The Future of Construction

Construction RobotThose in the industry who know me well will be familiar with my frustration at the pace of change in the construction of housing in the UK. I would call it glacial, but the current speed of ice melt rather undermines that adjective, so I’ll just call it slow. But the pace of change of everything that goes IN to our housing continues to accelerate. Our appliances would be unfamiliar to our grandparents, who neither had mobile phones nor realised how essential to our happiness they would become. But our houses would not be unfamiliar, although they would probably seem small to a generation brought up in Victorian and Edwardian houses.

Our TV’s are now flat and our toasters are now curved, instead of the other way around. Our radios fit into our pockets and ‘talk’ to speakers in the neighbouring room, while we talk to friends on the other side of the world more often than we talk to our neighbours. Our appliances are made by robots, as are our cars, and all of them come in a bewildering array of choices, specifications and colours. Our houses meanwhile, still come in brick, or brick, or there is always brick. It usually comes in either a muddy red, or a muddy brown, or even, excitingly, a mixture of the two.

Meanwhile there are interesting things afoot  in the manufacturing of housing. WikiHouse is a project by 00:/ architects (no, that’s not a typo) that offers a kit of parts to anyone who can get their hands on a Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) cutting machine and a stack of 18mm ply. The idea is that anyone in any country around the world ought to be able to put up their own home in a few days by using this simple construction system that requires no fixings other than pieces of plywood joined together in an elegant 3 dimensional house shaped puzzle. Imagine that geeks took over IKEA for a day, and that’s close enough.

Other work being done in Switzerland and Singapore is working around the idea of using robots to participate in construction. Not to do the boring bits, but to do things that humans cannot do easily, or at all, like build curved structures with no mistakes, walls that curve in three dimensions. Have a look at this video of small flying drones building a complex brick structure. Bricklayers would find this difficult, but for robotic agents, its just as easy as building in a straight line. This use of open-source construction templates and robotics thinking is very fresh and new, but hints at a future that is much more exciting in terms of widely accessible manufacturing that the present. As Alistair Parvin says in his TED talk about WikiHouse, the past was about the control of manufacturing and supply, the future is about the democratisation of it.

This has huge potential for the future of design as a discipline as well as for the future of housing. Design may well become the art of making things possible, and not the art of making or the art of the possible. Our role in the future may not be making lots of small decisions about details, but instead making a small number of big decisions and letting the people who are going to inhabit or use the design make the rest of them. Instead of taking control of decisions, our role may become working out how best to give control over to those who will actually use the things that we design. Instead of making things for people, we may be giving them the tools and guidance to make them themselves.

There is a nice circularity to this. a few hundred years ago we all made things for ourselves, we built our own houses, made our own clothes, grew our own food, and traded where we had a surplus. After a period where we have been giving over the manufacture and design of everything to others, and being less and less satisfied with the results, perhaps in the future we will be more involved in making what we own and use and consequently may need less of them, and make better use of them.

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