The Topping-Out Ceremony: PR on the Roof

By KIMMEL & ASSOCIATES on FEBRUARY 4, 2016

Topping-out ceremonies are an age-old tradition that announces: Progress Underway. For many on construction jobs, they’re a moment to celebrate, mark a milestone, and announce the project is nearing completion.

To mark progress, grand construction projects require grand gestures. The topping-out ceremony has maintained its importance as a symbolic measure of success on many construction projects. Today, topping-out ceremonies encompass the three Ps: progress, party, and PR.

History of Topping-Out Ceremonies

Before steel and multi-million dollar jobs dominated the construction landscape of the 20th and 21st centuries, the tradition of recognizing building milestones started small. The history of the topping-out ceremony seems to have humble beginnings in Scandinavian cultures, so humble in fact, there’s no clear record of why or when the practice began. Practitioners generally agree the first topping-out ceremonies occurred on much smaller-scale projects in Holland, but the events evolved as construction and societies changed over time.

In the states, the concept continues predominantly on high steel jobs or large-scale projects. Ironworkers are credited with giving the topping-out ceremony its name to highlight the moment the last piece of steel or structure is put in place.

The practice tracks closely with that of commemorative events in other fields, speculates John V. Robertson, who wrote about topping-out ceremonies for the Western States Folklore Society. “I guess the impulse to commemorate is similar to mountain climbers—or astronauts landing on the moon for that matter,” he writes.

I guess the impulse to commemorate is similar to mountain climbers—or astronauts landing on the moon for that matter”

Modern Topping-Out Ceremonies

As with climbers and astronauts, ironworkers symbolically affix a flag to the highest point of a structure. The hoopla surrounding the topping-out ceremony is celebratory and good public relations. On modern-day projects, topping-out ceremonies serve dual purposes for marking a milestone and spreading good news. Oftentimes, preparations for the day of the topping-out ceremony begin months in advance. However, rather than represent the end of a project, the ceremonies signify more.

“The topping-out party is kind of a big deal for everybody. A big milestone. People spend months planning for it,” says David Mashburn, director of facilities services for the Denver International Airport (DEN). “The problem is, mentally, a lot of people think it’s done at the topping-out party. Usually it’s only about halfway done when that happens.”

A new hotel expansion of the airport culminated in November 2015 after years of construction. The South Terminal Redevelopment Program includes the new Westin hotel on the busy airport site, a terminal expansion, and a rail line into the heart of Denver.

topping out construction
(CREDIT: Approved image of new airport hotel for non-commercial use from Denver International Airport)

topping out construction
(CREDIT: Approved image of new airport hotel for non-commercial use from Denver International Airport. See more approved images of Denver Airport.

A topping-out ceremony was held for the 519-room, 14-story hotel in 2014. The contractors, a tri-venture of Mortenson Hunt Saunders, and the City of Denver, coordinated the topping-out ceremony to commemorate the last steel beam set on the hotel roof. The event was held between shift changes; the project was fast-tracked and run around the clock.

“It was a beautiful day,” says Mashburn, who participated as part of the team that executed design management of the hotel construction.

“It was a beautiful day.”

Traditionally, the last structural beam is painted white and signed by as many workers as possible using paint pens. For this $544-million job, the beam was “pretty densely packed with signatures,” he says.

“The night crews were able to sign it and stay there. I think they started at like seven in the morning. And then the day people could come and sign it, too,” Mashburn says. “They had over 500 construction workers on any given day on the site. They had people working on the hotel 24/7.”

Fourteen stories off the ground, the last bolt on the hotel project was driven in by Michael Hancock, Denver mayor. It was decided that a live tree, rather than a cut one, would grace the site, an acknowledgement of the city’s green consciousness.

“Our tree was actually a living tree. That was a requirement. They couldn’t cut a tree and put it on a beam like they typically do,” Mashburn recalls.

After the beam was set, the tree was fixed atop the hotel structure along with an American flag, another tradition in topping-out ceremonies. Following the ceremony and picture-taking in Denver, participants migrated to a local golf club for an off-site party.

Red Rocks Amphitheatre Topping-out Ceremony

Not all topping-out ceremonies share the same characteristics. They seem to take on the tone of the project and the personalities of the people who work on them. Another ceremony attended by Mashburn turned into a spontaneous on-site party, because the venue, an outdoor theater for concerts, matched the mood.

Red Rocks Amphitheatre, in Morrison, Colorado, just outside of Denver, was commemorating progress on the new Visitor Center, a 3,000-square-foot addition designed to appeal as a tourist destination. In a style mimicking the geological wonder of the natural amphitheater, the visitor center was built opposite the stage between two large sandstone outcrops. The visitor center includes an indoor theater, performer’s hall of fame, meeting rooms, restaurant, restrooms, and an upper and lower terrace. It officially opened in summer 2002.

topping out construction
(CREDIT: Approved image by Goldman, for media use from Red Rocks website.)

topping out construction
(CREDIT: Approved image by Don Petizman, for media use from Red Rocks website.)

Several months before the grand opening, the topping-off ceremony at Red Rocks drew the Denver mayor, then Wellington Web. A tree- and flag-raising concluded with a party on site that felt more laid-back, says Mashburn, who worked for the addition’s architect, Sink Combs Dethlefs.

“It was a lot of fun. It was a city event, and the city dignitaries came, and the mayor came at that time. We put in the last beam, and all the politicians left, and the contractors had a party,” he says. “There was no power available on the stage. We were basically camping out.”

“It was a lot of fun. We were basically camping out.”

Red Rocks Amphitheatre - back of the stage
(CREDIT: Approved image by Don Petizman, for media use from Red Rocks website.)

For planning modern day topping-out ceremonies, both the owner and the contractor most often play a role and participate. For the owner, it’s a chance to toot the horn of success; for the contractor, it’s a matter of arranging the logistics and practicalities of the day’s events. For everyone involved, it’s a time to reflect and feel good about heading into the final phase of construction.

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