operate electric-powered Brokk and similar machines from a safe distance—as much as 100 yards away if need be. At trade shows, Bigwood will ask potential customers, “And would you like Brokk binoculars with that?”

Bigwood says several factors explain why his company is selling more Brokks than ever before—even with new competition from Husqvarna, suggesting “the pie is bigger,” he said.

“It’s really hard to get labor in construction,” Bigwood said. “There are parts of the country where you won’t find a guy who’ll operate a jackhammer.” Those who will are aging. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. They hurt their back or shoulders,” and that leads to expensive workman’s compensation claims. “If a robot costs 150 grand, that might be cheaper than a couple shoulder operations.”

Added to that, Bigwood said, is “a greater emphasis in the industry on safety, which as a human being I welcome wholeheartedly.” Hammering from afar using a remote control box means “keeping your workforce safe so they can go home at night.”

Demolish smart

Oftentimes, smart demolition is simply a matter of smarter planning. Derrick Chery, project manager on a Suffolk job in East Boston, worked with JDC Demolition to demolish a smokestack. Before imploding it, the team calculated the radius of the area that would be filled with smoke and dust; they then flooded the area to drastically reduce the dust.

“It’s not common to do a takedown that way, but it saved us a lot of time,” Chery said. “A few mini-excavators picked up all the brick and it took us only a couple hours to get it cleaned up,” versus the delays in a dust cloud scenario.

ENR recently reported on an innovative approach to a complex project, the dismantling of an abandoned sugar factory in Colorado. The team there used careful planning and asbestos-proofed trucks in order to defer the asbestos abatement to an outside facility.

And for complexity, you can’t beat the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. In three sections—two suspension bridges and a cantilever bridge—this 1930s structure stretched four and a half miles across the bay. With the opening of a new and more quake-resistant Bay Bridge, the old bridge has been under deconstruction since March 2015. The gargantuan effort includes cutting, imploding, and shipping away trusses on barges. Essentially, crews are taking the bridge apart in the reverse order of how it was built.

What happens to the materials?

Many in the Bay Area have wondered, what’s to become of the 167,100 tons of steel that made up the Bay Bridge? Most of it will be sheared to size and reused in construction projects across the country.

But much of the steel has been set aside for public art. For example, AECOM—an architectural firm that has been a frequent collaborator with Suffolk—will turn some of the salvaged steel into stylized benches and planters along a new river walk called Clipper Cove Promenade. Pedestrians will be able to stop and relax on pieces of the old bridge as they take in views of the new.

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A rendering of AECOM’s Clipper Cove Promenade. (Rendering courtesy of Oakland Museum of California)

Recycling can happen on a smaller scale, too. A Suffolk project team in southern Florida found 16 pallets of unused paint in a site slated for demolition. “It’s amazing that much paint was sitting around,” said Suffolk Senior Virtual Design & Construction Manager Kyle Goebel.

Rather than pay for disposal (or worse, cart it off to a landfill), Goebel arranged to donate the paint—all $25,000 worth—to the local Habitat for Humanity. Soon Habitat’s volunteers will be painting the walls of affordable homes in the region. “The cost of living is always an issue here,” said Goebel. “The fact that we were able to salvage this material efficiently and for a good cause was a great use of resources.”

Crash, boom, bang

Of course, recycling, robots, giant jacks and noise barriers, and all these innovative demo methods do lack one thing: the satisfying punch of a wrecking ball or dynamite implosion. So in case you need to scratch that itch, we’ve put together this little montage. Enjoy!

This post was written by Suffolk Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. Video edited by Suffolk Content Marketing Manager Zachary Leighton. 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_SmartYou can reach Zach at ZLeighton@suffolk.com or connect with him on LinkedIn here.

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.

Can you tell which roof has hidden solar panels?

Would you believe all of them? Meet integrated rooftop solar.

In the dark of winter, when days are shortest, those of us in northern climes long for the sun. What better time to think about capturing and storing that sun’s energy? Solar electric power has been around for decades, and advances in the technology keep making it more efficient and practical. But for many, the desire to cut the household carbon footprint is tempered by aesthetic concerns. Rooftop solar panels don’t exactly look pretty, unless you’re going for Wall-E-meets-Windows chic.

Enter Tesla Motors. Not just a car company anymore, Tesla recently acquired SolarCity, the nation’s largest solar service provider. And the combo’s flagship product? A solar roof. It’s an array of photovoltaic panels, custom installed, that looks pretty much just like an ordinary roof. It will come in styles including slate and Tuscan tile. And with the star power of CEO Elon Musk, this product with curb appeal just might do for solar rooftop panels what Tesla has done for electric cars—make them cool. All part of the company’s professed mission: to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.

Musk unveiled the roof last fall at a shareholders’ meeting held in Universal Studios’ backlot. Investors gathered on a street that has served as the generic suburban setting for TV fare from Leave it to Beaver to Desperate Housewives. To hit the market some time this year, the panels are printed with the shingle-looking designs in a process called hydrographic coloring. They’re made of exceptionally durable tempered quartz glass. See how the material holds up compared to conventional roofing tiles:

Hidden underneath the glass are photovoltaic cells that will harvest the sun’s rays, feeding the energy to Tesla’s Powerwall 2 battery. The company says the battery can power an average two-bedroom home for a full day.

“It looks viable,” said Josh Rollins, LEED AP BD+C. “If it is, it’s a total game-changer.” A senior manager of marketing at Suffolk Construction, Rollins is also a leading member of the company’s Green Committee. “Elon Musk reminds me a bit of Steve Jobs in the way that he hypes his products, but this one is particularly exciting for anyone who’s passionate about reducing their carbon footprint,” Rollins said.

Musk’s presentation lacked some details, but flurries of informed speculation on the part of industry professionals help fill in the blanks. The biggest question to many is the roof’s cost. Musk says Tesla’s system will be cheaper than a traditional roof, when you factor in projected savings on your utility bill over the Tesla roof’s lifetime (50 years).

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Image courtesy of Tesla

How could Tesla achieve that lower price tag? For one thing, the quartz glass is a fifth as heavy as typical roofing materials; meaning lower shipping costs. For another, Musk hinted that he’ll cut out middlemen in the current roofing supply chain, with Tesla doing the installations itself.

All that said, the cost of a traditional roof plus the cost of grid electricity is quite steep, so even a figure smaller than that sum will likely still be large. Consumer Reports put the total as high as $70,000, too much for many homeowners to bear up front. Will the company offer financing? What if a homeowner defaults on the loan? Will Tesla rip the roof off and take it back? Unclear as of yet.

But Tesla’s entry into the residential solar market can only be a good thing if you’re rooting for the environment. As many as five million roofs per year need to be replaced. If you need a new roof anyway, why not make it one that will save you money on utilities? At least a certain segment of homeowners will be able to afford the premium Tesla product. And for those who can’t, Tesla’s announcement should bring more attention to other, relatively affordable integrated rooftop solar products.

That’s right, Tesla has competitors in this niche—companies like SunTegra and CertainTeed. Though none of their solar products are quite as invisible as Tesla’s, many are pretty darn unobtrusive, especially compared to the standard rack-mounted panels. (Check out the examples below.) These companies welcome the new publicity. “I have to agree with Elon Musk: the future for roof integrated solar is bright,” wrote SunTegra CEO Oliver Koehler in a trade publication. “It’s going to be an exciting next couple of years.”

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Image courtesy of CertainTeed

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Image courtesy of SunTegra

What we really look forward to is learning whether the integrated technology can be scaled up to apartment complexes, and perhaps to even bigger projects—maybe even high-rises. After all, said Rollins, “Why stop at the roof?” Rollins recalled a previous Build Smart blog post about harnessing solar energy with windows, something a skyscraper in Australia plans to do. “Why not cover the skin of the entire building in solar panels? That’s another whole surface area that could be generating electricity,” Rollins said.

Perhaps we can yet break our addiction to supply-limited fossil fuels, thanks in part to visionaries such as Musk. Heck, the last time a Tesla release made us this optimistic, it was an awesome late-1980s power ballad. Here’s to solar finding a way.

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 building’s skin and bones—literally? The coming world of engineered living materials

When lightning strikes, a tree can often repair the damage by generating another layer of bark to cover the gash. But if that same bolt from above lashes a wood-frame house instead, call the remodelers. Even though the house’s exterior walls are essentially made of trees, the material lost its adaptive quality when lumberjacks felled those mighty pines or oaks.

In the words of scientist Justin Gallivan of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), wood is “rendered inert” when a tree is chopped down. That neutralizes all the advantages of a living material. In their natural state, trees react and adapt to wounds and the weather. So do coral reefs—not to mention your own skin.

What if living materials, with those same self-healing properties, could be grown artificially to the size and strength required to construct a house? Or a skyscraper? Is that possible? That’s what DARPA wants to find out. The agency is soliciting research proposals aimed at the creation of what it calls “engineered living materials (ELM).”

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DARPA envisions walls that fix themselves, non-fading surfaces, and driveways that absorb oil spills without a trace. (Source: DARPA)

“Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources,” Gallivan said to the press in August when announcing the ELM program. “And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

Today, a building’s envelope is often called its “skin,” while the steel frame of a building is known as its skeletal structure, or even its “bones.” In DARPA’s imagined future, these terms will cease to be merely rhetorical. And the sustainability benefits of bio-building might be substantial, when you consider the carbon emissions generated in the production of conventional materials such as concrete.

But DARPA didn’t pull this sci-fi-sounding concept out of thin air. Biochemists and engineers around the globe are already tinkering with limited forms of biomimetic (or life-imitating) materials, as you’ll see below. Gallivan’s vision of self-healing living walls is perhaps the logical extension of these various technologies, and the ELM program might prove the catalyst needed for skin-and-bone to replace brick-and-mortar.

Bacteria brickyard

One inspiration for the ELM program is a start-up that grows bricks in a lab. Yes, grows. The idea occurred to architect Ginger Dosier when she learned that coral polyps—tiny marine animals—create the hard, rocklike substance sandstone naturally. She co-founded the company, bioMASON, with her husband, Michael—like her, an architect and a self-taught scientist. (They have help from a staff of college-taught scientists.)

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The lab-grown bricks. (Source: bioMASON)

In their lab in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the bioMASON team places sand into molds and injects it with trillions of microorganisms (Sporosarcina pasteurii, if you must know), which they feed water and a calcium solution. The bacteria bind with the grains of sand, generating a natural cement that becomes heavy and hardens. The bricks are ready in two to five days.

Compare that with the way traditional bricks are manufactured, by digging up clay (which could be better put to use in agricultural soil) and firing it in a kiln at 2,000 degrees for three to five days. This process uses up lots of fuel and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—800 million tons of it per year, by some estimates. Keep in mind, brick is still the most common building material worldwide, with Asia alone making 1.2 trillion bricks a year.

According to Acorn Innovestments, which provided bioMASON with seed funds, third-party testing determined that the bio-bricks have a strength comparable to traditional masonry, though for now, the start-up is only selling the bricks for use in paving. The bioMASON lab can produce 1,500 bricks a week, and they’re moving next month to a larger facility that will enable them to make 5,000 bricks every two days.

But the Dosiers hope to truly make an impact by shipping the bacteria solution—just one hand-held vial can make 500 bricks—across the globe to builders who can mix it with local sand, whether from nearby deserts (looking at you, Los Angeles) or quarries. Continue Reading ›

Best of the Build Smart Blog 2016

Before we pop the bubbly and close the book on year two of the Build Smart Blog, let’s take a look back at some of our favorite posts of 2016. In case you missed them the first time around, here are five stories that captured our imagination, revealing ways that tomorrow’s built environment might take shape, and delving into the advances in architecture, engineering and construction that make these visions attainable.

Super Bowl shuffle: Stadiums of the future will feature interactive and civic spaces: Putting the brakes on your tailgate party to go watch the game? So early 21st century. Future fans will enjoy tailgating inside the stadium. That stadium, by the way, will expand and contract depending on the size of the event, for year-round use.

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Office space of tomorrow: Millennials and “accidental encounters” drive future of office design: Say goodbye to static rows of cubes. Open plans, smart technology, and greater attention to collaboration and wellness are driving changes in the corporate workplace. What does this mean for designers and builders?

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Throwback Thursday: Turning the first sod: For a new twist on an old ceremony, Suffolk set the bar high with its “virtual groundbreaking.” But what’s the story behind groundbreakings? When we dug into it (no pun intended), we discovered the ancient roots and colorful past of this familiar construction tradition.

MIT students win Hyperloop competition: Elon Musk’s audacious Hyperloop—a magnetic transit system taking passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes—will require a massive infrastructure build. And when it comes to making the Hyperloop train go, the smartest engineers in the room might be a team of students from MIT.

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High-tech timber erected at UMass: This ain’t your great-grandfather’s wood construction. Cross-laminated timber makes for a building that is sustainable, fire resistant, and versatile. See why this story remains one of our most popular.

1. UMA IDB_exterior_View from across NPleasant

We look forward to bringing you more stories about cool stuff happening in the construction industry in 2017! Got your own story ideas? Send them to Patrick L. Kennedy at PKennedy@suffolk.com.

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

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.