The building project of the future will be a model of rationality. If the initial design is good, and the system is operated properly, the process of procuring and erecting a building will be an elaborate, computer-choreographed dance in which many hundreds of people will perform precisely the right steps at exactly the right time. It will be an everyday miracle of organisation, production and administration.
Here's how a typical project will work. Imagine for a minute that you are an architect in Manchester that has won a commission to build a local arts complex. To begin with, your concept is turned into a CAD model of the building by a principal design team made up of your people and the engineers, supplemented by specialist subcontractors. Let's say you're discussing the acoustics of the main hall with the acoustic engineer, who is based in Malaysia. Both of you have a cursor, both can alter the design in real time, and both can hear the other speak and see a video image of each other on a subsidiary screen, so that hand gestures can by used to convey ideas – or perhaps insults. If you can only improve the acoustics by changing the structure, you may need to patch the structural engineer into the conversation – which would put three cursors on the screen …
The design will be built up from standardised intelligent objects picked from a vast database maintained by the European Union Suppliers' Federation. Once the design has been signed off by all interested parties, including key specialist contractors, of course, you will make the file available to the contractor. It will execute the design by entering a code – a nervous moment for all concerned – and a full parts list for the building will be generated and dispatched to the relevant framework suppliers over the project extranet, together with a just-in-time schedule that gives each a one-hour delivery window. At the same time, subcontractors will be sent their parts of the overall construction schedule – and the client will find out to the nearest euro how much the building should cost.
The firms in charge of the works packages, who have previously committed themselves to a set of minimum lead times, must then dispatch their right-first-time parts to the site in work packs (the flatter the better). Meanwhile, on the site, the project software will have drawn up a setting-out plan using the European Union's ultra-accurate Galileo satellite system. When the work packs arrive, logistics teams with power tools will break them down for handling teams, who will load them on to magnetically levitated pallet trucks for delivery to the expert fitters – quite unlike the artisans of today – who will assemble them in accordance with consistent instructions, in a way that is not dissimilar to a car assembly line. And, as with a car assembly line, robots will carry out tasks that are repetitive, dangerous or require extreme precision. The main difference will be that producing a car means revolving it around teams of workers; whereas on site, the man or robot will revolve around the building. The result is an unexciting, profitable efficiency.
Each part of the finished building, every panel, every structural member, will be readable using one of the computers sewn into worker's clothing. Point your finger, press a button on your sleeve and you can determine a component's acquisition date, maintenance requirements, and replacement date. Everyone who took part in constructing the building can go home happy. All were paid on time by project software from the central project fund, all disputes were mediated or adjudicated using the project's common document archive, and the client's accountants can satisfy themselves that value for money was achieved by looking through the books of the suppliers. Finally, the software files all the documents from the projects, complete with key performance indicators and reports written by the major players discussing points of interest, into the central European best practice database.
Logistics robotThis robot is checking a consignment of ceramic curtain walling panels. First, it scans the barcode to tell site administration that the package has arrived, then it uses an electronic eye to asses the delivery for damage. Once satisfied, the robot takes the package to the prearranged holding area, ready for immediate use.
Hoarding A shimmering, dynamic information display for what is happening on the site.
Cameras This 3D very large-scale integration (VLSI) video is linked to interested parties on the project team as well as to the Health and Safety Executive. Inspectors will be able to monitor the entire progress of a job, and even shut it down from their office if they don’t like what they see. The inspector is helped by a computer that monitors the areas of a site where accidents are most likely to occur, using the fuzzy logic developed by London Underground to spot potential suicides. This sounds an alarm if it interprets its input as an unsafe practice.
Materials Embedded processors record the acquisition date, maintenance record, life span and replacement date. Materials are closer to being designed to fit the needs of a specific end use. This ability is not the result of a continuous evolution of knowledge, but a step-change resulting from increased computer power (itself the result of progress in materials science) and advanced instrumentation, which allow accurate and powerful mathematical model to be drawn up of the chemical and physical structure of materials. This allows the behaviour of the material in different circumstances to be predicted and manipulated. In other words, the properties and performance of a material can be tailor-made, or modified by coating, joining and adhesive technologies designed into the manufacturing process.
Site shelter A temporary plastic dome covers the entire site, protecting materials and delicate machinery from the elements. Space heaters create comfortable working conditions for operatives and the optimal temperature for operations such as pouring concrete.
Operatives Workers on the site are wearing soft body armour that becomes rigid if subject to sudden acceleration, and which emits light to increase visibility. They have computers sewn into their sleeves to allow them to communicate with each other, and can access information on processors embedded in the robots and the building components. After protracted industrial and legal disputes, managers on most sites (exceptions being airports, government buildings and other projects at risk of terrorist attack) are no longer allowed to use them to record the workers’ actions. Hard hat This is equipped with a camera and a computer. The camera is patched into the site local area network and the computer can warn the wearer if they are in danger of meeting with an accident.
Assembler robot This device is building an external wall using technology developed by NASA for the Mars rover robot in the 1990s. The same robot will then fix cladding to the frontage. A standard steel grid is attached to the building frame, and the technical specifications of the cladding system uploaded to the robot’s artificial intelligence unit. Then all you have to do is let it go. As long as the logistics robots keep it supplied with materials, it will build walls or fix cladding until the job is completed – stopping every couple of hours to change places with another ’bot at the recharging bay.
Robot recharging bay Portable hydrogen source for robots.