Working this morning on 3D printing – the parts for a 3D concrete printer. What a world we live in today! A world where robots make parts for robots. Today you can buy a 3D printer that will print – ITSELF!
Imagine, buy one and make an infinite number with that first one. Talk about a brave new world.
Technology is advancing. The computer I do my work on today is 100 billion times more powerful than the one I worked on in 2006. In 1976, Dr. A.A. Bartlett at the University of Colorado taught us that this represented exponential change, something he also taught would create a world of technology few could imagine.
Here we are in that very world, though even the best and brightest do not fully realize it.
I am an architect by profession, a scientist by education and training. I straddle two very different worlds, a world that is unchanged since the days of Babylon and a world that changes by the hour. I am one of many whose task is to bring construction forward 4,000 years into the present. All around us we see those who are riding this new wave.
Green, Net Positive, Lifecycle Analysis, LEED. USGBC are environmental categories for types of construct analyses, many aided by technology. Additive Manufacturing, AI, CoBots, Robots, and MR are technical building means and methods to help achieve construction.
Chaos and order are really determined by the vantage point. For example, if you look at an atom, it is very orderly. If you look at water, made up of atoms, it is very chaotic. This is the world we live in. Environmental concerns are very much like that. The problems of climate change, of sustainability, of adaptation – are problems defined by the viewing angle. Livability, desirability, lifestyle. We are all human, and our needs are similar in many ways. Our wants are similar in many ways.
Climate change is going to be with us for a very long time, so long that the idea of change is going to have to be re-referenced. Changed from what? In 2322 A.D., the change may be referenced from 2180 A.D. Using the term is more or less moot today. What we can and are striving for now is adaptable and responsible environments. To run the clock forward to a more responsible time requires the built environment to give back more than it uses. Very simple idea. If you want to drink a glass of water, produce two glasses first. If you want to use 400 watts of power to heat your cocoa, then produce 410 watts first. In a zero-sum game, the books have to balance. We have always used more than we returned. More people took books out of the library than donated books, and now we are – running short of books.
Our world has a few basic categories our buildings can affect on an environmental level.
Refuse – before, during and after construction. The average American produces 1,704 pounds of trash each year. If a family of four live in a house for fifteen years, the zero-sum number for trash only is 102,240 pounds of trash that a home has to be found for. 50 tons!
100 million families in the U.S. * 50 tons = 5 billion tons of trash every 15 years
That is equal to 54,000 USS Enterprise Aircraft Carriers. 54 thousand!
Burying refuse does nothing. Even paper does not “bio-degrade”. Dig up a phone book in the Manhattan landfill from 1973 and it looks brand new. This idea of biodegrading is one of the great myths. The Clean Air Act massively impacted our refuse problem. Before 1972, refuse was burned. After, it was buried until a real solution could be found. Lately, we have been shipping it to China. Kicking the can down the road indeed.
What many scientists have decided is burning was the right idea, just not uncontrolled burning. Enter Plasma Gas. Plasma Gas is a natural gas made from rubbish, with the dangerous metals removed. It burns cleaner than any gas. Today we call it “Syn-Gas”. It can power electrical plants, and does today in many parts of the world. It can be scaled down to small complexes, and back up solar installations for nighttime peak hours. The by-product is a tiny amount of fine ash, and water vapor.
The landfill at Waikoloa holds enough refuse to run the entire Kona coast for decades, not counting the added refuse brought there daily. The 78MW at the Keahole plant can be entirely replaced with clean syn-gas – saving thousands of tons of oil every year.
Power – before during and after construction. We have syn-gas, see above. Then what? Solar, wind, regenerative elevators. Efficiency! Many leave that out, but items like over insulation and careful attention to air leakage can save tens of thousands of kilowatts on a simple home. Nearly enough to replace a solar roof installation in most zip codes. Energy Star appliances, on-demand hot water, solar hot water. The road to Net Positive is first paved with efficient homes – then alternative power can be added to create a net return. Wind power is critical and overlooked. It runs 24 hours a day, and the new vertical axis wind generators are quiet, cheap and small. They look nothing like the big obtrusive farm-type windmills of old, and are safe to birds and people that wander into their envelope. A windmill the size of your home trash barrel can produce 3.5Kw daily in a light breeze – two can equal a solar roof.
Solar films can be applied to any surface and then begin producing power when exposed to the sun. Residences can apply solar film to windows, it is transparent or can be. Then all the glazing in your home can make electricity. We also all are familiar with the ubiquitous older generation solar arrays on roofs and in yards. While inefficient, these too have a place until their life span is over and they can be updated. I tend to think of solar as a demonstration technology, something that causes more issues than it solves but is a necessary step.
Sanitary waste – every resident of a home uses 200 gallons of water per day. This is a double issue – where does the treated water come from, and where does it go? Again we do a little math, and get a four-person home generating a need for 300,000 gallons of freshwater every year, and a place for the used water to go and be sanitized [realize we withdraw 1.2 million gallons per day per person in the U.S. for agriculture as well]. While the aquifers are recharged somewhat by rainfall and snowmelt, by no means are they being recharged at the rate they are being depleted. Water conservation is an important part of homes; from low-flow fixtures to efficient appliances, and re-use schemes like graywater irrigation for plants. One of the simplest is low water use irrigation – meaning use endemic planting that is used to the area you are in – plants that survived without assistance for millions of years before we came. No one watered the great plains before people arrived and your yard can be the same.
What about construction? How can that be brought into the modern day with benefits for all of us?
From the beginning of time construction has been inefficient. Engineering was based on past practices, not mathematics, and so even in 2021 beams are often sized at 1 inch per foot. This means if the span is 12 feet, use a 4 x 12. This has nothing to do with physics, science or anything else. That is how they did it in Barcelona in 1214 A.D., and by gosh that is how we are going to do it today. We have drones flying around Mars, and we use 800-year-old rules of thumb to protect our family and planet instead of computers and science.
Today we have deployed the Hololens, by Microsoft, to update this entire process. Hololens is a holographic Mixed Reality wearable computer and heads-up display. It applies all the available science at hand as an overlay onto the world around, including the new proposed building and all the engineering possibilities. It can save massive amounts of time and materials, in effect giving each worker encyclopedic knowledge of their and other trades instantly. A steel worker can know a 3 inch weld is enough, not 7 inches as always done. A carpenter can look at a doorway and know a 4x6 will suffice – not the usual 4x10. While these small changes do not do much on their own, 28% of materials, shipping and labor is what the average total amounts to per building. Picture taking 28% off your mortgage – or owning 28% more for the same mortgage. Labor has always been an issue. Few parents are encouraging tradesmanship; I know I didn’t. College loans, grants and peer pressure have created an environment where young people are no longer looking for high-paying blue collar jobs. The United States is producing 1.5 million fewer homes than are needed every year – every year – and that is because of a lack of workers. Materials production is at an all-time high – and no-one is around to craft that into a home.
Robots solved this problem for the auto and other industries decades ago, the same problem, and it appears, the same solution. When people no longer are interested in a form of work then automation steps in. For building, that is in the form of 3DCP, or Additive Manufacturing. A nascent and rapidly emerging field where robots “print” houses out of concrete and other materials. In our studio we are currently doubling down on this tech, using recycled auto-manufacturing robots to build homes with! One of these has 24,000 hours on it making Toyotas, now we expect to put that same amount of time on it making walls – without a sick day or critical injury. Meet Frank – who is about to learn a new trade!
Frank, like other machines, is efficient. There will be no inadvertent mistakes, mis-attentions and so on. Much of construction is redoing things after a series of mistakes – ask any builder. I know one builder who got his crew T-shirts that read “We get it right – because we do it twice!”. That is more telling than it seems……
It is an exciting era, one of extreme change. It is dynamic, interesting and challenging at once. Please join us as we enter into the 3rd millennium, an era of NEW.
Dr. William C. Foulk, PhD, JD, CTBUH, AIA, ASCE