March 8, 2013 7:15 pm

Prefab dreams and the meaning of life

Imagine being able to upload a program and sit back as the machine constructs a bespoke dwelling
Illustration by Chris Rice of houses on a conveyor belt©Chris Rice

John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, envisaged a time in the future when the world would be so efficient that no human need work at all.

Once the economic problem was solved, he said, humanity’s greatest challenge would no longer be overcoming material scarcity but finding purpose and meaning in life.

Yet here we are, almost a century later, faced with a jobless recovery in many quarters and a world in which society remains reluctant to accept the obvious: technology is making many jobs unnecessary.

One need only look to the construction industry in the US to see how this trend is evolving.

According to St Louis Fed’s economic database, the US construction industry has posted a 16 per cent recovery from post-crisis lows in value terms. In employment terms, however, that recovery figure is closer to 4 per cent, which puts the number of people employed by the industry today at 5.7m, versus a pre-crisis peak of 7.7m.

The trend, unfortunately, is unlikely to improve, given the advances that are upon us. Anyone who is in doubt about this should take a look at China.

Last year, Broad Sustainable Building, a company specialising in prefabricated construction, wowed the world when it built a 30-storey building, in Hunan province, in 360 hours. Dubbed the “flatpack skyscraper builder”, the company will now aim to construct the world’s tallest building in 90 days. The project, called Sky City and based in Changsha, south-central China, plans to feature 220 floors.

What’s there not to like, apart from the fact that less construction time means fewer hours of labour?

From the days of the Bauhaus movement of the early 20th century, prefab technology was always seen as integral to facilitating the design and architecture of tomorrow. Futuristic architects such as Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller even predicted that sustainable living would be impossible without the mass deployment of such techniques.

Fuller himself was best known for inventing the Geodesic dome. This impressive golf-ball structure became known for the simplicity of its design and the ease of its construction. It was formed with the concentric placement of many identical and cheaply produced geometric parts that, once connected, created a structure of surprising durability.

With his prefabricated Dymaxion house, Fuller hoped to make domestic life autonomous, leisured and sustainable. “More with less”, as Bucky would have described it.

However, technology back then was too crude: the more it disappointed, the more idealistic the notions of a leisured and sustainable world became. Soon the likes of Fuller drew ridicule and contempt from critics. As for prefab, a certain stigma became attached to the whole notion. Rather than representing durable and smart living, the concept became associated with poor quality, small-scale and unpalatable uniformity.

Yet herein lies the potential revolution of today.

Mass production is not only scaling up, it’s becoming personalised. Take Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Southern California, and his efforts to build houses using a 3D printing process called “contour crafting”. The principle is similar to that being utilised by 3D printers in the manufacturing world, with layering done in concrete instead of plastic.

The potential is huge. Imagine being able to take a contour crafting machine to any location, upload a program, and sit back as the machine constructs a bespoke dwelling. The project can be completed in days rather than weeks, and at a fraction of the cost.

Furthermore, because the machine is not constrained by right angles, everything from ellipses, curves and domes also become possible in terms of design. Uniformity is no longer the horrible side-effect of mass production.

The construction revolution doesn’t end there. There are plans to use automated drones in the construction of buildings and skyscrapers – scaling distances and angles until now thought impossible. There’s also the rising potential of smart new carbon materials, like graphene and synthetic diamonds. Stronger than steel, these materials could be used to construct some of the most robust buildings on earth.

Skylar Tibbits, meanwhile, is a US architect who is working on making buildings that construct themselves. He calls the process industrial 4D printing and the idea is to create self-assembly units which can later self-adjust, or keep creating.

The technology, it seems, is finally catching up with and even overtaking early 20th-century dreams.

Sceptics dismissed Bucky and the leisure enthusiasts for thinking that human ingenuity could ever turn their visions of sustainable, low-cost living into reality. Yet, more than ever, it seems to me that Bucky’s version of the future is what is playing out.

Izabella Kaminska is an FT Alphaville reporter

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