Topping Out: A Celebration Shared around the World

The phrase 'Topping Out' refers to the installation of the final piece of structure, or the completion of the roof on a building, bridge or other large construction. In many cases, it signifies the highest point of the structure. In some cases, the ceremony is accompanied by a media event, celebration, and a meal shared by all. 

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‘Topping Out' rings true to most in the construction industry. For most, it is a symbol of progress, a time to reflect, a moment to be proud of accomplishment, and excitement for what is to come. As a safety professional, it provides a brief moment of relief and a strong sense of pride in the work of the project team and trades personnel. 

Although many of us are familiar with the topping out practices of an evergreen tree and an American flag proudly displayed on a white beam, most are not aware the history of the event dates back centuries. 

The significance of topping out is believed to date back to Scandinavia, where mythology suggests humans originated from trees and our souls returned to the trees after death, giving each tree a spirit of its own. Folklore suggests there was a practice of placing a tree on top of a new building to appease the tree dwelling spirits of their displaced ancestors and enlist the blessings of the forest god. The tree branches on top of the home ensured fertility of the land and the home. This became a celebration as large numbers of the community would often assist with completing a new building, and it was a way the building owner could show their appreciation. 

The Scandinavian invaders of the mid-to-late 8th century, introduced the practice to England. In 14th century England, topping out ceremonies were marked by a yew tree branch being placed at the highest point of the building. Often the personal flag of the owner would be hoisted on top of the building once the shell was complete.

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With the migration from Europe to the United States, came the traditions and customs of the people. The custom is continued most frequently on completed structures such as bridges and skyscrapers, where you will find an evergreen tree and an American flag flying to signify one of man’s great accomplishments, construction.

In modern construction, topping out ceremonies are celebrated in different ways around the world. The following are a handful of examples:

  • America: The final structural piece is often painted white and signed by members of the construction team and vested parties.
  • Jordan: Builders hold a religious ceremony followed by a feast.
  • Denmark: The roof of the building is decorated with evergreen garlands.
  • Germany: Laurels are hung around the chimney of a new house to acknowledge its ‘birth’.
  • Brazil: Branches and leaves are fixed to the building.
  • Spain: A flag is raised and all workers are invited to a lunch by the boss.
  • New Zealand: Completion of the roof to a water-proof state is celebrated through a "roof shout", where workers are treated to cake and beer.
     

    References

    1. "CUSSW: News: History of the 'Topping Out' Ceremony". Columbia University School of Social Work. Archived from the original on 11 June 2012. Retrieved 6 June 2012.

    2. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_eye/2013/12/19/why_do_construction_workers_top_building_sites_with_undecorated_christmas.html

    3. The Ironworker, International Association of Bridge, Structural, and Ornamental Ironworkers, Washington, DC.