City Conversations The Craft of Automation
Location: The Building Centre London
Date: 30 March 2017
Adam Locke: Partnership and Innovation Leader, Laing O’Rourke
Michael Stacey: Michael Stacey Architects
Glenn Howells: Glenn Howells Architects
Geoff Morrow: Director of StructureMode
To watch the presentations from the conversation, please see links at the end of the article.
Sarah Prichard, Buro Happold’s Director of Engineering chaired the Conversation and reviews the findings of the Happold Foundation’s Craft of Automation
The title of this Conversation is clearly set up the juxtaposition of two ideas: craft – made by hand – and automation – the use of equipment in a manufacturing process. We set out to explore how these have an effect on the cities in which we live and work today, and those which we, as engineers and architects, will leave as our legacy.
This Conversation sought to explore the impact of the increasingly use of automation in the design and construction processes. Is craft in building reaching the end of the line? Or is computation + prefabrication a new type of craft? And, if so, can the design community respond to preserve a sense of identity and place?
The (increasingly international) technocrats in our industry would like to sell us a vision of a new age and an imminent change in the way we build our cities. New systems of design that can communicate with the manufacturing process. Off-site pre-construction and automation in those processes. Delivery of materials by autonomous vehicles – reducing disruption and making cities safer. Robotics both offsite and, increasingly, on site, making the assembly process more accurate and risk free. These technologies are here and already deployed at the leading edge in many industries from manufacture to agriculture.
Or is it all ‘pie in the sky’ research? The very reason that the construction industry is so successfully backward is that the system works. Labour is still relatively cheap and demand for places at craft colleges remains high. The industry therefore finds itself in a dilemma. Should it be more courageous and plan to lead a brave new world of building technology? And in doing so can we still look to design our urban realm in a way that is enduring and pleasing to the eye and the soul?
The twentieth century has become one of increasing busyness and pressure on time and materials as we strive to create products, and in this case, buildings more quickly and efficiently and with a greater eye on the bottom line. In the construction industry, we work to provide adequate housing and transportation for our ever-expanding cities. Under these pressures, and with the changes that have already happened in the last 200 years since the start of the industrial revolution, it is extremely it is unlikely that we are going to revert to a time where buildings are actually created by hand, as in the true meaning of craft.
Automation helps us to produce buildings, or even the elements of buildings, more quickly and often to a higher and more consistent standard than if done by hand. Almost all quality improvement comes via simplification of design, manufacturing, layout, processes and procedures. We have an opportunity in the construction industry where so many of our buildings are unique ‘one off’ pieces, to use some elements of automation to produce buildings. If used appropriately, this should mean that they are made to a higher quality standard, often off site, with less inherent danger in the construction process, and with a higher probability that the finished product will be of a better quality than that produced by imperfect people creating them in a less automated process. And yet, we are concerned that through moving more towards greater automation that we are somehow losing something that we are going down a one way street from which we cannot return.
John F. Kennedy said: “Automation does not need to be our enemy. I think machines can make life easier for men, if men do not let the machines dominate them.”
As he suggests, it is very much our responsibility to carefully consider what we are doing, and to constantly question the decisions we are making – we must remain in control of what we are doing and why we are striving to do it. But this does not mean that we cannot build on the advances in our industry as well as those in other industries, and become leaders, rather than followers – as this industry often is – in the use of innovative, automated processes, to develop buildings and cities for the 21st century and beyond. In order to allow us to construct for the future, in a leaner and more efficient way, we may need to be brave and adopt automated systems. However, we can, and still should, look to design our urban realm in a way that is enduring and pleasing to the eye and the soul – this does not always mean ornate, but it certainly calls for elegance.
I really don’t see us going back to a time where craft actually means ‘made by hand’ but I can see there being a greater focus on the craft as ‘art’, and of construction and our cities made more with an artistic focus rather than with more functional considerations. In craft, there are no mistakes, just unique creations. With each of uniquely created buildings, we retain the role of craftsmen whilst using optimal techniques to deliver them to the highest standards, and to reduce the incidence of mistakes and errors which are both annoying and costly to rectify.
In order to allow us to construct for a leaner and fitter future I think we need to be brave and adopt, to a degree, some automate solutions and systems. We can and should consider the inclusion of some craft in our design but maybe not craft as in the ‘handmade’ but in the ‘Art of Craft’ and make sure that that is brought in so that each of these unique creations we deliver has that element of craft in it – still using optimal techniques – So that we reduce the risk of costly mistakes that might occur on a one by basis.
Bespoke structural engineer Geoff Morrow is a great believer in the benefits that automation in the form of digital design tools can bring. The possibilities that these open up for designers bring progress. Parametric modelling, form-finding and optimisation techniques allow the design of many typologies that were not previously possible.
This is because we can make lots of elements that are all slightly different to one another, very accurately. Whereas when manufacturing by ‘hand’ we have to have allow for inaccuracies in manufacture, communication of data is laborious and error prone and economics demands that components are repeated as much as possible to reduce cost.”
But ironically he believes that this requires the engineers to have firmer grasp of the fabrication process, particularly when some form of automated processes may be involved.
Geoff Morrow, Director of StructureMode
“The social aspect of building is something that is vital in his work in developing countries, using local materials and training local work forces – sometimes with 50% female participation. In this context, there is an enhanced social aspect of building which we may have lost as a result of division of labour and automation.”
To others building at such a basic level may be an activity from which we have largely escaped, thanks to the technological revolution. Michael Stacey, an architect and teacher, quotes William Morris in his ‘News from Nowhere’ as being against “the drudgery of work” and therefore in favour of progress through technology, where progress allows a better future through civilisation and the arts. But did the various technical revolutions deliver what the visionaries thought they would? And should we therefore view the automation revolution as similarly empty in its promises?
Michael Stacey, Michael Stacey Architects
With the digital revolution and particularly the advance of artificial intelligence, societies are once again needing to ask the question about useful work – the same questions asked by the Luddites in the 19th century.
Sarah Pritchard, BuroHappold Engineering
Laing O’Rourke invest a huge amount in R&D and Adam Locke is immersed in these activities. For him the goal currently is greater productivity. In his view there is an increasing shortage of skilled labour which will continue to grow. “We are being asked to do more with less people and with less people being attracted into construction.”
Productivity has stayed very flat in Construction when you compare it with other sectors, such as agriculture, aerospace or automotive: “they’ve really moved on, literally for decades, perhaps more.” So he has no doubt the industry has to change. And change, he believes, is good for everybody: it’s better for clients – they get a better product and better value, it’s better for the workforce because they get paid better and better for our companies because they become more profitable and sustainable in the long run.
Adam Locke: Partnership and Innovation Leader, Laing O’Rourke
Glenn Howells feels we have not become any smarter at building in the past 100 years – we have just developed better tools. The industry has tried to produce complete buildings offsite, but he sees the future to be a well-designed and integrated kit of parts assembled on site.
Glenn Howells, Glenn Howells Architects
Howells sees slow progress towards a more integrated sustainable building product, compounded by a perfect storm of skills shortages, lack of local production facilities and difficulties in finding affordable alternatives form overseas. “Transport is key,” in defining the sort of product that is going to emulate the advances made by designers such as Buckminster Fuller and Jean Prouve.
But what sort of integrated system should this be? Chris Twinn, an environmental engineer, feels that we should be looking much further ahead in terms of building physics to really find the benefit from automation. We are too concerned currently, he feels, in replicating outdated site processes in the factory.
Chris Twinn, Twinn Sustainability Innovation
Tim Lucas, a structural engineer with Price and Myers is even more specific about where he sees the need for design investment: we could be more useful redesigning how buildings fit together.
Tim Lucas, Price & Myers
This rich and stimulating Conversation ranged from pre-history and the development of the human brain to technology-enabled local building in developing countries, through to the product that might emanate from future automated factories. The linking theme was probably the need for good design and the importance of designers understanding the production process with an element of craft within it.
Sarah Prichard, BuroHappold Engineering
Further questions for discussion
- It’s automated production but is it Architecture?
- How will automation change the role of designers in the construction process?
- Is the physical act of building part of the human psyche?
- Is there any craft in automation – or is it really engineering.
- If we all become more productive, does that mean we should have more spare time
- How can Government incentives be used to intervene in this sector to make the most of the impact of automation (if at all).