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Construction Science Fiction: Such a Lonely Job...

Text size: A A
Artwork Coutesy of Natasa Mrazovic
Figure 1: Alpha, the First Proto-Material Building, Rio de Janeiro, South America, 2075 (Courtesy: Building History, McGraw-Hill, UpChicago, 2239)
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“Today is a good day for building on Earth. Yup, haven’t been home since my last vacation!” Ann smiled and landed her TRIXY. “Good girl! Such a smooth landing."

Eva started reciting her daily lines: “Good morning, Ann. How are you feeling today? I see that you look energetic, upbeat and, in one word, wonderful today. We have successfully landed on Earth, the geographical latitude: 37° 35’ 6.6156” and longitude: -122° 30’ 52.6392”, in the exact southeastern corner of the predefined construction site. According to Earth’s time calculation it is 6:01 a.m., July 23, 2388. All systems are adjusted to Earth’s requirements. Today’s assignment is to build a 300-sq-m single-family house on the North American Pacific coast. All environmental and users’ related constraints uploaded. Prediction: Four users with an average 1.5 weekly visitors. The difficulty level is 3/10 according to Earth’s scale. The house will be anchored to the surface with a vertical elevation of up to 100 meters in the Earth’s atmosphere. The task will be executed in exactly 7 hours 35 minutes and 39 seconds. You have 10 minutes to relax and prepare for building. Current physical form: Grasshopper. Please choose my physical form during this task. I am looking forward to seeing today’s art choice! Have fun!"

“Oh, Eva, think I need to read that handbook one more time on how to stay emotionally disconnected from one’s work-assigned transformer! Haha, some guys married their TRIXYs, did you hear that? Of course you didn’t. Meh, this job has become very lonely since they legally reduced the acceptable level of a robot’s emotional intelligence.”

Ann stepped out of her construction transformer, walked toward the ocean and stopped at the highest point, after which the ground became very steep. She stretched her neck, closed her eyes, took a deep breath and smiled. “Mmm … I love the summer fog of San Francisco and the sound of the ocean waves. This is definitely one of my preferred retirement locations.”

After a few moments of stillness, Ann jumped energetically, clapped her hands and shouted: “OK, it’s time to play! Eva, today my music choice is simply silence with the sound of the ocean in the background. For the first hour of work please just amplify the surrounding sounds. Later on perhaps we will add some Bach, but not for the moment.” Ann started walking toward Eva while giving her further orders: “You stay as you are and please, free the builders!”

Four yellow glowing balls, 20 cm in diameter, appeared below Eva. “Preparation for the building process has begun. Four helpers have been directed towards their starting positions. The building process will start at exactly 6:10 a.m., in ten, nine …” As Eva was counting down, Ann stood in front of her and raised her hands like a conductor in front of her orchestra. Her jumpsuit started changing color as numerous flying transparent screens materialized out of her suit and appeared visible. Ann was standing in the center of the whirlpool of flying screens. “Hm, am I in the mood today for an additive or subtractive process? Possibilities, possibilities … Eva, we’re going to build with an additive process. A subtractive process will be more suitable for the task tomorrow on Mars. Today I’m feeling more creative!” As soon as Ann announced the type of procedure, Eva counted “zero” and the building process began.

Ann was focused on the thousands of flying screens around her and was not aware of how breathtaking her “vertical dance” was. Her jumpsuit allowed her to fly vertically, approximately 20 meters high, but always within a virtual cylinder of screens. As the builder becomes more experienced, the building process becomes faster, and Ann was rated as 10/10 on the quality scale. No matter how accustomed they get to this contemporary visual multidimensional art, the by-flyers program their DIY-fliers to slow down for them to catch a glimpse of a building process. It incorporates not only the process of design and construction, but also the artistic movements of the human body. As Ann was editing the mapped environmental data, the helpers were slowly unleashing the protomaterial, and the building was growing.

Two hours into the building process, when all first floor solids were finished, a loud voice interrupted the sound of the ocean waves: “As you can see, this is an exemplary one-crew member building process of a single-family villa in the neo-Proto-house10 modern style from the previous millennium. There are 348 builders this morning in the San Francisco Bay Area. You are allowed to enjoy the view from Earth’s atmosphere...”

Ann stood firmly on the ground with both her feet in the “superwoman” pose, causing the screen whirlpool to immediately disappear. “Okay, I have finally lost my patience with this crowd! Eva, how many times have I officially complained?”

“Four hundred sixty-nine times till this morning. I have already sent a new objection to the University and the Building Federation.”

Ann was staring with anger at the flying object that was casting its shadow on the construction site. It contained 11 humans: Prof. Hutchinson, the building history teacher, ten students, and the standard pilot crew of two robots.

“Looking now at the history of building process, it took over 200 years for today’s technology to develop.” Prof. Hutchinson didn’t care much about his best ex-pupil’s angry stare. “Three major ideas at the beginning of the second millennium triggered the revolution: the discovery of the protomaterial, the application of 3D printing on a construction site and the biomimetic approach to fabrication. Before these breakthroughs the design and construction processes were two separate procedures, struggling with their own numerous problems: The building design was carried out prior to construction at a location far from the construction site; projects were never built exactly as intended; everybody was talking about energy efficient and sustainable buildings, but the true sustainability and efficiency we have today did not exist. Construction sites were full of cheap human labor, the control of a construction process was not secured due to many participants, etc. At that time every segment of human endeavor, especially in science, had a simplified approach where any problematic process was dissected into smaller controllable segments for it to be easily solved. No wonder design and construction, each with so many problems of its own, were kept in separate areas of research and practice.

“When the necessary shift of perspective from the traditional form-driven design and fabrication processes to biomimetic process and function-driven design and construction systems occurred, the first ideas of merging design and construction into one single event, called ‘building,’ started to affect ‘business as usual.’ The concepts like ‘design as you do’ and mass-customization became the first …” Suddenly a snowball flew through the air, hitting the side of Prof. Hutchinson’s head and bringing the lecture to an end. Ann and the students started laughing uncontrollably, but Eva couldn’t comprehend such childish behavior.

“I amuse myself. Kids, did he tell you about nature? Respect it! One apocalypse was enough!” Ann chimed in.

“Stop scaring them, there was no apocalypse,” said the professor. “Humans always find a way to bounce back! Just wait, Ann, a sweet revenge is coming! No more snow on my ark! Students, this is one of the many misuses of protomaterial. It all started 300 years ago with the discoveries of self-growing, self-sensing and self-repairing materials. It marked a new industrial revolution, bigger than anything ever seen before. Students, let’s go to Asia: Paul is much friendlier. Those builders … The fame goes straight to their heads! Did you know that many years ago, film actors were the most famous people?” That statement made the students laugh even more, as today everyone is an “actor” and people can live in any kind of imaginary worlds, as long as it is within legally predefined social boundaries.

The capsule made one more full circle above the building site: “Nature was always there to teach us about the best ways to build. The customized forms of nature emerge through the mixture of a material’s properties and environmental constraints according to the defined process that these forms will accommodate. Take a look at a leaf, a branch, a tree; there is no two of a kind. Taught by principles of nature, we realized that one needs to ask oneself not what an object wants to be but rather what …” Prof. Hutchinson’s voice was slowly disappearing as the ship gained altitude.

Ann couldn’t stop laughing: “I cannot believe that he still uses exterior loud speakers! Eva, did you know that he thinks everybody wants to learn something from him! Luckily we all have sound dampers …”

“I would define him as a plausible altruistic man.”

“Haha, yes, you would! No worries, he loves me, this is just our way of communicating! My first lesson was that built matter is a materialization of constraints from a building’s environmental and users’ requirements. Let’s go! We wasted enough time! Give me some faster music!”

 

MRAZOVIC

Natasa Mrazovic is a research assistant at the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering in Stanford University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department and an affiliate in the Building Technology and Urban Systems department of the Environmental Energy Technology Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  She is pursuing a PhD in civil and environmental engineering at Stanford with a focus on sustainable design and construction. She has  masters degrees in architecture and urban planning as well as structural engineering from the University of Zagreb. In that city, she worked for 10 years designing large-scale buildings, including three years as a chief designer, project manager and director of an architectural office.  English is her fourth language.

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

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