How a Building Gets from One Place to Another

02 of April of 2021

From time to time, new urban needs require the demolition of existing buildings. Demolishing them will allow the area to be renovated. But not all structures have to face this ending. Sometimes, it’s worth preserving architectural heritage and moving a particular building to make room in the city. This is where structure relocation comes in, drawing on complex engineering techniques.

Throughout history, all sorts of structures have been moved: wooden houses, brick buildings, factories, and even entire bus stations. Sometimes this is on dollies, sometimes on rails. Almost all are pushed by pneumatic machinery, and from time to time, trucks, helium balloons, or robotic feet are used. All of these methods are fascinating.

This Victorian-style house moves to a new neighborhood

Victorian-style buildings are quite common in San Francisco. To keep them from being demolished, they are often moved by large trucks. One of the last buildings to be moved this way, the Englander House, dates back to 1880. In 2021, it became the star of the neighborhood when it moved about five blocks.

Moving a building around in a city – even a small one, as in this case – is a complex task. It requires clearing the streets of everything from cars to street furniture, cutting branches, and even making small adjustments to allow for turns. Just figuring out the route can be a considerable headache, given the lack of space.

Compared to transportation, raising the house on jacks was relatively straightforward. After that, it took hours to move the house traveling at one mile an hour. It took several more hours to situate the house at its final location, where it currently stands. In the United States, these types of wheeled transfers are pretty common due to both the wooden construction of single-family houses and the typically large roads.

Moving a factory with helium balloons and rails

The Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon factory is a small reminder of what was once a 19th-century industrial area in Zurich, Switzerland. That’s why it was decided that the building could not be demolished when it came up against the area’s railway updates in 2012. Instead, they would move the 6,200-ton building about 60 meters away using rails and helium balloons.

The first step was to raise the building, replacing part of its lower perimeter with vertical beams that would then be pushed up and placed on a structure that would rest on a rail system. Hundreds of helium balloons were attached at key locations to support some of the building’s weight and make this thrust possible

Thanks to the vertical thrust from the balloons and the pneumatic thrust of horizontal pistons, it took just a few hours for the building to travel that distance – an engineering milestone. Then, they used the opposite procedure to set this old factory down in the spot where it currently stands.

Moving an 8,000-ton residential building

In 1974, Bogotá, Colombia, made it into the Guinness Book of Records when a building from 1955 was moved from one street to another. The structure in question was the Cudecom, a multi-family building with eight floors that weighs one ton per floor. Urban restructuring in the area needed the space occupied by the property, but instead of demolishing it, the decision was made to move it.

The Cudecom building was in the middle of the future Avenida Ciudad de Lima, so it had to be moved over 29 meters. In what took over a year of work, new foundations were built under the building, and these came to rest on a structure of steel rollers and hydraulic jacks. This called for 400 people.

The relocation process itself only took nine hours, and this was a record for similar techniques taking place in other parts of the world. The technique was new, but Colombia broke a record for the mass displaced with that project.

The school in China that could walk

It’s not every day that you see a 7,600-ton, 80-year-old building walking through the city on hundreds of robotic legs. Fortunately for the residents of Shanghai who saw the relocation of the iconic Lagena Primary School, this was an unprecedented feat of engineering that took 18 days to cover a distance of 62 meters.

The Lagena Primary School is a primary school built in 1935 in the Huangpu district of Shanghai, China. It was still used for educational purposes until 2018, when the growing city’s council decided to renovate the area. That decision included tearing down the school, but neighbors’ protests led them to draw up a new plan.

That new plan was for the entire building to be moved. This required attaching 198 robotic legs to the building that would allow it to move as if it were a centipede. Watching it walk certainly makes an impression. At the almost ridiculous speed of 0.14 meters per hour, the building inched forward as it turned into its final position, where it will be restored.

A water tower in Moscow

In 2020, a water tower in Moscow that formerly belonged to the old Borets factory traveled 100 meters through a construction zone. The curious part is that a technique devised by Italian architect and engineer Aristotle Fioravanti in the 15th century was used; it had also been used in Moscow 40 years earlier during Russia’s ‘great migration’ of buildings.

This water tower, a 19th-century architectural treasure weighing in around 1,600 tons, was located right in the middle of what will be a new residential area. The Russian authorities decided to preserve it by moving it to another location using a horizontal push technique using jacks.

The first step in moving this vertical structure was to separate it from its foundations. This task required extreme delicacy, given the state it was in. It needed to be raised 3.5 meters, and its perimeter had to be reinforced with metal belts to keep it from collapsing. After that, it was set on a reinforced concrete slab. It has now been moved to its new home.

Moving a bus terminal

Considering how big China is, the number of buildings in need of preservation, and its current economic growth, it’s no surprise that many building relocations take place there. These are also quite large structures, such as the Houxi Long Distance bus station, which was built in 2015 and moved 90º horizontally just four years later.

The station had just opened, but the city of Xiamen’s rapid economic growth had not considered how this enormous building – 30,000-tons and 162-meters long – would be in the middle of the high-speed line. There were two options: tear the building down or move it. They went with the second option, which earned a Guinness Record.

The moving process was preceded by the area’s excavation, freeing up space and placing 532 wheeled hydraulic jacks under the station. Once lifted and placed on thousands of wheels, the station was pushed clockwise into its current position. It is the largest and heaviest building on the planet to have been ‘pivoted’ along the largest arc.

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