In building construction, topping out (sometimes referred to as topping off) is a builders' rite ceremony held when the last beam is placed at the top of a building. The term may also refer to the overall completion of the building's structure, or an intermediate point, such as when the roof is dried in. A topping out ceremony is usually held to commemorate the event.
While common in the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, the origins of the ceremony are obscure. Its practice has long been an important component of timber frame building. This tradition migrated to America with European craftspeople. A tree or leafy branch is placed on the topmost beam, often with flags and streamers tied to it. A toast is usually drunk and sometimes the workers are treated to a meal. The ceremony has also been common in the United States when a skyscraper is completed. The last beam to be hoisted is painted white and signed by all the workers involved. In other types of building, the ceremony typically focuses on the bedding of the last block of masonry or brick. The ceremony is akin to the practice of placing a newspaper or coins under the cornerstone of a building.
The Warsaw radio mast with its final section in the foreground.
Topping out the A-3 Test Stand at the John C. Stennis Space Center.
The practice of "topping out" a new building can be traced to the ancient Scandinavian religious practice of placing a tree on the top of a new building to appease the tree-dwelling spirits of their ancestors that had been displaced. The practice migrated to England with Scandinavian immigrants and took root there.
Topping out ceremony
Today, a non-religious but formal ceremony is often held to commemorate this milestone in the construction of a building. All tradespeople on the job usually join in the celebration as well as the supervisors, representatives of the architecture and engineering firms, the owner or representatives of the owning organization, donors, and any VIPs that are invited. The ceremony is often parlayed into a media event for public relations purposes.
While the ceremony itself has no standard agenda, it usually includes the placing of an evergreen tree upon the structure to symbolize growth and bring luck. State and national flags are often raised atop the structure. It may take place during lunch time and can include a catered meal and entertainment. In large building construction, the topping out beam may be signed by the ironworker crew, or by local dignitaries depending on the importance of the building. Ironworkers may take this as an opportunity to publicise their union local. The beam is signed on the ground before it is hoisted into place by crane. The height of the ceremony takes place when the piece of steel is lifted into place and secured (although not completely). Often, the final piece of steel has little or no structural significance to the structure. After the ceremony is over, the piece of steel will be completely secured.
The topping out ceremony is similar to ship naming and launching ceremonies and probably of similar antiquity, and was perhaps done to placate the gods and to shield the building from harm.
In the Netherlands and Flanders there is the tradition of "pannenbier" (literally "(roof) tile beer" in Dutch) in which it is tradition to hang out a flag once the highest point of a building is reached. The flag (usually the national, regional or city flag) then stays in place until the owner of the building provides (free) beer to the workers, after which the flag is lowered. It is considered greedy if the flag is flown for more than a couple of days.
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- Drying In, Part 2, November 6, 2009
- Topping Off the Frame, November 26, 2008
- "CUSSW: News:: History of the 'Topping Out' Ceremony". Columbia University School of Social Network. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
- "Richtfest for ESO Headquarters Extension". ESO Announcement. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
- The Hoary Tradition of Topping Out. The New York Times, October 21, 1984
- John V. Robinson (2001). "The 'topping out' traditions of the high-steel ironworkers". Western Folklore, Fall 2001.
- http://www.carpenters.org/carpentermag/Topping910_01.pdf Topping-Off! (goes into ancient Scandinavian religious roots); Carpenter Magazine; Sep/Oct 2001; accessed 2007-02-11
- http://www.stp.uh.edu/vol68/160/news/news4.html Tree symbolizes campus' growth (tree is still a part of the ceremony); The Daily Cougar; Volume 68, Issue 160, Monday, July 28, 2003; accessed 2007-02-11
- Richtfest.info A German language site about the topping out ceremonies.