Certain superstitions are to be observed when you’re in the middle of a big construction project.
On Friday morning, an evergreen sapling attached to a steel beam floated through the air over what was once a cornfield and will soon be an expansive drug-manufacturing plant.
Novo Nordisk is expanding in Clayton to begin making active ingredients to use in injections and pills for diabetics. It will be the company’s first plant outside of Denmark to make these drugs. The five-year project costs $1.8 billion and will create about 700 jobs.
More than a year after a groundbreaking last spring, the Danish company held a “topping off” ceremony Friday as it laid the last beam of the campus’ first building. The beam, painted white and signed by Novo employees and construction workers, was hoisted in place by a crane, all the while adorned by the United States, North Carolina and company flags.
Project director Bob Petersen explained the superstition with two traditions, one rooted in the company’s Scandanavian origins and another from the U.S.
“No one really seems to know exactly when or how this topping out tradition started,” Petersen said. “This construction celebration actually has ancient roots. The most widely quoted story actually credits the pre-Dark Ages Scandinavian cultures where they took a tree and put it on top of a building, basically to calm down the evil spirits.
“If you’re a spirit living in a tree and you’re cut for lumber, you’re going to get a little annoyed,” he continued. “So what they did is they placed a tree on top of the structure with some good spirits and they could then calm down the evil ones.”
In the American version, Petersen said the trees had a connection to Native-American craftsmen who worked on some of the country’s first steel buildings.
“As they said, no man-made structure should be taller than a tree,” Petersen said.
In turning a typical Johnston County cornfield into a 95-acre manufacturing plant, Novo executives said they moved 700,000 cubic yards of earth and installed five miles of underground utility piping.
When operational in 2020, the plant’s campus will account for more than 900,000 square feet of space.
Gary Lohr, who will lead the plant, said the company will have “topping out” ceremonies for the remaining five buildings about every eight weeks. Construction will reach its peak next year as 1,800 workers build the plant.
The site currently resembles a small city, with a number of trailers lined up in rows functioning as offices.
Standing in front of the skeletal steel buildings Friday, Lohr said the company started searching for sites for the plant in 2013, narrowing the options to the eastern United States and finally Clayton – a decision that’s helped buoy growth in western Johnston County.
Lohr said the weather hasn’t always been cooperative – Hurricane Matthew last fall and a big storm in April – but the project remains on schedule.
“This is a great milestone, but it’s also a stepping stone toward our greater goal, which is providing these innovative lifesaving medicines to diabetes patients throughout the world,” Lohr said.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4577; @jdrewjackson