Excavation of the dirt at the site of CityCenterDC, at 10th and H streets NW. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Oh, sure, the Colosseum, the cathedral of Notre Dame and the Empire State Building are all stunning examples of humankind’s architectural prowess, but they all began the same way: as gigantic holes in the ground.

Before a single buttress can fly or spire can sparkle, someone has to stick a shovel in the dirt and start digging. Someone like Travis Hopkins.

Travis is a superintendent for Strittmatter Metro, the excavation company that has the digging contract for CityCenterDC, currently being built where the old convention center used to be. When it’s completed in early 2014, CityCenterDC will comprise two office buildings, two apartment buildings and two condo buildings. According to Clark Construction Group and Smoot Construction, the joint venture building CityCenterDC, it’s the largest private downtown development in the country.

Right now, though, it is a hole in the ground. Travis and I are standing at the lip of this hole, peering to the bottom, five stories below. From this height, the dump trucks and excavators look like Tonka toys in a child’s sandbox. These are costly toys to play with.

“You never want a truck sitting longer than it takes to load,” Travis says. He wants a steady stream of dump trucks, one leaving as one arrives. He wants the excavator in constant motion.

Josh Packard of Strittmatter Metro, timekeeper on the CityCenterDC job site, and Travis Hopkins, superintendent for Strittmatter Metro, overseeing the excavation. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

There’s a rule of thumb in the excavating business: A truck sitting idle — waiting for a load, stuck in traffic — is costing you a dollar a minute.

Two dump trucks are backed up to the bright orange excavator — what you and I might call a backhoe. They look like piglets nestled expectantly next to a sow. The excavator’s serrated bucket scoops up a load of dirt and dumps it into one truck.

Travis is from Poolesville. He’s a big man with a shaved head and tan lines on his face from where his wraparound sunglasses hit. After a stint in the Navy, he went to work for Strittmatter as a laborer. Now he supervises the ballet that plays out daily in the hole.

To make way for CityCenterDC’s concrete footings, parking garages, basements and assorted other subterranean infrastructure, a total of 504,000 cubic yards of dirt will need to be shifted. A dump truck can hold 11 cubic yards of dirt. Between April 8, when the first excavator scooped into the ground, and the day this November when the digging should be over, approximately 45,818 truckloads of dirt will have been moved.

Frankly, says Travis, it’s lousy dirt. Excavators love dirt full of gravel and sand. It compacts nicely and can be used under footings. But this is mostly dirt gone bad: mucky clay that dries and shrinks in the sun and turns to boot-sucking gloop in the rain. It’s going mainly to an old gravel mine in Brandywine and a place everyone calls Palmer Road, over near the Gaylord National.

Travis and I hop in an ATV and rumble down the big earthen ramp that leads into the hole. It feels like we’re in the belly of a gargantuan sailing ship. The walls of the hole are covered in huge stacked beams of wood held back by iron bars. “Lagging,” it’s called.

At the bottom of the hole, a man named Kennedy Allen directs the dump trucks to the excavator. We look back up to the rim and see a bearded man holding a clipboard. That’s Josh Packard. His job title is timekeeper, and he’s responsible for marking down every single truck that goes in and out.

At its peak a few months ago, trucks would start lining up at 3 a.m., four hours before work began at the site.

“They wanted to be that first truck to get that first shot,” says Travis.

There were Strittmatter trucks as well as trucks from countless independent contractors: L.B. Hauling, Cooley Trucking, BCCH Trucking, J.J. Lawrence, Z.D. Joyner, Otter Creek Excavating, NW105 Trucking Ltd. . . .

They would ring the entire hole: on Ninth Street, H Street, 11th Street, New York Avenue, a circle of dump trucks, a steel wall of dump trucks. It was like a fort, Travis says.

Ironworkers might get all the press — the poetic way they jump from girder to girder like acrobats — but you can’t get more elemental than dirt.