Stevens’ “Big John” is History
Vertical lab for the testing of high-rise plumbing disappears from the waterfront skyline
Big John being DismantledA durable landmark signifying a moment in Stevens, Hoboken and civil engineering history has disappeared from the famous waterfront that was once characterized by international cargo ships, drydocks and Marlon Brando’s hair-raising scenes from Elia Kazan’s 1954 classic film about mob corruption in the longshoremen’s unions.
Stevens Institute of Technology’s green vertical water-pressure testing lab, known affectionately as “Big John,” has been removed to make way for the completion of a section of the long-planned continuous waterfront promenade that is a signal landmark of a gentler and more gentrified Hoboken shoreline.
To commemorate the demise of the tower, we include below a complete reprint of journalist Michael Mullins’ superb historical account of the structure, as featured in a 2007 edition of the Hoboken Reporter. – Patrick A. Berzinski, executive director, University Communications
2,000 flushes: Toilets tested in green ‘Big John’ building on waterfront
By Michael D. Mullins
“Big John,” or “The Royal Flush,” as it is commonly called, is an 11-story green building on the Hoboken waterfront. It was built 34 years ago with an important duty: To measure the amount of atmospheric pressure required to flush a toilet in a high-rise apartment building.
The structure was erected by the private company American Standard Inc. in 1972 as part of a project sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD was looking for a way to conserve water and decrease plumbing costs. Every household drainage system has two pipes: one removes waste while the other extends to the building’s rooftop and uses the atmosphere to apply pressure. HUD hoped to provide additional atmospheric pressure while reducing the size of the pipe connected to the roof.
After learning of HUD’s request in the early 1970s, Thomas Konen, an alumnus of the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, informed the school and wrote a proposal for the project with Dr. Daniel Savitsky, professor emeritus of ocean engineering.
“Big John” was erected on waterfront property owned by Stevens.
“[HUD] wanted to limit it to a university rather than contract it out to some company,” said Savitsky, who accredits much of the planning and success of the “Big John” project to Konen, who has since passed away.
Over the five-year operation, the 44 fully functional toilets [four on each floor] were flushed in cycles by a computer system in order to determine the effect that the different combinations would have on the centralized drainage system.
“We would sometimes flush them all at once,” recalls Savitsky. “We called it the ‘Royal Flush.’ ”
Little plastic balls were used to stimulate human waste. They would collect with the water in a basin at the bottom of the structure.
After removing the pellets, the water would be sucked up to a tank atop the building before being used in another flush.
The project was a success, resulting in the implementation of a “booster” device like the type used on airplanes that creates the “woosh” sound, according to Savitsky.
The experiment was able to reduce the size of the piping while decreasing the amount of water used in a flush by up to 90 percent.
“It made a direct contribution to plumbing systems being simplified and reducing their size,” said Savitsky.
Due to government cutbacks, HUD was forced to discontinue its research at Stevens in the late 1980s.
As a result of the inactivity, Stevens stopped paying the insurance on the building’s elevator and began using the facility for storage purposes only.
Big John’s rebirth
After laying dormant for a number of years, Physics Professor Dr. Rainer Martini began using the Building Technology Research center, as it is officially known, in 2000 to conduct experiments in communications using a new form of infrared laser.
Two modified telescopes were situated on top of the Big John building and another building on campus, the Burchard Building, at a distance of 125 meters apart. The research lasted for about three years.
However, the recent construction of the six-story Babbio Center for Technology blocked the free space required by the lasers. Martini currently conducts similar experiments from between the Burchard Building and the Stevens Library.
Big John is Gone!Another professor who found a use for “Big John” was Dr. Alan Blumberg of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Ocean Engineering at Stevens. Blumberg, along with his colleague Dr. Michael Bruno, director of the Center for Maritime Systems, began conducting experiments with river currents and weather in the late 1990s.
For the last three years, the professors have been developing special sensors and using them to measure the precise amounts of salt and fresh water, the speed of the current, the water level, wave heights, and the wind speed, and wind direction along the Hudson River off the Hoboken waterfront.
Sensors are attached to buoys in the river about 100 to 150 feet off the shore. They relay data back to an antenna atop the Big John building via a radio wave.
The information is posted online, allowing fishermen, sailors and emergency management personnel to watch for areas of large currents and waves.
“We’re so lucky to be here right where the fresh water and the salt water converge off of Castle Point,” said Blumberg, who also has instruments off of the Intrepid, Sandy Hook, The Statue of Liberty, and the South Street Seaport.
The program is being sponsored by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, The Office of Naval Research, Department of Homeland Security, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Weather Service.
The information gathered by the sensors can be viewed online at www.stevens.edu/maritimeforecast.