Fir trees and flags are common symbols used to celebrate a tradition called Topping Out. Held when the last beam is placed during construction or, in the case of Cary Institute, a major renovation, Topping Out is an ancient ritual thought to bring good luck to the people working on the project and to all who enter the building once the work is completed.
Today, Topping Out is held in celebration of the progress being made on a project, but the origins of these traditions likely stem from deep reverence for the trees needed to construct a building and concern for the harm that taking trees may have done to the forest and creatures that depend on healthy forests. Modern buildings use steel beams, so ironworkers take the lead in performing the rite.
The team at Consigli Construction began their Topping Out traditions in 1989. They typically arrange for the beams to arrive on site about a week in advance of the date their ironworkers will place them. The crew often paints white a section that will not be visible when the project has been completed. While on the ground, the crew and project dignitaries sign the painted section of the beams, which are hoisted up by crane with an evergreen tree and a US flag on them. Ironworkers guide the beams from their posts near the top of the roof and secure them;in the case of our project, the beams will be bolted into place. When their work is done, they celebrate the milestone with a meal. This meal cements their fellowship with the other trades and the teamwork that will bring the project to completion. In these pandemic times, we modified the beam signing process to ensure social distancing and we did not host the traditional in-person meal.
For centuries, projects have used cut trees in their Topping Out ceremonies. Cary Institute will be using a live, locally grown, potted white pine and plans to plant the tree on our grounds in gratitude to the forests on which so much of our research and our lives depend. The team at Consigli Construction will guide the tree safely down from the roof and will close out the ritual by carefully folding the US flag. Owing to the project’s focus on sustainability, the beams bear many signatures of Cary staff, supporters, and friends that are likely to remain in place for decades to come.