The Space Needle, the Jetsons, and what today’s futurists see for tomorrow

It looks like a flying saucer, perched atop spindly, upward-swooping legs. It’s as if a UFO and its exhaust trail were frozen mid-takeoff. Like something out of a sci-fi movie. And that’s the point.

In case you missed it, the Seattle Space Needle recently turned 55—old enough to get the senior discount at Old Country Buffet. Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Space Needle was built for a World’s Fair; attracted its share of criticism; and is now a landmark that defines its city’s skyline. And while this Space Age artifact may seem a tad dated now, its influence has rippled across the decades and perhaps—if a company called Arconic fulfills its vision—will continue to alter skylines in 2062.

Speedy in Seattle

The Space Needle was conceived as the centerpiece of Seattle’s Century 21 World’s Fair, a showcase of tomorrow’s technology. It was vintage midcentury: can-do optimism, tinged with Cold War urgency. The Soviet Union had shocked Americans when it sent the first satellite into orbit in 1957, kicking off the international space race. But in the JFK era, with federal dollars flowing to scientific research, and finned automobiles speeding down superhighways, anything seemed possible.

Rising 605 feet high—then the tallest structure west of the Mississippi—the Needle was built in just 400 days, at a cost of $4.5 million. The foundation, which was 30 feet deep and 120 feet across, took 467 cement trucks about twelve hours to fill. It was the longest continuous concrete pour attempted in the West at that time.

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Work on the Space Needle’s immense foundation. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History & Industry)

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The Needle’s top house under construction. (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Including 250 tons of rebar, the foundation weighs 5,850 tons; the Needle structure itself weighs 3,700 tons. This means its center of gravity is just five feet above the earth’s surface. The Needle is fastened to the foundation with 72 thirty-foot bolts.

Not only can the Needle survive earthquakes (e.g., one in 2001 that measured 6.8 on the Richter scale), but it was designed to withstand winds of up to 200 miles per hour—double the code requirements in 1962.

But what struck most was the daring design of the tower and its bulbous top house. The spacecraft look was deliberate. Initially, the building was painted with colors “Astronaut White,” “Orbital Olive,” “Re-entry Red,” and “Galaxy Gold.” As the building seemed to reach for the stars, it signaled a nation’s upward progress.

Construction was completed in December 1961. The Needle’s signature rotating restaurant held an opening gala on March 24, 1962. The Century 21 World’s Fair officially opened on April 21.

Seattle_Space_Needle_CropUnlike other architectural relics of the period—e.g., unloved Brutalist exemplars such as Boston’s City Hall and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California—the Space Needle appears on T-shirts and postcards, earned official Seattle landmark status at age 37 (in 1999), and remains one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. While many Sixties buildings raised eyebrows, the Needle prompts smiles as well. It may be that, along with its aspirational spirit, the tower’s very cartoonishness is what makes it so endearing—and enduring.

The Jetsons connection

That drawn quality quickly translated into actual cartoon form when The Jetsons debuted on TV in September 1962. The series imagined a family in 2062. The Jetsons and their contemporaries drove flying cars, employed robot maids—and lived in high-rises that looked a lot like the Space Needle. In case you were deprived of re-runs as a child, here’s the program’s opening:

The resemblance of the Jetsons’ home to the Space Needle was no accident, animator Iwao Takamoto told the New York Times in 2005. The “skypad” on stilts took direct inspiration from the Seattle tower.

Art imitates life, and vice versa. A new engineering company called Arconic—spun off the aluminum giant Alcoa—has taken inspiration from The Jetsons to reimagine the world of 2062. Arconic’s updated Jetsons drive flying cars and live in skypads that make use of technologies currently in development or, in some cases, available already. The company hired filmmaker Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond) to illustrate their vision with this video:

Arconic’s futurists predict that three-mile-high skyscrapers will be built using 3D printing. The technology will allow for more organic, nature-inspired shapes. “I think you will see less of the square, boxy shape of current skyscrapers,” Arconic’s Don Larsen says in another promo video.

Arconic skyscraper

Furthermore, Arconic hopes those skyscrapers will employ their products such as Bloomframe. This is a motorized window that transforms into a balcony in less than 60 seconds.

hofmandujardinwelcomebloomframe03tileMoreover, those windows would clean themselves—and the environment—if coated with EcoClean, an Arconic product already on the market. This titanium dioxide coating absorbs light and water vapor, activating free radicals (the atom-sized variety), which suck up and eliminate dirt as well as pollutants in the air around a building.

Will Arconic’s vision come to pass by 2062? Nobody can answer that. But the company is making a big bet on it, investing millions in advanced materials and technologies. At a time when much of the talk nationally is about fear of the future and a return to the past, Arconic’s embrace of a bright tomorrow is refreshing. So it’s no surprise we can trace the roots of this campaign to the audacious tower that rose over Seattle to celebrate and imagine the 21st century, back in 1962.

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.

High tech, low bar

No learning curve with these AEC innovations

Your workload is big enough already. You don’t want to spend a lot of time learning how to use a new tool. Of course, the up-front investment of time should translate into time savings down the road. Yet the reluctance to learn something new, along with other factors, can pose a big barrier to tech adoption.

So it’s welcome news when an innovation promises to improve practices or workflow without requiring a day to figure out how to use it. In that vein, we take a look at some new products with potential. These advances in familiar technology aim to improve upon things you already use, whether in the office, trailer, or job site.

A VR vision, easy to view

“For a technology to crack the mainstream,” wrote the New York Times in January, “there is an unspoken understanding: It shouldn’t make the people who use it want to throw up.” And yet, the Times reported, at the International CES trade show in Las Vegas, the presenters of one 3D headset made barf bags available to users, just in case. It seems that wearing virtual reality goggles can be not only disorienting but sometimes literally nauseating.

A new app called Building Conversation removes these barriers by putting virtual and augmented reality on a tablet or smart phone. Imagine an architect and a developer standing at the edge of an empty lot. The architect simply hands over an iPad; the developer aims it at the site; and a 3D vision of the tower appears on the screen, overlaid atop the real-life view. If their meeting takes place instead in a boardroom, the tablet can be pointed at the table, where, through the screen, a holographic model of the building appears. A contractor and subcontractor can use the app to virtually walk through a model of the building. In whichever mode users select, they can pan through or around the image as they move. No goggles—or barf bag—required.

There’s less of a “wow” factor than with an immersive headset, but the image is clear enough and the ease of use can’t be beat. Plus, by allowing stakeholders to literally share the vision, passing the tablet back and forth and looking at the same 3D image together, this twist on VR/AR technology brings back the human interaction that is essential in project development.

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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.

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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.

Construction of tomorrow inspired by insects?

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.

3D-printed buildings: Is the future already here?

“Soon, we will be able to construct an entire building … with a printer.”

That was the headline for our blog story posted back in March 2015. It is now August 2016 and “soon” has arrived. A company called WinSun, which was featured in our previous 3D printing blog post, recently took another bold step forward in the “3D printed building movement.” The company announced — through its partnership with the country of Dubai, which is aiming to be the world leader in 3D printing — that it has built the world’s first fully-functional 3D-printed office building, dubbed the “Office of the Future.”

At more than 2,600 square feet, a building of this size would typically take five to eight months to build using traditional construction means, methods and materials. However, C|NET Magazine reported that it took a mere 17 days to print the building components layer by layer using a cement mixture. The 3D printer used for printing the building components was a massive machine, the size of a warehouse that stood 20 feet high, 120 feet long and 40 feet wide. It also took only two days to assemble those building components, with just a fraction of the manpower that would be required to construct a similar building this size.  In all, “Office of the Future” cost only $140,000 to build, saving approximately 50 percent of the normal labor cost.

Saif Abdullah Al-Aleeli, CEO for the Dubai Future Foundation, which is the organization that occupies the new building and is charged with the creation of other futuristic structures for Dubai, believes that “20 years down the road entire cities will be 3D printed.” So what do you think? Is the future of 3D-printed buildings really here?  We’d be interested to hear your thoughts…comment below!

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Marketing Intern Simone McLaren. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.

MIT celebrates 100 years of innovation in Cambridge

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

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

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

A stronger idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three ways virtual reality could improve safety trainings

In honor of OSHA’s 2016 Safety Week, part two of our series on virtual reality in the construction industry focuses on, what else, safety. Click here to check out the first post in our series.

Professional Man Wearing Virtual Reality Headset

With all of the new virtual reality headsets hitting the marketplace these days, it’s easy to write off VR as child’s play. But the truth is that the magic of gaming has the potential to transform a number of industries, including construction. And safety is one of the most applicable use cases for anyone considering investing in this burgeoning technology. Imagine if a construction worker could be transported from the training room to the jobsite simply by putting on a headset. They could actually see a hoist tipping or feel themselves losing balance while walking across raised beams.

Being immersed in these dangerous scenes would no doubt plant a seed of caution in the worker’s mind before they even step on site. VR could encourage them to make thoughtful decisions virtually before they make a mistake in reality.

Due to weather conditions and other variables, a VR simulation could never depict a construction site 100 percent accurately. But virtual simulators have proven to be an effective training ground for police, Marines and pilots. A study conducted by the Navy found that student pilots using Microsoft’s Flight Simulator were 54 percent more likely to score above-average in real life flight tests.

Similarly, the latest virtual reality technologies could take construction industry safety trainings to the next level. While the critical but basic tenants of trainings would not change, such as tutorials, safety orientations, qualifications, etc., VR could raise the bar on the kinds of training companies could provide their workers to keep them and others safe. Here are some practical examples of how VR could augment traditional safety trainings:

  1. Workers inside the VR jobsite could be presented with a scenario in which they have to point out all the possible hidden dangers in front of them, such as live wires, misplaced ladders or a worker cutting a small piece of steel with his protective goggles on top of his hardhat and not over his eyes.
  2. If a real accident occurs on the job, it could be recreated virtually to teach workers how to avoid the same mistake twice. Only an animated avatar would suffer the consequences of unsafe acts on the jobsite. One example could be a worker setting up a swing stage. One side of the swing stage slips down and strikes his left shoulder causing a minor abrasion. Experiencing this in VR would teach workers how to avoid making this same mistake on a real project site.
  3. VR could also become a much more effective platform for teaching workers how to safely perform their daily duties in a virtual environment. This could include navigating confined spaces, safely setting up ladders, welding or preventing fires from breaking out on the job.
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Can you spot the safety infractions in this virtual construction scene? (Image courtesy of Inge Knudsen)

But the training room is not the only place VR can be valuable. VR could also be used to conduct safety inspections that are closely tied to scheduling. For example, the safety precautions for a specific task, such as erecting concrete precast planks, could be simulated weeks in advance before it is performed on the job so that everything is in place once construction begins.

While this is a tantalizing use case that could become a mainstay in the future, training is still the most practical and immediate use for VR when it comes to construction safety. Most people learn by doing, so oftentimes the most effective trainings drive home safety through real onsite scenarios and case studies. Using virtual reality to create a dynamic and lasting visual cue for construction workers would make all the difference in classroom safety trainings. Being immersed in dangerous situations virtually would surely cause workers to pause before engaging in an unsafe activity on a project site. And sometimes that short pause can be the difference between getting hurt — or worse — and staying safe.

This post was written by Suffolk Northeast’s Project Administrator Lindsay Davis. If you have questions, she can be reached at ldavis@suffolk.com. Suffolk National Safety Director Gary Cunningham and Suffolk Content Writer Justin Rice contributed to this post.