The History and Importance of Groundbreaking Ceremonies


Groundbreaking ceremonies have been used for centuries to celebrate the start of a new venture and give thanks to those who made it possible. They have been adapted to fit modern times, but still hold great significance to the construction industry and the community involved. Although nobody is quite sure exactly when the age-old tradition of groundbreaking ceremonies began, they have been an important ritual around the globe for longer than we have written historical records.

Also referred to as “turning of the sod” or “sod-turning,” these ceremonies hold tremendous importance for the A/E/C industry. Even though early ceremonies were heavily rooted in religion, their basic foundations have stood the test of time.

Today, we see groundbreaking ceremonies occur worldwide, sometimes hosting a plethora of influential people including famous celebrities, noble Queens and Kings, presidents and prime ministers from across the globe. Past groundbreaking ceremonies range widely and include:

  • A historic festival for the Washington Monument in 1848 hosted by then-President James K. Polk
  • A dignified ceremony for the Parliament House in Melbourne, Australia in 1980 for Queen Elizabeth II
  • A big celebration for the new LA Clippers stadium in Inglewood, CA, complete with the Mayor of the city, Jerry West, Lawrence Frank, and nearly the entire roster of the Clippers team.

The Beginning of Groundbreaking Ceremonies

The first documented groundbreaking ceremony took place in the year 113 BC in ancient China. Similar traditions would later appear in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Shinto, and Feng Shui traditions, among others. The idea of groundbreaking comes from the act of physically “breaking” the earth to prepare the land and making a sacred deposit in exchange for a solid and lasting foundation, thereby symbolically consecrating the building location.

This ceremony was originally done because the act of breaking the earth without providing an offering was thought to hurt the earth and that it would anger the gods and spirits that were worshipped by the people.

Typical offerings at the original ceremonies included:

  • Incense
  • Fruit
  • Wine
  • Grains
  • Beans
  • Tea leaves
  • Sacred items, such as holy relics and coins

Modern Significance of Groundbreaking Ceremonies

Although the reasons behind having a groundbreaking ceremony in today’s day and age have little to do with religion, the ancient practice has endured over the centuries. Today, groundbreaking ceremonies in the West hold a different purpose. Although celebratory, they serve as a business activity to create interest in a new building project, generate positive press, and celebrate those who played a part in turning a vision into a reality. Perlo Superintendent, Kyncade Hardy, when looking back on a groundbreaking ceremony with JSR Micro, remarks, “It was really special to see the owners, who flew all the way from Japan, joined by representatives from the City of Hillsboro (Oregon) and all the major players of the project. The Head of Operations gave a toast and a great speech, and it was clear how excited everyone was to be there.”

This photo shows a groundbreaking ceremony for Perlo’s client, JSR Micro. The owners, who flew from Japan, provided participants with sake to bring more cultural significance to the event.

Usually organized by the project developer for a client, modern groundbreaking ceremonies provide an opportunity to highlight how a project will positively impact the community, customers/clients, and employees. People of influence are often elected to deliver a speech, whether it be the founder of the company or a famous politician in the community. These speeches provide a platform to showcase how a company is growing, meeting its mission, and/or planning for the future.

Interestingly, it is still common for groundbreaking ceremonies today to deposit coins into the foundation of the soon-to-be building. Some have even explored using time capsules to hold historical documents related to the location or the project’s journey. However, the most common supplies include shovels and a few hardhats for participants. Shovels, in fact, have transitioned over time to harbor the primary significance of the groundbreaking ceremony. Sometimes, they are painted gold to demonstrate this significance and are meant to be saved for display or as historical artifacts.

Fun Fact
The groundbreaking ceremony for the new CIA headquarters took place in May of 1984 and showcases the shovel used by then-President Ronald Reagan, which can be seen here.

Some companies use these ceremonies as a way to show where they came from and the struggles they may have faced to get to where they are today. Perlo Project Engineer Jakob Eisenbeiss and Project Manager Jordan Peterson both had the opportunity to participate in a groundbreaking ceremony for the national company Leupold & Stevens. Eisenbeiss notes that the most important aspect of the ceremony was to “highlight that the company continues to be a local Oregon family-owned and operated business founded over 100 years ago.”

Their achievement was emphasized by the five generations of founding family members who were present and participating – some of whom were over 90 years old. Peterson was responsible for coordinating what needed to be provided to keep all company executives and participants informed. He states, “It is always great to work with the companies where a new building means something to them, as it serves as a sign of achievement.”

Changing Trends or Tried-and-True Tradition?

Nowadays, companies are thinking outside of the box when it comes to groundbreaking ceremonies in order to stand out, be noticed, and draw in media attention. In 1997, downtown Los Angeles developer Lowe Enterprises hosted a “wall raising,” otherwise known as a “tilt-up,” to draw attention to the start of their building process. One Santa Monica developer hosted a “bottoming out” party to celebrate completing a parking garage’s lowest level. Skydivers have descended on unsuspecting guests with gold shovels. At the same time, a two-story replica of a personal computer emerges in a high-tech industrial park on the East Coast.

Last fall, a Hollywood developer hosted an event featuring music producer Quincy Jones, a catered lunch by world-renowned chef Wolfgang Puck, and an explosion of fireworks and confetti. In October of 2012, the San Jose Earthquakes set a Guinness World Record for largest participatory groundbreaking, with a total of 6,256 participants. And in 2014, Brooks Winery, one of Perlo’s clients, broke ground with a bulldozer.

Representatives from Brooks Winery, one of Perlo’s clients, breaking ground with their bulldozer.

Although we are seeing more instances of these unconventional ceremony practices, some still prefer the traditional shovel and hardhat. The tradition of a groundbreaking ceremony has proven to be a universal practice that has prevailed over the centuries, with evidence of it being found in almost all ancient civilizations across the world. The meaning behind these ceremonies, traditional or unconventional, still shows just how vital the act of symbolizing the creation, construction, and building of a new structure is. The idea behind groundbreaking ceremonies, to create a strong and lasting foundation for an architectural feat of any means, maintains a high degree of significance. The idea was emphasized by former President Barack Obama in a past groundbreaking ceremony speech when he expressed, “What we build here won’t just be an achievement of our time, it will be a monument for all time.”

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re planning an upcoming groundbreaking ceremony for the President of the United States or for five generations of your own family, each ceremony is unique and special in its own way. It is essential to know the origin behind the story in hopes that it will drive home the special meaning for everyone involved.