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If robots built your house, what would it look like?

Why are walls always straight? Why does it cost so much to build them? And why do big construction projects so often run late? Construction has always been a conservative industry, used to doing things how they have always been done.

But a new wave of innovation is coming, which will change what buildings look like, how they are made, and who wins in the new era of the construction industry.

Architects have always been limited by what their builders can actually make. But if robots were doing the building, all sorts of new possibilities open up.

Straight walls partly exist for the convenience of builders and architects - but for a robot, a curved wall is almost as easy. So at the DFAB House, a small test building in the suburbs of Zurich, Switzerland, the main wall follows an elegant, irregular curve. It’s built around a steel frame, welded by robots, which humans would have found almost impossible to construct unaided.

Even stranger, the roof consists of a series of flowing, organic ridges, which look as if they were secreted by a giant insect. Awkward to dust, perhaps, but designed by computer and made with 3D printing to achieve the same strength as a conventional, straight roof, yet with half the weight.

The house, built by Switzerland’s National Centre of Competence in Research in Digital Fabrication, demonstrates what a computer-designed, robot-built house could look like.

“If you think about how buildings are built today all these processes have a long history - but they are all designed to be executed by people,” says Mr Graser. “So they are taking advantage of all the talents people have, all the things people are good at. You can’t just transfer them to a digital tool or a machine.

“So what we are trying to do is take a step back and think about what the machine is good at and what the robot is good at, and really rethink the way that we build.”

The DFAB House showed how robots can play a role in construction, indoors and out. Robots build the wooden sections which form the upper floors of the house, and welded the steel frame of the curved concrete wall. Mr Graser calls this “3D printing with steel”.

From Russia to Dubai, France to the Netherlands, architects and builders are experimenting with the possibilities that new technologies such as 3D printing open up.

Robots are being built for all sorts of construction tasks, which are often heavy, repetitive and dull - perfect candidates for automation. There are robots which can install drywall, lay bricks, or lift heavy objects, though they are a long way from replacing humans altogether.

For instance, SAM, the “semi-automated mason” developed by a US company called Construction Robotics, has been used on a number of construction projects in the US. It can lay an accurate course of bricks with mortar, but still needs a human tender to measure the site, set up the robot and tidy up the external surface of the mortar afterwards.

And while these may open up exciting new design possibilities, their biggest impact will be on the economics of building projects.

When the earth is first moved at the start of a construction project, it will often now be under digital guidance. The Japanese company Komatsu now sells diggers equipped with GPS technology which know, to within a centimetre or two, exactly where the bucket edge is scraping the ground.

The BBC tried one out at the Komatsu facility in County Durham, England. With no prior experience of operating heavy construction machinery, a reporter was able to create a reasonably flat surface, at the correct height described in the digital plan on the digger’s onboard computer.

No matter how hard you push the levers, the bucket will not dig below the level defined in the plan. So once you’ve scraped away everything you can, what remains is the correct, flat surface.

Without this protection, even experienced operators can easily dig too deep, and it costs money and time to restore the earth to the correct height and density.

Best known as a vendor of diggers and bulldozers, Komatsu is trying to reinvent itself as a complete provider of digital construction tools. Armed with a shovel-load of valuable data, it hopes to get involved in construction projects at the design stage, and remain involved all the way through.

To check progress a
For contractors and developers that are on a tight schedule and need to map large swaths of land or expansive projects, sometimes the only thing better than the convenience and insight that unmanned aerial system (UAS), or drone, imaging provides is getting the shots back in a few hours versus days. Engineering and environmental consulting firm Dudek, which provides drone imagery services to contractors, has found an effective solution for turning around image projects for construction clients fast.

Dudek provides mapping, inspection and construction project monitoring services across the U.S., including Hawaii, where its drone operations are based. The company began using drones several years ago through outsourced services, but brought the function in-house almost two years ago. Brian Nordmann, Dudek's chief information officer, told Construction Dive that the firm now has eight full-time pilots as well as a “supporting cast” that processes data.

Dudek counts both public agencies and private developers among its drone imaging clientele, and the company's construction-related work includes pre-permitting mapping and monitoring of large infrastructure, utility and power plant projects.

For example, the firm captures drone images for the California bullet train project that has been whittled down to a $15 billion to $16 billion segment through the state’s Central Valley.

With a growing roster of drone imagery clients and most of its data processing work done at its Hawaii office, the system Dudek was using was becoming inefficient. In the case of a large development, Nordmann said, a drone flight could encompass many acres of land. After the flight, a team would upload images and data collected to a workstation and then run a series of applications to process the information into the finished product for the customer.

“The big part of that,” he said, “ is essentially stitching together all these photos that it takes into a huge map.”

Tom Sawyer for ENR
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and international organizations from the U.S., England and the Netherlands released on Jan. 19 a 261-page book entitled “Engineering with Nature—An Atlas.” Available either as a hard copy or free download, the atlas showcases 56 projects around the world that apply the principles of an initiative to support engineering with nature, rather than against it, to protect the environment, infrastructure and quality of life.

The EWN movement seeks to leverage natural forces and risk-buffering natural features, such as wetlands and water-courses, to enhance sustainable, resilient, multipurpose infrastructure systems. The initiative includes a network of research projects, field demonstrations and communication activities with an emphasis on embracing innovation.

One technology finding a sweet spot in EWN is drones, which have the ability to scope project areas, survey sites and monitor project execution and performance over large areas of difficult terrain swiftly, safely and repeatedly, with a light touch on the environment.

“We are making more and more use of drones,” says Todd S. Bridges, the U.S. Army’s senior research scientist for environmental science at the Corps’ Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss. He is national lead on the EWN initiative.

Bridges says drones give planners a superior vantage point, particularly over coasts and wetlands, not only as they engineer a project, but also as they monitor construction and results. “Getting elevation data is pretty important, and getting good data can be hard to do,” says Bridges. “It can be a very convenient place to have a drone that is fixed with Lidar, in cases where a few inches really matter.” He says stand-off measurement technologies help monitor the environment and its evolution. “You have to be able to understand the environment if you are going to engineer it—especially for processes operating at landscape scale.”

Monica Chasten, project manager in the operations division of the Corps’ Philadelphia District, says her group has used drones to help document and monitor progress on several EWN projects in New Jersey, including the Mordecai Island project on p. 86 in the Atlas. Another use was on a “thin layer placement” application of dredged material to restore marsh near Avalon, and construction of two nesting habitats near Ring Island. More drone use is planned at the Seven Mile Island Living Laboratory that the Corps has established in back bays near Avalon.

Several project managers with the Nature Conservancy also report making increased use of drones for streambed restoration for the same reasons, and individual consulting fi rms are picking up local projects for this as well.

Greg Gloor, a surveyor with New Jersey civil and environmental engineering firm Dresdner Robin, used a drone to provide pro bono services to a citizens group in Pompton Lakes, N.J., led by Lauren Venin, a landscape architect and certified flood plain manager with the firm. Her volunteer group, the Pompton Lakes Flood Advisory Board, wanted to locate and rate the flood risk posed by downed trees and debris dams blocking three rivers in the town. A heavy snow in spring 2018 left a lot of tree damage on the banks. The board wanted to help the town scope the problem and plan remediation.

Venin says Gloor developed a methodology and conducted 11 flights to capture a continuous strip of high-resolution images of 6.5 miles of waterways. “Several show debris blocking more than half of the channel,” she says. “Most were fallen trees.”

The board brought the drone’s KML output into free QGIS software for data organization, and tagged and ranked the severity of 96 obstructions on aerial photos mapped to locations on Google Earth. The borough passed the data to its engineers to develop a work plan.

“We found it to be a
In the last issue, I ended this column by suggesting that more diversity, promiscuity, and surprise in architecture might improve its outcomes. A week after shipping the magazine to the printer, I was sent a project that was very promiscuously diverse indeed, and yet I was surprised to find that it challenged my previous assertion.

The project, called Pier 2, was designed by the Montevideo office of Dallas-headquartered Humphreys & Partners Architects. It’s a conceptual design that was presented at the 2018 International Builders’ Show in Orlando. The convention’s organizers had asked Humphreys, which specializes in multi-family and mixed-use development, to come up with a scheme for an “apartment of the future.” Pier 2 was their answer.

At first, Pier 2 — which is depicted in glisteningly rich cocktail-hour renderings — has a certain appeal. It comprises two towers of modular units rising from a glassy retail podium and connected by two mid-level horizontal platforms, one a pool and recreation area, the other a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) airport. With its additive language of shifted boxes, which open up a variety of indoor/outdoor spaces for tenants, it evinces a kinship to Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 — a reliable crowd pleaser.

Keep looking, however, and troubles emerge. The building sits on a constructed island off the tip of Lower Manhattan, surrounded by a yacht marina, which, strangely for New York’s climate, features palm trees. The impression is that the building and its attendant pleasure craft just sailed up and docked. Is this an invading force, or a tourist cruise ship? Either way, it’s blocking the view of the Statue of Liberty. It also routes vehicular traffic through Battery Park to give the building a circular drive beneath its marquee entrance, effectively destroying one of Manhattan’s great public spaces.