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Construction Science Fiction: Construction 2030

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It was dusk. The 31-foot sloop cut silently southward through the smooth Hudson River on New York City’s west side. Joe Barone sat at the wheel and let the breeze sift through his silver-flecked hair on this balmy August evening. The 50-year-old contractor was looking for his favorite site on Manhattan, a few blocks inland on 28th street overlooking the sparkling, wildflowered, elevated pathway of the world-famous High Line. He saw a rambling, curvaceous 30-story structure changing its facade every few minutes before his eyes, reproducing swooping multicolored patterns with pointillistic detail through the night.

 

It was the Hudson House senior living complex, a project that encapsulated all the latest trends in housing for an aging America. Joe had worked with architects, engineers, artists and electronic media geniuses in close collaboration not only creating the design, but precision-engineering the apartment modules and 3D printing on site the structural components holding them all together.

The lead creator of all this had been developer Howard Braun, seated at his voice-activated screen and calling up various algorithmic combinations of structure that he found pleasing, marketable or preferably both. The architects, engineers and contractors were fulfilling their modern role as expert advisors, explaining to the client what he could or could not do technically to realize his concepts as the model evolved onscreen. Then, using lightweight, sometimes wearable screens, the builders wandered the construction site, proving out the work under Joe’s watchful eye.

It was the culmination of Joe’s 25-year career in a building industry undergoing revolutionary change. It started with the first glimmerings of 3D architecture, 3D printing and major modular construction. Joe had seen these late-20th- and early-21st-century innovations mature to the point of synergy sufficient to found his own construction company based on it.

Joe would call his new firm Barone Modern Construction (BMC), because that was what it embodied, first seeing the light of day in the year 2015.

First had come the battle of BIM, or Building Information Modeling. It was largely over by the time BMC was founded, but Joe recalled the bruises and war wounds he had sustained along the way. Not long after first-year man Joe and his construction manager had been forced to their knees trying to find a missing section drawing amidst reams of paper in the project trailer, Joe ran into college classmate Randy Tilton, then working at a rival construction firm. Randy was a short, squat, powerfully built little guy always smiling—never more so than when he was showing the latest and greatest—in this case, the advent of the computer in construction.

Working from a BIM model, Randy had pulled an iPad out of his satchel, clicked on a layout of a hospital patient room displaying a couple of icons on one wall, then clicked on one of the icons, which thereupon displayed a note: “Complete ductwork in this area.” Clicking on the second icon brought up a note calling for a 120-volt outlet.

“Can’t you see, Joe, it’s a rolling completion list for the hospital we’re working on! Can you imagine? And all the sub has to do is check this out on his own screen, do the work, input it “ready for inspection” and export it to the inspecting engineer’s own screen. All the inspector has to do is log in and see this pop up immediately. We’ve got this going for all the building’s systems we’re working on, and it’s saving a ton of time. Pretty neat, huh?”

Joe could see what was coming. Though it would take a few years for the platform and training issues to be worked out, and for BIM to develop a sufficient library of objects to cover most of a design’s contingencies, by 2015 having the design team’s skills and ideas at your virtual fingertips, no matter when or where they were, would become commonplace.

Around that time Joe took his son Dominic, then age 3, to the hospital for a tonsillectomy—seldom done, but needed when a severe and persistent infection had led a heart murmur for the little boy. Pulling up to the hospital entrance, Joe had seen a large crane swinging what appeared to be a complete hospital floor and setting it carefully atop a hospital addition under construction. In those days, seeing active construction underway at a hospital was no big deal—hospitals were probably second only to airports in the number of cranes and welding sparks on display daily. But a modular build for a hospital was new to him.

Next day, with Dominic back home recovering from his surgery, Joe called an architect he knew who was handling the hospital job and learned how modular construction, becoming commonplace for residential structures, worked in creating a complex, multistory institutional facility.

It turned out that the patient rooms, the MEP racks, staff workstations and curtain wall elements had all been manufactured to specification and fit at an off-site factory and transported to the site in carefully sized pieces aboard standard flatbed trucks. Constructors on-site assembled the pieces—but not without some computerized help that turned out to be controversial.

Work of this precision would not have been possible without BIM. The careful calculation and collaborative planning that was involved ensured accurate design development, clash detection and project sequencing. Meanwhile, the BIM “cloud” had kept designers, engineers, subs and fabricators on the same page from the start. This in turn, by minimizing hidden or down-the-road costs, had improved bid transparency.

It was the next level of computer involvement, though, that propelled Barone Modern Construction both to new heights and new lows.

Joe had to laugh as he glanced at the sturdy fiberglass hull of his 31-foot sloop, now cutting through the waters of the Hudson with spray flying off both sides. It wasn’t long since his boat had come hot off the presses. In fact, it had been about a year since his boat’s hull and most of its interior furnishings had come off a 3D printer. Much advanced from those early “Maker” days, stereolithic design and deposition of high-tech materials in steadily accumulating layers—aka additive manufacturing—were creating large structures—not just boats, but buildings.

BMC had begun business just when the first concrete houses were printed out, complete with plumbing, lighting and HVAC. Although these early printed-out simple structures had none of the swooping parametric features so popular in larger structures of the day, all of that was to come as succeeding generations of developers and Makers refined and expanded the 3D printing concept to employ on-site building techniques that had never been seen before.
But contractors pioneering this ran into the inescapable consequence of artificial intelligence in any field, one that had been worried about for decades but was only just now becoming reality: the replacement of human workers by computer-operated machinery.

BMC was among those that had been forced to deal with massive retraining of those workers who were already techno-savvy—and laying-off of those who weren’t. Strikes, work stoppages and even sabotage were the result, as traditional builders fought the new construction concepts tooth and nail. But contemporary builders had no choice.
Ultimately, BMC was saved and restored to a firm sense of business mission by an important trend: the evolution of new housing for aging Americans.

Joe’s career was approaching its peak during the years that the Baby Boom of the mid-20th century smashed against the 21st-century realities of an aging society. By the year 2011, thousands of Americans were turning age 65 every day, a surge that would not end for some 20 years. But this generation of seniors did not want to spend its “Golden Years” on a golf course, the beach or at the bingo parlor. They wanted to continue to live active, productive lives in self-development, if not careers. They were redefining post-retirement, and they wanted the housing to support it.

That meant no longer worrying about maintaining cars or property upkeep, or making long-distance trips to stores or downtown entertainment venues. They wanted to live where the action was—and that meant moving to cities. Several cities—Cleveland, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City and other unlikely candidates—had shown the way by developing modern, affordable apartments in downtown areas close to shopping, libraries, gymnasiums, museums, restaurants and entertainment venues of every description. “Walkability” became the new watchword for the successful senior community.

Not surprisingly, these trends converged and found vigorous expression in neighborhoods throughout New York City, starting early in the 21st century. Old warehouses were replaced by sleek, generously balconied, multistoried structures with tinted glass facades offered senior citizens not only apartments, but a small surrounding neighborhood of shops, restaurants and theaters. The “aging in place” option, preferred by most people and by now commonplace, was starting to grow and allow aging men and women to stay home, or close to it, in complete safety and comfort for years.

Using a concept called “universal design,” home builders incorporated subtle changes into their new home models, providing for future grab-bars in showers and bathrooms, adjustable-height stoves and counters, threshold-free, wide doorways to accommodate handicapped access, and easy-to-use hardware on doors and cabinets. Living spaces were festooned with electronic sensors designed to monitor aging occupants’ daily activity and health status without intruding on personal privacy.

Braun’s Hudson House would feature all of this and more—for example, each apartment had an entire wall of the living room given over to immersive and interactive imagery at a click. The double-skinned building was heated and cooled convectively using the stack effect and enthalpy wheels, along with energy-saving facade-mounted windmills and water-recycling equipment that had by now become standard.


Braun also single-handedly brought back revolving architecture. Based on a stacked, multi-unit model called “The Mountain”, developed by the then-famous Danish architectural firm BIG called The Mountain, Braun put the individual segments on turntables. 

The idea was to allow the stacked apartments to rotate individually within a limited range, powered by a solar array and activated by light sensors that allowed the unit to follow the sun and periodically refresh views from apartment windows while avoiding privacy-invading views into neighbors’ dwellings. The technologies of turntables, double-skinned stack-effect air handling, plumbing runs and light sensors had evolved to the point that movement of dwelling spaces could be localized in this manner.

On his full-wall screen, Braun had clicked through plans depicting the construction sequence and schedule, and saw that Joe had woven into the process modular manufacturing both off- and on-site. The apartment units were manufactured off-site in their entirety, with careful sizing, shaping and fitting made possible by computer numeric-controlled (CNC) machinery guided by precise data specifications.

Meanwhile, on-site 3D printing permitted fabrication of many construction elements, including custom connections and unusual gerberettes to allow imaginative interior reshaping of the large theater/common spaces as needed. These custom pieces would be fabricated to precise tolerances, enabling a relatively small construction crew with modest but highly accurate cranes and quietly humming power tools to assemble the 300-unit building in a matter of six months. 

The crowning touch, for Braun, was a facade wall featuring an array of computer-controlled LED lights flashing through an array of multicolored patterns as stacked units turned.

Joe had one eye cocked on this fascinating display as he auto-docked his boat using the computerized guide pods of the new 66thStreet Marina. Approaching his freshly printed, wireless-charging electrocar, Joe wondered: What fabrications would he see next?

 

PECK

Richard L. Peck edited two magazines simultaneously for several years: Long-Term Living, which focuses on long-term care with a significant emphasis on senior housing design, and Healthcare Design, which addresses AEC in hospital design and construction. “I’ve worn both hats in writing these stories,” he says. Peck recently retired from a 42-year career in healthcare publishing. His experience with architecture and construction began with special design sections in Long-Term Living (then Nursing Homes Magazine) in 1991, evolving into a senior facility design annual in 1997 and the now-monthly Healthcare Design, focusing on hospital construction, in 2001.

To see all of the stories in ENR's Imagining Construction's Future science fiction collection, click here.

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