The HBE construction crew laid the last structural steel beam for the new Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital during a “Topping Out” ceremony Wednesday at the construction site near Hollister and Patterson avenues.

A crane lowered the 500-pound beam — painted white and covered in signatures from hospital staff, donors and construction workers — while a crowd of about 100 people watched in awe with camera phones ready.

“This represents the last piece of at least 1,000 tons of steel,” said Jim Moore, HBE vice president.

A small evergreen tree and an American flag were planted on top of the beam as a symbolic gesture.

“The evergreen tree represents growth and prosperity, and the American flag represents everything we value as Americans,” said Ron Werft, CEO and president of Cottage Health System.

Dan VanAntwerp, a project manager for Cottage Health System, said placing the tree on top of the structure’s frame is a construction industry tradition from Norway. For generations, Norwegian homebuilders paid homage to the trees they used by cutting off the top of a tree and resting it on the frame until the house was finished.

The ribbon-cutting for the 152,000-square-foot, two-story hospital is expected to take place in 2014, Moore said.

Funding for the estimated $114 million hospital is mostly coming from tax-exempt bonds and hospital operations, and $14 million is coming from private donations, of which $9.7 million has already been raised.

The existing hospital will be decommissioned and demolished after the new one is finished, making way for new office and parking space.

After recently spending three days as a patient in her hospital, Diane Wisby, vice president of Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital, said she gained a renewed understanding for the project’s importance.

“When you actually experience that, it takes on a whole new dimension,” she said.

Most patients now must share rooms, Wisby said, but soon will have private space in which to get healthy and be visited by family. Hospital staff also will be able to help a patient and move on to the next much quicker by having patients’ data wired through the buildings’ electronics, she said.

Cottage Health System was forced to redevelop its infrastructure even in the midst of an economic recession because of a law that passed after the Northridge earthquake and requires hospitals to remain operational, not just able to evacuate, after a seismic disaster.

Wisby said Cottage Health System’s Board of Directors deserves the credit for making wise financial decisions that allowed the organization to follow through on the new construction.

“There are a lot of hospitals that are not in the financial position (to rebuild),” Wisby said. “We hope there will be some relief to those hospitals instead of having them close down if they can’t meet seismic requirements.”

Werft made a point of thanking the construction workers from HBE and its subcontractors. He told a story of his own grandfather’s pride in the dams he helped build during the 1930s working as a pipe fitter in Tennessee.

“I hope you have the same sense of pride and ownership for the work you’re doing here,” Werft said.

Noozhawk intern Daniel Langhorne can be reached at dlanghorne@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.