Industrial Revolutions

Robots and flatpacks: The future of construction

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Robots and flatpacks: The future of construction
Robots and flatpacks: The future of construction

Walk through any major city, look up and you will see towering cranes, scaffolding and the skeletons of buildings under construction.

In 2013 the U.S. construction market was worth nearly $899 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while in London, Europe's largest city, over 26,000 new homes were registered, an increase of 60 percent on the year before, according to the National House Building Council.

With the demand for urban housing only set to increase, innovation and technology are driving change in the construction sector. Y:Cube Housing is the result of a partnership between the YMCA and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), the global architecture practice.

In a climate where house – and rental – prices are rocketing, the idea behind Y:Cube is to offer affordable, low-cost housing in stackable 'clusters' of 24 to 40 units.

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Costing just £30,000 ($50,000) to build, a single occupancy Y:Cube home is 26m² and designed to be used on urban brownfield sites. It is hoped that Y:Cube – which does not need foundations – will offer a real alternative to current housing options, providing a rapid, sustainable, flexible and compact solution to people's needs.

"It comes fully finished internally and externally… it just needs connecting up," Andrew Partridge, project architect for Y:Cube, told in a phone interview.

"These buildings take a week to build, and they'll take an hour to install," Ivan Harbour, Senior Partner, RSHP, told episode three of CNBC's Industrial Revolutions. "They are made offsite, so all the money's spent on the materiality, not on management on site. These are super cost effective buildings," he added.

According to recent figures from Gumtree, the listings site, it costs just over £1,200 per month to rent a one bedroom flat in London. It is envisaged that renting a Y:Cube will cost half the amount of conventional private accommodation.

"We deliberately wanted to move away from having to deal with traditional developers, or house builders," Andy Redfearn, Director of Housing and Development at the YMCA, told in a phone interview.

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"We tried to make the system as efficient as possible… it's a much more efficient system, much more cost effective. It's responding to the situation that particularly the south east [of England] is facing, of significant migration… there needs to be a quick response, and planning traditional construction can take many years," Redfearn added.

While homes of the future could soon all be 'flat pack', the way they're built could be about to dramatically change too.

Inspired by the behaviour of termites, researchers at Harvard University have been working on a "swarm construction system" in which robots work together to build structures.

"We've created a system where you can ask a group of robots to build some particular structure you want, and they will automatically go and build that for you," Justin Werfel, a research scientist at Harvard, told in a phone interview.

"Rather than everything being carefully pre planned in advance, you've got something more like an ant colony, where you've got a lot of agents going around, each doing their own thing. Together, they produce the useful result you've asked them for," Werfel added.

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Fitted with four different kinds of sensors, the robots are given a 'blueprint' of the structure they are to build, and a set of 'traffic laws' that tell them where they can and can't go during construction.

Does this robot system sound the death knell for human builders? "There are many settings where it's more efficient for humans to work, but there are also settings where it's unsafe for humans to work," Kirstin Petersen, from Harvard University, told episode three of CNBC's Industrial Revolutions.

The ability of robots to reach the places we as humans can't is another clear advantage with potentially huge implications for construction.

"We're imagining that in…decades from now, these kinds of systems could be especially useful in settings where we can't easily build ourselves, places we want to do construction but it's dangerous or expensive to send people," Werfel said.

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"If we want to send astronauts to Mars… you could start by sending robots to build a habitat and then send the astronauts later. That's the ideal situation for robotics: when you have something that you don't want humans to do," he added.

According to Werfel, the potential of TERMES lies in its resilience. "If you lose individual robots, if some of them break… it doesn't matter to the other ones – what they're doing doesn't depend on how many others there are," he said.

"They can just keep doing the same thing and there's no single point of failure that could take out the whole system," he added.

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