Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Contour Crafting: A Housing Solution or the Death of Design?

In today’s world, machines have become tools that simplify many processes; cars, clothing, furniture, and countless other goods are manufactured largely by machine rather than manual labor. Robotics have made thousands of goods we buy everyday cheaper, faster, and more convenient, at the same time robotics have put people out of jobs and in many cases diminished product design to a dull and repetitive process. Now, imagine that one could press print and in 24 hours or less, and entire 2000 sqft house would appear. Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California has created what he calls a contour crafting machine which he claims will do just that. Khoshnevis is in the process of developing a printer of sorts which can print buildings. He hopes that such machines in the future will be able to build houses, offices, schools and even hospitals. Khoshnevis claims that the first printers will be available for commercial purchase around 2008. These machines use a specially developed concrete mixture to lay down layers of concrete a few inches thick. The Contour Crafter will also be able to install electrical lines and plumbing; the crafter will even be able to do work as specific as printing wallpaper into place. The only thing left to do by manual labor will be installing windows, doors, and other fixtures. Khoshnevis speculates that in twenty years from now the contour crafter will replace most manual labor in the construction industry. The contour crafter is expected to reduce construction costs of a house by about 75% and the construction time to just one day. More detailed information including videos, media reports and a link to the Contour Crafting blog is available at the Contour Crafting website.

The hope is that the Contour Crafter will be able to solve problems of housing for people suffering from poverty, disaster relief, and just to make homes in general more affordable. Disasters victims such as those after Hurricane Katrina would receive relief housing with plumbing and electricity in a mater of days. Khoshnevis’ website uses the example of a recent earthquake in Bam, Iran (2003); five months after the quake, only 11% of the 75,000 left homeless had shelter. Current portable housing unites are too expensive, time consuming and primitive to alleviate the problem. Conceivably, an entire city could be built in a mater of days for relief victims with homes that are permanent and comfortable. The proposal seems quite amazing, but what effect will such a technology have in the long run? No successful city has ever been built over night, or entirely relocated. If all of the victims receive quality permanent housing, who will want to rebuild what was destroyed? It’s horrible to imagine an ancient city, rich with culture being replaced by an overnight suburban Levittown. Not to say that giving disaster victims speedy and quality should not be done, but would this be the right way?

On a different note, what would the Contour Crafter do to high end design? According to Khoshnevis, the Crafter can easily create complex walls, with curves and bends at a fraction of the cost that a conventional construction crew could. He claims that the machine can open the door to more freedom in design. It seems as though this may be true and may even be a goal of Khoshnevis’. However, the people who will most likely purchase these contour crafters will be contractors, not designers. Will architecture turn into just another mundane process? With cookie cutter padio homes so popular today will the construction of building go even farther and bypass the architect all together; customers will simply pick out a plan from a data base and press print?

1 comment:

R**L said...

contour crafting is definitely an exciting technology, and yes, i think architects would love to use them. Greg Lynn, Francois Roche (and I) are already speculating on their use. What your post doesn't cover is the notion of MEGA. ok, you can build a house quickly, a city quickly, but how does this affect the larger scale. pehaps some images that go along with numbers suggesting how large a city, where that city will be built, how many cities in a decade? a century? where are populations expanding the greatest where the demand for this would be best utilized? more MEGA.