Throwback Thursday: Water Under the Bridge, Danger Under the Water

This blog post was written by Dan Antonellis in honor of Brooklyn Bridge Opening Day, which was Wednesday! After 14 years of construction, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to traffic on May 24, 1883, connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn for the first time in history. Dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world,” the bridge changed New York City forever.

Fill a bathtub with water and find a drinking glass. Flip the glass upside down and push it to the bottom of the tub. The water from the tub won’t get inside the glass because of the air trapped inside. It’s about air pressure, physics and other science-related topics I won’t even attempt to explain in this post.

Now stay with me. Picture tiny people standing inside that glass on the bottom of the tub, chipping away at the porcelain with miniature picks and shovels. The air in that glass will eventually run out, so you’ll need a tube poking out of the top of the glass and up and out of the water so that good air can come in and bad air can get out. After all, these tiny people need to breathe as they continue picking away and digging at the bottom of your tub.

Holding a glass upside down at the bottom of the bathtub is the basic premise behind one of the most intriguing and dangerous feats in U.S. engineering and construction history — the building of the underwater foundations that would lie at the bottom of New York’s East River and support the massive towers of the historic Brooklyn Bridge.

The Great Bridge

The vision for “The Great Bridge” (later named the Brooklyn Bridge) was simple enough — to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn and open travel and trade between the two independent cities. (Brooklyn was its own city until it was annexed by New York City in 1898.) The bridge would eventually span 1,600 feet across the river, connecting two masses of land that had been separated by water for millions of years.


An early plan for the Brooklyn Bridge. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

The Brooklyn Bridge was designed like most suspension bridges. While they differ aesthetically and hold distinct places in history, they all share certain visual and engineering characteristics in common. Cables that stretch from bridge towers to the highways like giant spider webs. Roads seemingly suspended in air — many of which can span from 2,000 to 7,000 feet long. And of course, the massive towers that stand tall and strong, anchoring the bridge components to the earth and literally holding it all together. Those towers need to be firmly grounded and dug into bedrock, like any other tall structure.

Back in 1869, long before the days of pounding piles into the ground using sophisticated equipment and heavy machinery, there were men, picks and shovels. And plenty of danger to go around. 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.

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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

Throwback Thursday: “Taking your brass”

Whether it’s sharing your all-time favorite Atari video game or a photo of your sister’s second birthday party, Thursdays have given us all the opportunity to proudly throw it back. So in honor of Throwback Thursdays, we will occasionally post about antiquated, and sometimes comical, construction methods that have given way to some of the biggest innovations in our industry. Please share your Throwback Thursday ideas in the comment section at the bottom of this post! 


Anyone who worked construction before or during the 1960s and 70s probably has tangible memories of plucking a brass tag off a wooden pegboard when they arrived on a job site. Back in the day, general contractors employed tradesmen directly and the daily ritual known as “taking your brass” was how the GC tracked everyone’s hours.

The tradesmen each had a tag with a number on it that corresponded to the number on their hardhat. After the workers pocketed their tags each morning, the time keeper would record the missing tags. Starting at 3:30 p.m., the timekeeper would return to the board to note the time each tag was returned so he could log how long everyone worked and how much they should be paid.

On payday, a line formed in front of an armored car that doled out wages … in cash!

Suffolk Construction General Superintendent Roy Greenhalgh coordinated  brass-tag systems early in his career before he joined Suffolk. He said some people would have their friend pick up their tag if they were going to be late or miss work. “But we always had someone watching the board,” Greenhalgh said. “It usually worked out pretty well. It was just a lot of work, there were no copy machines, we had no fax machine and everything was calculated by hand.”

On Wednesday nights, the project’s onsite timekeeper, accountant and office manager would stay until 8 or 9 p.m. calculating the payroll. The hardest part, Greenhalgh said, was doing math by hand to deduct union dues and taxes.

At the time, unions stipulated that workers had to be paid in cash. So on smaller jobs, the accountant would go to the bank first thing Thursday morning and bring cash back to the job site, where they would stuff envelopes for each worker. On larger jobs, they reported the earnings to the bank and waited for the armored car to arrive. “There was no other way to do it,” Greenhalgh said. “That was the way it was done. We spent the time to make sure it was right and make sure everybody got paid.”

The brass tag system was eventually abolished in the 70s when the unions abandoned their cash payment rule. At that point the foremen simply tracked everyone’s time each day and walked the site to distribute paper checks on payday. Eventually computers streamlined the process in the mid 80s. Today, foremen still track time but most workers are paid via direct deposit.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe we relied on brass tags for one of the most important transactions in our industry. Thinking about logging all those hours and doing the payroll by hand is like having that nightmare where you’re back in your college stats class. And the armored car! Well, that story is just the perfect TBT.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Justin Rice with input from Northeast General Superintendent Roy Greenhalgh. If you have questions, Justin can be reached at or follow him on Twitter at @JustinAlanRice.

Throwback Thursday

Whether it’s sharing your all-time favorite Atari video game or a photo of your sister’s second birthday party, Thursdays have given us all the opportunity to proudly throw it back. So in honor of Throwback Thursdays, we will occasionally post about antiquated, and sometimes comical, construction methods that have given way to some of the biggest innovations in our industry. Please share your Throwback Thursday ideas in the comment section at the bottom of this post! 

Surveying and laying out a job site is a critical first step in making sure a building’s starting point and location on a block is correct before construction begins. In short, it’s how builders ensure that what is drawn is actually built. Thankfully, the instruments to accomplish this once tedious, inefficient and inaccurate task have evolved over the past 50 years. Surveying teams that literally chalked off measurements calculated by hand can now use GPS coordinates taken by robotic instruments to perform the same task much more efficiently.

The throwback:

A North Carolina State University engineering student in the 1950s. Photo provided by North Carolina State University Libraries Special Collections Research Center.

In the 1960s surveying crews on construction sites used two-dimensional architectural drawings to determine the “control lines,” which serve as the benchmark coordinates for all the trades to base their respective layouts off of. The lines themselves were measured by hand and marked with temporary markers, such as wooden stakes or chalk, making for a long and exhausting process that was prone to human error. Back then, it might have taken a three or four-man crew two days to layout a single floor.

But it might have taken just as long to do the math to verify that the distances, angles and heights recorded by the instrument were correct. That’s right, math. Specifically, trigonometry and calculus were crucial to double-checking surveying work back then.

Taken in 1988, this photo features an instrument known as a theodolite. The user had to collect the measurement data from the instrument and calculate the measurements using either a field book or an antiquated data collector. Photo courtesy of

Surveying undeveloped land was equally arduous work back in the day. Justin Farrow, who runs a global network of geospatial professionals called Land Surveyors United, said it wasn’t uncommon for a five-man crew to take more than a week to survey land slotted for a subdivision. Better equipment in the 90s gave way to three-man crews: One guy behind “the gun,” another holding “the rod,” and a third wielding a machete. Yes, a machete. The guy with the gun, or an electronic optical instrument, would stand at the start of a line while another man marked the end of a line with a rod. The rod had a prism attached to the top that provided a target for the gun to take an accurate measurement. The third man used the machete to clear a path so nothing would interfere with the gun’s transmissions.

“A lot of times you would go into the bush to cut these angles, because you can’t shoot through the woods without having a clear-cut angle,” Farrow said. “You mess up one angle and you put everyone in their neighbor’s yard.”

The innovation:

Today, robotic total stations that can aim themselves automatically and be controlled remotely by a single person with a programmable handheld device have replaced these old school inefficiencies. “With modern survey technology, you’re easily saving at least a couple of thousand manhours on a project,” Suffolk Senior Superintendent Mike Moore told us.

Armed with GPS, robotic total stations are much more accurate than the old way of surveying. They use satellites to ping location points to the device through what’s known as an electronic theodolite. Integrated with an electronic distance meter, or EDM, the theodolite reads slope distances from the instrument to a designated point on the construction site.

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A construction worker using a Topcon robotic total station. Photo courtesy of Topcon.

Companies such as Trimble and Topcon are on the forefront of this constantly evolving technology, and they look at it beyond just the initial site survey process. That means increasing compatibility with 3D drawings and virtual models. Robotic total stations allow project teams to use live drawings to identify control lines and make measurements so survey points are automatically built into the digital models.

“The goal is to eliminate the defined divisions between design, build and operate,” Bill Stettner of Building Point Florida, a service provider for Trimble, told us.

Without these modern total stations builders could never construct buildings that reflect the design so closely. And they’d have to sharpen their math skills too.

This post was written by Suffolk Southeast’s Director of Marketing Rachel Elliot with input from Northeast Superintendent Mike Moore. If you have questions, Rachel can be reached at or follow her on Twitter at @Rachel4780.