Architecture is quickly adopting the popular technology of robots. Although it is slightly hard to define what “robot” really means, for architecture, it tends to refer to anything from robot arms to CNC mills to 3D printers. Basically, they are programmable, mechanical, and automated instruments that assist in processes of digital fabrication.
So, what might robots mean for architecture? A more precise architecture which could contribute to a more sustainable building life cycle? More innovative design derived from algorithmic processes? A more efficient prefabrication process that could reduce the time and cost of construction?
Probably a mix of all three. But more importantly, what might robots mean for humans? Robotic replacement for the construction worker? Loss of local craftsmanship and construction knowledge? Maybe. But I might reformulate the question. Asking what robots mean for humans implies passivity.
What I ask, then, is what can robots do for humans?
Robotic fabrication methods are very efficient. They can do what most human labor can with equal to more precision, for the same amount of money, in much less time, and without concern for injury or labor laws (e.g. the work week). If need be, they can work for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Quantitatively, that means a robot can work over four times longer per week than the average worker. And you also don’t have to pay a robot, they work for free (minus the energy bill).
If the advantage of robots is their efficiency, why aren’t we using them for things that require cheap and fast construction (and by require, I mean in the interest of livelihood, not budget constraint)? This includes anything from emergency structures for disaster relief efforts and refugee camps to temporary structures for the homeless. Surely it is the market capitalist economy that drives the development of most technologies, including robots. But doesn’t the market capital model of getting more bang for your buck fit perfectly into efforts that rely on making a lot (shelters, facilities, etc.) out of a little (time, money, and materials)? Imagined thus, robotic efficiency can do more than just save people money, it can make the act of aid more economically feasible.
So how can architects practically apply these technologies to structures of aid?
Prefabrication, in which buildings are either assembled onsite or prefabricated and brought to the site whole, dramatically reducing or even eliminating on-site construction time, could easily gain from constantly working robots. By enabling a more efficient work cycle, robots pose great potential for improving the speed of the prefabrication process.
Moreover, prefabrication is crucial in disaster stricken areas or refugee camps, where on-site construction is detrimental/impossible and importing whole structures, parts, or even materials, can be complicated and expensive. So, what if we put robots on the ground and fabricated structures at the disaster site? Or at least nearby? Using local materials? With very little human assistance? Not only could this reduce cost, it would involve locality and enable alternative energy uses. Emergency shelters could be mass-produced in less time and for less money, thereby increasing response time and reducing construction costs. More time and money, then, could be spent elsewhere, on things like food and water.
3D printers, too, make their case for onsite utility. Behrokh Khoshnevis, a USC engineering professor, recently developed a prototype 3D printer that could construct a building onsite in twenty hours. Known as “contour crafting”, the process essentially builds up the walls of the house in layers of a composite concrete capable of supporting itself during construction. According to his website, Khoshnevis imagines this technology benefiting victims of disaster and war:
Contour Crafting technology can deliver strong dignified houses to disaster victims very rapidly. Construction by Contour Crafting can build a 2,000 square foot house with all utilities for electrical and plumbing in less than 24 hours. Contour Crafting technology is adaptable and can use in situ construction material, thus eliminating the need to transport materials long distances, saving the time and costs associated with transportation. Since Contour Crafting is an automated process, labor needs are highly minimized allowing relief workers to allocate their time and effort to rebuilding local infrastructure such as water sanitation and distribution systems, roads, electrical and communication systems as well as irrigations systems. In this way Contour Crafting has the potential of providing disaster survivors not only with dignified shelter, but also with more resources to rebuild their lives and their communities.
Although this technology ultimately remains unproven, it marks a promising effort for implementing an architectural robotic process of aid. (See our previous coverage of this, and more 3D printing possibilites here.)
Robots might also be able to participate in the initial response to disaster and destruction by contributing to debris cleanup. Although at the moment robot arms have limited abilities to work onsite, in a random and unpredictable environment, Testa & Weiser of Sci-Arc believe that robots will gain enough sophistication to work under complex site conditions. If they are right, and robot arms learn to adapt in unfamiliar conditions and function onsite, they could improve both the speed and safety of disaster response by automating the often slow and dangerous task of initial cleanup for rebuilding.
We, Americans, are notoriously bad at disaster relief. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have left many people homeless, and viable solutions to quickly shelter them have been slim. Why? Why aren’t we 3D printing shelters for the homeless? Why, instead of prototyping different algorithmic forms for the sake of experimentation, aren’t architecture schools prototyping emergency shelters for disaster victims? The paradigm of experimentation must shift from exploring a technology for its own advancement to exploring a technology for the advancement of humanity.
We should consider robots as instrumental to architectural and human aims, not generative of them. Architects should not design buildings for the sake of being technological, or even in the interest of technological formulation or production. They should design as they have always designed, and employ the technologies available to them to enhance their process of creation. That is, robots should not inspire architecture for the sake of robots, they should simply assist in architecture for the sake of people. Hastily building emergency shelters with robots achieves not just a technological goal of faster production, but a human end in the safety of disaster victims. After all, if robots do in fact pose a potential to increase our national and individual capacity to aid in the (currently deficient) process of relief, we owe it to our society - and to architecture - to pursue those potentials wholeheartedly.