Crap houses

Here's what I dislike about the tech/geek/art community, as exemplified by the Eyebeam "reBlog." reBlog is a bunch of recycled links from a particular group of bloggers, curated by a single individual down to a coolest-of-the-cool selection. Fine, so far, but there's very little in the way of text, thought, or explanation here--just feeding the endless craving for (mostly tech) novelty. So, I see this item culled from boingboing captioned "Print houses from CAD drawings using an adobe-extruding robot." I'm not completely following this. [If I'm not mistaken, the reBlog post has since been slightly expanded.] I click the link and learn more about an aesthetic nightmare waiting to be born, which we're supposed to think is great, I guess:

A robot for "printing" houses is to be trialled (sic) by the construction industry. It takes instructions directly from an architect's computerized drawings and then squirts successive layers of concrete on top of one other to build up vertical walls and domed roofs.
You know what that sounds like to me? That sounds like shit. Frank Gehry meets Planet of the Apes. Besides throwing tradesmen out of work (yeah, I know, boo hoo, progress marches on), it has the potential to turn the construction industry into McDonalds, shitting out thousands of McHouses, McFlats, McMalls, and McOffices. And, it violates what ought to be Rule One of fusing technology and the arts (including architecture): "You shouldn't do something just because you can." How about a little criticality here, art/tech people?

UPDATE: Bill Schwarz has another link on the "extruded house." This one doesn't look like Planet of the Apes, more like the stone slave huts they put up in the Caribbean years ago for people working in salt ponds and the like. And sure enough, the obligatory quote: "It's hard to imagine construction unions taking this lying down, and union opposition is expected. But [P]rofessor [Khoshnevis, the inventor] points out that we are moving towards a society in which just about everything else is fabricated by machines. Why should houses be different, he asks?" Yeah, why? Nasty damn unions, always getting in the way of capitalist innovation.

UPDATE 2: Post edited slightly so I sound like less of a Luddite, if that's possible. Jim has a good response to my outburst in the comments.

UPDATE 3 (Feb 2005): I take back everything I say about the Eyebeam reBlog since they were kind enough to indulge my tech-skepticism by inviting me to guest reBlog for a few weeks.

- tom moody 3-10-2004 10:20 pm

FWIW, I understood "Print houses from CAD drawings using an adobe-extruding robot" right away. But then I'm part of the tech novelty crowd. 3-D printers are coming. And I think they are going to be really cool. I don't know about at the size of houses, but I'm really looking forward to desktop 3-D printers that can fabricate any CAD drawing I pump into it.

The hypothetical union opposition to 3-D printing (construction, extruding) technology is analogous to intellectual property holder's opposition to filesharing. With Gnutella I can trade digital IP. Add a 3-D printer and now I can use filesharing to trade *real items*!

That all seems cool to me. Won't the question of whether the final products are "shit" or not have to do with how the technology is used, rather than with the technology itself? Are you against using power tools to build houses? They put a lot of people out of work...

But I agree with your point that some criticality is a good thing.
- jim 3-11-2004 12:21 am [add a comment]

I'm putting myself at risk admitting my own confusion about that caption. Who is this square? [UPDATE: I rewrote the first para of the post, taking out the details of misunderstanding the headline.]

CAD printers have already invaded the art world, and so far the output is none too impressive. For example, Michael Rees' 3-D drawings are beautiful but when he "prints" them they have chalky, unappealing surfaces. No doubt having such a printer would be very useful to make models and prototypes, but it's not "there" for stand-alone objects. (To refer to your example, you wouldn't be trading real items, you'd be trading Play-Doh TM versions of real items--that'd be pretty weird.) Of course, ink printers got better, but yes, one of the issues I've been pounding as an artist is you still have to be careful and thoughtful in how you use them.

With the extruded house, ugliness alone won't stop them from being made. That's why I mentioned McDonalds. There's progress and then there's progress. I think at some point artists and tech people alike should ask, who wants this, and why are we making it for them? If it's so Halliburton execs can get that much richer extruding "troop housing" and "worker housing" then maybe unions aren't such a bad thing. If the progress empowers individuals (as with filesharing) I say great, but I suspect extruded housing will be a capital-intensive thing that mainly the big boys end up playing with.

- tom moody 3-11-2004 1:00 am [add a comment]

I lent away my copy of Ursula Franklin's The Real World of Technology so I can't find the quote that I want. But the gist is that new technologies tend to begin with a wave of populist excitement -- doors will be opened with this potential in the hands of the people! Of course "the people" who recognise this potential tend to be small groups with specialised skills. This was obviously true for computers and the internet, and (according to Franklin) was also true for automobiles. At the inception there was great talk from driving clubs about mobility and access. But the great homogenizer of the market force seems unstoppable. Sometimes artists argue: "We have to participate in this tech so that we can provide a counter spin to the inevitable mainstream." That's compelling, but I am suspicious that its just an ego-fed rationalisation ( like how I might say that, as an artist who works with pop cultural reference, I use my PS2 as a research tool...)(...eventhough that's kind of true). Anyhow, I'm not so keen on the idea of job loss and squirty houses, but I wouldn't mind a replicator next to my computer.
- sally mckay 3-11-2004 5:38 am [add a comment]

heres my two cents on this. blog subject rushing notwithstanding. im always interested in houses made from on site, local or regional materials. adobe is dirt, straw, water, a form to make bricks and the sun to cure them. its a time tested system that works well in certain regions world wide. its always a bonus if you can get a cat to walk on them and leave paw prints. this machine eliminates the folks who would have made the bricks and the folks who would have stacked them. but not the folks who finish the rest of the structure. the rest would include, foundation, roof, electrical, plumbing, flooring and interior finishing. in general i think its a good idea to find cheeper ways to house people. the machine would follow the instructions fed to it so we should not assume the product to automatically be ugly. good plans-good house, bad plans-bad house. adobe can be as beautiful, comfortable, and green as any building type available. also dont foresee a new threat of assembly line little ticky-tac houses of mud sprawl.
- bill 3-11-2004 6:25 pm [add a comment]

"Khoshnevis has tested his prototype with cement but believes adobe, a mix of mud and straw that is dried by the Sun, could be suitable. But Degussa [the Professor's corporate backer] will be looking at other materials.

"Gerhard Albrecht, head of research at Degussa's speciality materials subsidiary, Admixture, says the company is ready to develop materials specifically for the contour crafting technology." (emphasis supplied)
I think dropping the word adobe into the article was just p.r. to make the project sound eco-friendly. Notice the reBlog headline writer ran with that. Once Degussa comes up with the perfect miracle goo you won't hear about Adobe again. Pardon my cynicism.

Once they get this up and running, only the well-to-do will be able to hire the machines and a decent designer for a single house. Everyone else will get economical large groupings of modern mud huts.

For the record, I went inside a Frank Lloyd Wright prototype Usonian house (all-concrete) years ago and found it incredibly dark and oppressive.

I prefer your idea of shipping containers (as long as they have windows cut in them) because they're ready-to-hand, recyclable materials. There's so much stuff already in the world without adding more grey goo to it.
- tom moody 3-11-2004 6:58 pm [add a comment]

no they dont appear to be locked into any specific formula for the extru-da-goo. and why shouldnt they have multiple options there. options are good. im a little skeptical about the cure time of the adobe on a 24 hour built house. again the size of the windows ("dark and oppressive") has Nothing to do with the building material, that should have been fixed in the design stage. dense mass buildings such as rammed earth, cement, cinder block can be cool to the senses in warm climates. too much "stuff" in the world? yes. not enough housing ? yes again. degussa evil ? probably. khoshnevis evil ? probably not. and thanks for mentioning my container obsession.
- bill 3-11-2004 8:04 pm [add a comment]

It's not just the window size. Having spent time in cinder block rooms (college, not the Big House) I feel qualified to say "concrete is oppressive." Plus, I had to put up my posters with rolled up tape and they kept falling down. Re: options being good: McDonalds has them, too. You can get two cheeseburgers or a Big'n'Tasty. My distrust of the people who will end up controlling this technology overrides any "ain't it marvelous" feelings I might have for the new use for robotics. The Amish can raise a barn in a day, too. People need rewarding work. Bricklaying is used in some therapeutic regimens. Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. Etc Etc.

- tom moody 3-13-2004 3:50 am [add a comment]

i think alot of us have had pretty bad dorm experiences. the bunker reality quashing romantic expectations of the ivy covered learning commune. growing up in southern florida (miami) we weathered three major hurricanes in cinderblock houses with terrazzo floors. those houses were fine to live in (comfortable and not oppressive in the least) and they're still standing today after dozens more storms. im going to have to stand by my "choose choice" possition despite the cheeze-burger-in-paradise comparison. frankly i dont expect this project make it past the drawing board. go into production that is.

- bill 3-13-2004 8:24 pm [add a comment]

In the late 80's I drove my mom down (from Canada) to the 60'th anniversary of her graduating class in Delaware, Ohio (Ohio Wesleyan University). They put us up in a (new!) dorm that's insubstantiality was beyond belief. It felt like a cardtable-and-blankets kind of place, that your folks would have made you put away before you could have your supper.

On inspection (old snapshots, sight-lines from across the street, etc.) we discovered that our room occupied the precise air space that my mom's bedroom had occupied when she was a little kid, living there in a rambling two-storey wooden house with her grandmother. Freaky to the max. We both had luscious time/space-warp dreams.

Yeah, housing is arbitrary; we stake a claim to several cubic feet of air, surround it with some kind of wrapping item, and call it home. But I'm with Tom. We've already got too many examples of dumb rote buildings that are fiscal-efficiency driven. Why suggest that developers of the future are going to be any different?

Canadian poet Margaret Avison says (in New Year's Poem, in the book Winter Sun):

Gentle and just pleasure it is, being human, to have won from space this unchill, habitable interior...
- Jean (guest) 3-15-2004 5:04 pm [add a comment]

Construction robots in Japan: "a significant number of other prototype construction robots exist for a variety of applications such as drilling, spraying, concrete finishing or even the assembly of steel building frames." [via MK]

- sally mckay 3-18-2004 7:35 am [add a comment]

Bruce Sterling's science fiction writerly imagination brings poetry to "crap houses." In his early cybnerpunk stories he imagined things like the extruded "viabs" on Mars, inside asteroids, etc.

- tom moody 2-10-2005 7:02 pm [add a comment]

I don’t usually reply to articles I’m researching but I just have to add my two cents to this one and will most probably never make a reply again. Anyway, I love the idea of extruding a building directly from CAD plans. In fact, that is how I came to research it in the first place after seeing it on television.

Imagine the structures we could build! Two foot thick walls with built in sound deadening, multiple levels on multiple floors, actually fusing a cube and a sphere… that one hasn’t changed much since Hagia Sophia, built in architectural features and ornamentation that few U.S. Citizens see unless they visit a museum, and let us not forget all the preplanning the architect does before the project actually starts, total insulative qualities for heating and cooling, earthquake and hurricane resistance, stress tests, family growth…that list can go on for a very long time but is not conductive to the practicality of extruded homes. Think of it as quiet literally shaping clay. If you can think it, you can build it. I agree the structure will not be very appealing at least until it is finished. The same robot that extruded the building could change its tool head and add siding or tile, polish the construction smooth, maybe even carve/machine all the surfaces completely!
I wouldn’t worry too much about laborers either. Rough and finish persons will become specialists and charge ten times more for their services.
I too believe the adobe comment was for P.R. but the concept is a very good one… in the correct climate of course. Was going to build a small shop for myself a few years back and thought I would try a straw/adobe technique I heard about but wasn’t sure on some of the aspects, so I experimented. The whole structure was held up by framing just like a modern house but the walls were adobe spread thickly on 4 bales of hay covered by chicken wire that were stacked between the framing studs. The bottom bales were sitting on plastic that was under the wire and went to the top bales. On top of that was a sheet of tin with a large overhang on all four sides. The whole thing was about 4 feet tall anchored on a concrete block. No weight rested on the adobe/straw walls. It was a disaster! In one month half of the two bales on the bottom were rotted away. So no, I don’t recommend adobe for all climates.
My sister visited Prague and a few other places in Europe not long ago and after her return she made a comment about U.S. housing in general. Basically we live in flimsy houses compared to Europe even if you live in a modern brick home (at least in the U.S.); brick is used more like siding on a framed house now. I too get that flimsy feeling when I visit someone in a new house but then my home was constructed in the 1930s which was before electricity was available in the area, so maybe people had more time for craftsmanship then and it has nothing to do with minimal modern materials in new constructions and is strictly construction techniques. That is something that programming can work out too. Another reason to use extrusion robots is that they do not argue with you. They do what you tell them and nothing else. I have noticed multiple times someone actually constructing a project say “we can’t do it that way” or “that’ll cost you more” and you always end up with something unsatisfying. Also, after a while the process will become very cheep. Maybe the answer to that adobe problem is to add recycled plastic to the mixture and heat it up as it works.
Extruding parts of a construction has been around for a very long time. The first I can think of is concrete structures like the ugly things that were made during and after World War II but those were more a poured structure. Recently (in history) is slip forming techniques like suspension bridge towers and they are looking a lot better but I believe a lot of people will remember an old concept cartoon with a machine extruding a highway overpass.
This however is what I really would like to see, modify the nozzle end of the extruder to sinter pulverized rock into a bricklike substance and send the thing to our Moon and Mars. I believe this can be achieved be adding a microwave furnace to the nozzle end and a lot of the work has already been done…
Even if it cannot sinter a brick it should still be able to pick one up and “glue” it in place.
So, in all I approve the development of extruded buildings.
- Earl H. Dodd (guest) 2-12-2006 4:56 am [add a comment]

Thanks for your long, thoughtful post.
I despair that this technology will ever be used for good.
I don't trust the developers.
All major cities are being taken over by undistinguished "luxury high rises" made of poured concrete.
A nice row of brownstones goes down, concrete residential housing for the rich and tasteless goes up, block after block.
It's progess till all those structures become undesirable high rise slums, which will happen much sooner than with the buildings they are replacing.
Eventually people will look back on this period and say, what the f--?
- tom moody 2-13-2006 7:30 am [add a comment]