Best of the Build Smart Blog 2016

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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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of whegs and stigmergy

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

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Meet the Termes robots. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the lab

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

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

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

This post was a collaboration between Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy and former Suffolk Construction Marketing Intern Jen Howard. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart. You can also connect with Jen on LinkedIn here.

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

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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.

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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.

On the verge: Virtual reality reaches a tipping point in AEC

The following is the first post in a series on how immersive reality technologies such as virtual reality and CAVE rooms are reaching a tipping point in the AEC industry. Check back during National Safety Week (May 2-6) for our next installment about using virtual reality to improve safety trainings.

Gunnar Skeie recently sent a building information model to the organizers of a workshop on immersive visualization technology for construction at Scalable Display Technologies.  Only a week later, he was standing between a red sofa and a giant interactive panoramic computer screen mounted on an orange accent wall in Scalable’s lofted office space in Cambridge, Mass. Putting on the new HTC Vive virtual reality headset, Skeie’s mouth fell agape as he was instantaneously transported to a sun-splashed atrium with a four-story floating staircase. He craned his neck to observe the skylight overhead and instinctively reached out his hand to navigate around furniture. Skeie intently inspected every nook and cranny of the virtual version of a BIM model he spent a year crafting and could now see in an entirely new way.

“Mind blowing,” the virtual design in construction manager for Norwegian construction company Kruse Smith told us after pulling the VR goggles off his head as if he was coming up for air. “I was actually able to go into the atrium and see what the glass elevator shafts are going to look like.

“I’m sure our client would have loved it and the tenants would have loved it. To have that as a tool to communicate the design throughout the phases would be fantastic.”

While it only took the workshop’s organizers a few days to create this VR world, it would have taken months to convert a CAD, BIM or Revit model into a high-quality virtual reality experience for owners just a few years ago. And spending so much time on VR canabilized the time needed to design the physical structure itself. But this once laborious process has been streamlined by the advent of computer engines used for video game systems. New software programs that are quickly becoming more compatible with VR headsets are also making this process more feasible than ever.

Owners no longer have to try to imagine what it will be like to walk through their building based on drawings presented to them on a 2D computer screen that only their architects can fully decode. They can simply step inside the building by slipping on VR goggles. Owners could walk around a space, turn around and even look in another direction to gaze at what the views will be like from every vantage point. While a blueprint can give them the exact dimensions of a room, VR will given them a true sense of how big a room will feel.

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From cars to construction: Automobile technologies could make your job site safer

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By now you have surely driven in cars that illuminate your side view mirror when someone is in your blind spot, vibrate your steering wheel when you stray out of your lane and beep when you’re about to back up over your trash can. Your car might even have cruise control functions that automatically regulate your speed and braking based on how close you are to other vehicles. Cars use a combination of cameras and sensors to determine how far an object is from your bumper. The sensor is constantly analyzing the camera’s video feed in real time and alerts you with a vibration, beep or flashing light when you are too close to something.

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Cameras and sensors that work in concert could help make construction sites more safe.

If having this technology in your car has become novel, maybe it’s time to incorporate it on your construction site. While cameras and sensors are mostly used on job sites for security, these car technologies could monitor a whole range of things to maintain quality, efficiency and safety. But let’s focus on safety for now since one in five worker fatalities occur in construction. Cameras and sensors strategically placed on buildings, vehicles and vests, gloves and hard hats could help minimize the Fatal Four:

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Cameras and sensors could keep construction workers out of harm’s way by alerting the worker and the excavator operator that danger looms.

  1. Falls: Sensors could warn a worker if they are about to walk into a hole or sense when a guardrail is broken or missing. It could let someone know when a ladder is being used too far from the work that needs to be done so somebody doesn’t overreach and fall. Workers could also be reminded when they should be tied off and that they shouldn’t jump across scaffolding.
  2. Electrocutions: Sensors could tell electricians when an unsafe electric current is running through scaffolding near them or if there’s a live wire on site. They could notify someone if an electrical panel was ajar or if wire nuts or electrical tape aren’t appropriately adhered. Sensors and backup cams could also alert a crane operator when they are working too close to power lines.
  3. Struck by object: Wearable technology that uses sensors and cameras could vibrate when the worker is in the path of a moving object or vehicle. They could even cut the ignition switch if that vehicle was about to hit something or someone. This technology could also alert a crane or excavator operator when someone or something was in their blindspot. Sensors can also make sure cranes and other machinery are safely grounded.
  4. Caught in/between objects: This technology could automatically turn off a scissor lift that was about to trap someone against a ceiling. They could also alert someone if they are between two objects that could potentially pin them.

At the same time, 360-degree cameras with sensors could be mounted to a safety manager’s hardhat to literally give them eyes in the back of their head. The sensors would not only alert them if something outside their periphery was amiss or dangerous, but they would have the ability to record and survey the site to review later.

Still not convinced that this is ready for primetime? Well, the biggest proof point that these car technologies can be incorporated into wearable technologies for construction is Toyota’s Project BLAID. Worn over the shoulders, this device for blind people uses cameras and sensors to detect objects in the user’s surroundings the same way cars do. BLAID has speakers and vibration motors that help users locate bathrooms, escalators, stairs and doors. Given the fact that Toyota successfully migrated these cameras and sensors from cars to wearables, it’s easy to imagine how this technology could be used on a construction worker to help make the job site safer.

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