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The Building Factory

Tue, 02/27/2018 - 12:00
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If we were able to bring a medieval carpenter forward in time and present them with a modern construction site, there is very little that would not be recognisable to our medieval friend. What might they see? A large, muddy area with a stack of materials on the ground; a number of people carrying things; people waiting for materials to be moved from one place to another; some machinery for lifting materials. And, if it started raining, most of the work would stop.

With the exception of the number and scale of machines, and some of the materials, there is less difference between the medieval process of construction and the modern process of construction than most would imagine. We have increased the use of technologies, but we have not fundamentally changed the nature of what happens on a construction site. Modern construction is still restricted by how much material can be stored on site (and the logistics of delivering materials). Delays, due to weather or logistics, can mean that the entire construction process is halted. Materials left on site may become damaged through weather or human-error. These are the same problems that we’ve faced for millennia.

Modular construction is not a new concept. There have been examples of modular systems for many years. The use of standardised building elements, whether they are panel systems for façades, structural units or prefabricated rooms, are commonplace. For example, many large hotels will use a standard bathroom module, that is pre-made, throughout their rooms. These may (in high-end hotels) be further refined or customised through the use of different tiles and surface treatments.

On a larger scale, there are some well-established companies that will manufacture houses in their factory and then send them to site for re-assembly. For over 100 years, the German company, HUF HAUS has been perfecting their processes to manufacture efficient, attractive, modern houses. Once a HUF HAUS project leaves the factory, it is only a matter of days or a few weeks before a family can move in.

Modern high-rise buildings will often make use of prefabricated elements. It is common to see large sections of precast concrete ‘cores’ (to house lifts, stairways) arrive on trucks and be lifted into place. This can help to speed up construction, but once this core is erected you may very well see the process slow down as the traditional process returns.

With the continued development of computing and automation technologies, we have entered a phase where the manufacture of buildings is starting to move into new realms. The potential for a highly coordinated relationship between design and manufacture ;afforded by computer-aided design, 3D modelling and, most recently, building information modelling (BIM), offers a host of enhancements to the potential for manufacturing buildings. In the controlled environment of a factory, materials can be more efficiently used (because tolerances can be much closer) and there will be little (or no) loss of material due to weather. The closer tolerances that can be achieved may also mean building elements fit more tightly and can result in better overall performance of the building (in terms of heat loss, water ingress, etc.).

Many will argue, however, that modular construction or manufacturing requires a level of standardisation that means buildings will look too similar. To argue against this, one might cite the work of the architect Frank Gehry; whose work is highly unique and much of it is manufactured. Gehry’s design for 8 Spruce Street, in New York, is a building whose façade seems to wave in the breeze. Although there appears to be a high degree of variation in the exterior cladding panels, the façade cost no more than standard high-rises, because the designers were able (through highly sophisticated design software) to develop the façade system using a limited number of panel designs (that could be used in different ways) and all were manufactured with high tolerances, so that there was little waste.

We could also make a historic argument, based on the common practice of using ‘pattern books’; in Georgian and Victorian architecture. Nearly every major city, in the United Kingdom, abounds with terraced houses from the 18th and 19th century. While many of these will be nearly identical on the interior, we can see variation on their façades; in the details of window mouldings, columns, architraves, etc. But most of these variations are based on manufactured parts that were selected from catalogues. Companies across the country developed their own moulds for casting elements for sale from their catalogues. Architects and builders could select the details to be used, and providing variation across the front of a series of terraced houses, and give the sense of uniqueness to ‘your’ house.

Jump forward to 2016, and developers, Urban Splash, working with architects, ShedKM, have turned the pattern book inside out. In a series of modular houses, in Manchester, the residents are able to select variations in the interior of the homes while maintaining a common exterior. Because the houses are based on a set of stacked modules, manufactured in a factory, there are variations that can be reliably accommodated with the module structure that mean homeowners are able to design an interior layout that meets the needs of their family and lifestyle.

At, perhaps, the most extreme we can also print buildings. Using the same technique that is used in desktop 3D printing, a number of experiments have been done to print using different materials. In Russia, Apis Cor were able to create the structure for a small house in 24 hours with concrete printing technology. More ambitious, in China, several multi-story buildings have been prototyped using a system that builds up layers of an ‘ink’ comprised of glass fibre, steel, cement, a hardening agent and recycled construction waste. The compelling notion of printing buildings is that it does not presuppose a style. We can move from design to construction by sending the building ‘file’ to ‘print’.

It is not just small companies and technology groups that are pushing the boundaries. Some of the largest construction firms are at the forefront of shifting the construction process. Laing O’Rourke have developed a Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) methodology that has seen them invest heavily in the use of ‘digital engineering’ and off-site manufacturing. In projects like The Francis Crick Institute (near London’s St. Pancras International Station), their approach has provided a unique solution for the construction of a biomedical research facility on a challenging site. Utilising off-site construction, they were able to supply building elements with low-tolerances and high-efficiency. This included not only structural assemblies but highly complex mechanical and ventilation systems to deal with very stringent requirements for medical facilities.

Manufacturing, off-site construction and 3D printing are at various stages in their development and implementation. What is clear, however, is that the future of construction is likely to be very different from the medieval process that is still the prevailing model. New technologies, new materials and new thinking will challenge us to develop and innovate in the design and building of our environment.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Pearson


Geoffrey is a qualified architect, who has worked in the US and UK on projects in the US, UK and Asia. He has been involved in teaching, leadership and management of higher education for more than 20 years; and was the Course Director for undergraduate architecture at University of the Arts London from 2004-2016. He has taught and lectured in the UK, Canada, Brazil, Hong Kong, Spain, and South Africa. He is the author of ‘The Design Process in Architecture’ (2018) and ‘Architecture: An Introduction’ (2010) as well as numerous articles for magazines and journals. 

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