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Construction Science Fiction: Seattle to Siem Reap

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The night work lights and laser coordinate grid were just shutting down as Denise Scott arrived at the Four Suns Towers jobsite for what was planned to be a very important day. She’d been on site constantly as the collaborating architect since the project’s inception sixteen months prior. That seemed like an eon ago—when Global Project’s Housing Solutions Group first called her office in Seattle to gauge her interest—but there was no time to reminisce at the moment. The auto-cranes were already hoisting the slab printers down into the staging yard to be replaced with robotic roof installers that would fabricate and install the topping membrane. The final composite polymeric structure components of the roof systems, 32 levels above the street, had finished printing in place just an hour earlier and right on schedule. 

Topping-out ceremonies were to begin at 9:00 AM sharp, so the morning job inspection would be rushed. Grabbing her digital reference pad and smart safety glasses, she wondered when Fillipa Radishe, the job superintendent, would get their morning coffee—and where was she, anyway?

Just as Denise reached over to close the safety rail of her prop-jeep, an unholy union of a quad-copter and a golf cart that moved people safely around the largely automated job site, Fillipa hopped in and handed Denise a hot latte. “If only Starbucks could give a little production advice to our elevator manufacturer, we might have a prayer of getting the lifts installed on schedule,” she commented. “These drinks were started when I was 500 meters from the shop and ready right when I walked in.”

As they rose into the air, Denise clipped the reference pad into the jeep dash and flicked a small switch on her glasses. An image of the completed project appeared, superimposed on her view of the construction site. The Alberti Constructor (TAC), the master project data cloud, quickly assessed work completed during the night and displayed conformance and variance analysis on the reference pad.

“I’m going to have to get a wet team into the core on Level 22,” Fillipa commented, sipping her coffee and watching the numbers scroll across the pad. “Looks like it will take a crew of at least six folks to correct that hole in the plenum where the printer guides snapped on Tuesday.”

At that moment the progress grid disappeared from the reference screen. In its place appeared the disembodied head of Ted Lindsmark, the structures production coordinator. “We finished the roof slabs right on schedule last night, and the polymer composites have set,” he said. “Could I ask you to take a quick look to make sure it’s tight and that our esteemed guests won’t fall through something up there? And while you’re at it, pick a spot for the pine tree. You can laser an X to mark it right on the slab.”

They rose above the roofline just as the sun began to rise behind Mount Ranier, and Denise stopped to consider how far this job had come since that first holo-telepresence call from GPHC’s Abdul Chen last year. Seattle had seen a range of high-rise residential projects lately. The economic collapse of 2040 had ended construction for a decade, but the 2050 trans-global supply-chain agreement amongst the “Big 10” delivery consortia had begun something akin to an arms race to find the most efficient strategy for multi-building construction, particularly for housing. The 2050 agreements restarted construction in cities across the globe, and the DCs were buying land and putting together deals. Lots of housing-design specialists like Denise were getting calls, but only Global’s offer intrigued her: Could she work with their construction strategists and prototype a 2,000-unit, four-tower superproject in Seattle that could be adapted and replicated in twenty other cities? The trick—meet strict zoning, design and sustainability requirements, Global’s capital budget, and get the job open in less than eighteen months from the get-go. She quickly agreed, but only if Fillipa would be her partner on the ground. Together they had worked on at least ten other jobs in the Northwest. They had a rock-solid reputation as the dynamic duo of integrated design delivery.

Fillipa pointed the laser etcher at a spot that was a safe distance from the slab edge of the roof (but close enough for a good holo-video shot) and elbowed Denise for her approval. Getting the nod between coffee sips, she touched an indicator on the reference pad. A large X-mark was quickly zapped into the surface of the roof slab of Tower 2. “Why are we wasting our time with this sort of stuff when we have to get the exterior skin assemblers crawling today?” she complained half-heartedly. Fillipa wasn’t much on ceremony; she was always heads-down for the work.

Lifting her glasses to her forehead, Denise sighed, but mostly for dramatic effect. She was accustomed to this sort of reaction from her partner, but also knew how important it was for today’s ceremonies to go off without a hitch. “Hey, just because neither of us has ever met Secretary Tucci doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put on a good show today, you know,” she said patiently. “I know you’re no fan of the president, but this guy has her ear. We’re going to be on all the news and social feeds, and show the world how things get done. And we’ll be done and back to work by lunch.”

John Tucci Jr., or “JJ” as he was known in the construction community, emerged as an industry leader in his 20s when building information modeling was just getting started. He had led Tucci-Gilboom Integrated Delivery for a decade, creating their central St. Louis design/manufacturing center where today 80% of all their building subsystems were either printed, robotically assembled or otherwise manufactured before being shipped by rail, electric truck, ship or cargo plane around the US and the world. Appointed by the president in 2048, he now led the Department of Construction, which had been created in 2030, following the model of the UK Construction Strategy of 2010. “We watched the UK take the lead in construction earlier in the century,” JJ was quoted on video in the Wall Street Times in October of 2048. “But after we demonstrated that the US could combine our strengths in manufacturing, digital technology and building, we decided to make construction a top economic priority. Now the industry has the platform it needs to move forward as a global leader.” Global had decided that Four Suns Towers would set just that example, and JJ agreed to come to Seattle to cut the ribbon.

Fillipa and Denise assured Abdul that JJ would not be disappointed. He arrived with his entourage from Washington just a few minutes after the holo-camera crews from Facebook Galactic Network. They toured the project by prop-jeep, watching the first skin printer/assembly robots begin their floor-by-floor climb and stopping to marvel as the first sets of pre-assembled housing units—each configured by its future owner before being manufactured in St. Louis—were inserted into the frames just before being enclosed by the curtainwall crawler. The entire group wore smart glasses, allowing Denise and Fillipa to demonstrate alternate views between on-going construction and finished project. As the first floor of Tower 1 was completed that morning during the topping ceremony, embedded sensors in finished construction reported that the mechanical system’s self-commissioning process had begun. Alberti sent performance parameters to get air, humidity control and other services under way and collected the results that would inform the start-up of the next set of towers, which Global had targeted for groundbreaking in Siem Reap, Cambodia, in two weeks. At least fifteen other jobs were in their pipeline if Seattle went well.

As a quad-crane deftly dropped the 2-meter pine tree right on the laser-etched spot, JJ rose to make his remarks. “Construction has come a long way from my days building from simple models and handwork in the desert of Phoenix in 2008,” he began. “We were sure that BIM was the answer to all our prayers back then, and it certainly got design and construction into the modern age. But it was only when we realized that designing, building and running a building was as much about data management as about swinging hammers that we started making real progress. This project would have taken five years back then, but today it took less than two. Global Projects will lead American construction into the 22nd century, and the Department of Construction is proud to be their partner in creating jobs and opportunity.”

Fillipa shifted uneasily in her chair as JJ finished his speech. Momentarily distracted by a data feed in her glasses, she saw her reservations for Cambodia flash across her eyes. “Better pack those quick-dry job boots,” she whispered to Denise. “This next job promises to be a hot one.”

 

BERNSTEIN
Alexander Euclides is a pen name for Phil Bernstein, vice president for strategic industry relations at Autodesk, where he is responsible for setting the company’s future vision and strategy for technology as well as cultivating and sustaining the firm's relationships with strategic industry leaders and associations. Prior to joining Autodesk, Bernstein practiced architecture as a principal at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects. He has taught at the Yale School of Architecture as a lecturer in professional practice since 1988. He writes and lectures extensively about practice and technology issues.

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

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