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Construction Science Fiction: The Day Spencer Jammed My Printer

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So here I am waiting to get started on a senior center I’m building. Eight stories, 300 units, right in the middle of lower Manhattan, it would give the people what they wanted—safe, walkable neighborhoods, a cool-looking façade and techno-supported microapartments meeting their every need. 

I should have known there’d be trouble when the union guys rolled my builder bots out into 22nd Street and gave the Sensor-Traff system something to think about redirecting downtown traffic. My bots weren’t any too happy either, their little RFID voices complaining bitterly through half the night. But the workers were pissed and had been for years. Computers were taking over and taking their jobs away.

They didn’t care that my senior center had been BIMmed to a fare-thee-well. 3D model drawings rolled endlessly across wearable screens as developer Howard Braun, architect Jay Wallace and me blabbed our way through the design process and made on-the-spot adjustments along the way, reducing design development time by two-thirds compared to the old hierarchical way.

Jay Wallace was unusual among his architectural colleagues in accepting his new role as real-time design development consultant rather than creator extraordinaire. Most contractors and subs we worked with, though, thought differently. With my builder bots doing the foundation work and initial preparations, the traditional building guys saw us lay off over half the work force we usually used. Only the techno-savvy—the men and women who could understand and work with computers—had made the cut.

That’s when the set-up crews hit us and hit us hard—builder bots rolling out into the street being only part of the story. We had actually had to redo the base plates a couple times before security tightened up.

Then my brother-in-law Spencer showed up on the site. He had been one of those builders who had kept his job but seen too many buddies laid off for comfort. We had reached fabrication time, time for the 3D printers to get rolling creating the floor plates and gerberettes we had specified to give the senior center more flexibility—its common spaces could be reconfigured from card rooms to bingo halls to an Equity-level theater, as needed. Once our builder bots got going assembling all the fabricated pieces-parts, delivered to the site just-in-time, putting up that eight-story beauty would be only a matter of weeks, not months.

But for Spencer I had gone far enough. “Joe,” he said, “you’ve got to start thinking about what you’re doing to people you’ve worked with all your life. They’re out of work, out of the trades, out of the business altogether. Some of us warned you guys about this 20 years ago but you wouldn’t listen. ‘Progress was progress,’ you said. Well, now you’re going to find out what that means.”

“What do you mean, Spence, what are you up to?”

“Let’s just say I’m going to give you some thinking time.”

Two days later I get a 2 a.m. report from the factory: the 3D printers have seized up due to sand in the works. How it got there was anybody’s guess, but I had a good idea. Spence knew some of the trades guys in the factory and, since time immemorial, those trades guys always stuck together. Acting on my hunch, I walked over to Spence’s house across the street and confronted him directly about it, right there in the early-morning dark.

And he didn’t deny it. “You’re darned right I arranged for this. I’m not going to tell you who did it, and if you try to charge me, I’ll deny it every step of the way. And don’t think Millie (my wife, his sister) will be any help to you. She sees things my way.”

Long story short, we got the nozzles cleaned out and we proceeded with the job, adding, it turned out, only three weeks to the schedule. But I had heard Spence’s message, for sure. I threw my political weight behind job-retraining programs that had languished unfunded for years because shortsighted politicians thought they were saving government money. The saved programs redefined the term “skilled” training and ended up creating enough jobs to pay for themselves ten times over.

But emotions take a little longer to change. All this happened some 20 years ago. I took up residence in the senior center myself just before Millie passed away. I’m bereft without her, but at least I have a cool place to spend my senior years. My microapartment’s 300 square feet are laid out with all the efficiency you would expect of a modern accessory dwelling unit. Kitchen, living room, bedroom, arranged for comfort and convenience, and dotted with strategically placed medical sensors tracking my walking, refrigerator use, medication management, and basic vital signs throughout the day. I’m about as active and independent as my 80-year-old bones allow me to be.

When I’m not exploring that great walkable neighborhood, I’m fiddling with my full wall-sized screen for voice-activated Internet and interactive TV. The double-skinned building is heated and cooled convectively using the stack effect and enthalpy wheels, along with the energy-saving façade-mounted windmills and water-recycling equipment that became standard equipment years ago.

My unit also has a feature that banishes any concern about being “holed up” in a small space, which had long been the knock against microapartments lived in by seniors full time. In short, the apartment rotates independently within careful limits, avoiding next door spying while following the sun or shade during the day (my choice) and giving me great, ever-changing views sweeping from downtown New York to the Hudson River. I never thought I’d see revolving residential architecture in my lifetime until constant advances in plumbing, HVAC and electrical flexible infrastructure made it possible.

And I’ve got a new friend, a robot I call Fred, who bears a striking resemblance to the young Seth Rogan. Today’s real Seth is quite the distinguished older gentleman but his younger android version keeps me laughing. And—unlike any known version of Seth Rogan—Fred can be counted upon to clean up after me, do my laundry and make my meals. Fred took a little getting used to but I find I prefer him (it) to some people I know.

For example, Spence. The day he heard that Millie and I were moving into this place, he stopped speaking to me. I haven’t heard from him since.

 

PECK

Richard L. 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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