Post-Fab Construction

Here’s what I don’t understand about modern house construction; despite modern computation and robotics, we still rely on humans to measure and cut things piece-by-piece in order to build a house.

Prefab has negative connotations for being used to create cookie cutter houses that have no individuality but it’s a self-imposed limitation, especially considering that planning is already computerized. I think we can do better.

Given a few laser measurements of a land plot, we could easily use these as a baseline for architect plans which are already computerized in most cases. Even manual transfer of this plan into discrete wall and floor segments would be acceptable, but I think computers could do it automatically too.

Send it off to the robotic construction warehouse. Two-by-fours are tested and cut to perfect sizes with millimeter precision. Holes are drilled, electrical and plumbing equipment is placed and everything is sealed up with sheetrock, ready to be set in place at the construction site with LEGO-like instruction manuals.

Sure, human intervention is still required in the building process. There are benefits to pouring concrete on-site for foundations and all the fabricated parts still have to be secured together and painted over.

I suspect this would shorten the time spent on a new house significantly. What percent of the building process is spent framing a house? From the outside it looks to be a large chunk - once a building is framed it seems like a takes much less time to finish it. And much of the rest of the process (painting, carpeting) doesn’t benefit from a significant increase in precision fabrication.

Given the evidence of many house remodeling shows on HGTV (strong evidence if I’ve ever seen it), I suspect quality would improve as well. Any pipes or wire that was fabricated at a warehouse could be well-tested beforehand, reducing the chance of electrical fires in walls or leaky pipes due to improper soldering.

We’ve definitely taken small steps in this direction, you buy cabinets that are pre-made for the kitchen and windows are packaged for easy installation. But, as always, we fear the steps that remove humans from parts of the equation - particularly now that the term “job killer” is such a politically loaded term - even when they’re added in other locations.

Like most new things though, jobs wouldn’t disappear but rather transition. Humans are needed to program, maintain and inspect the work in the fabrication warehouse. Construction speed would benefit greatly from having these warehouses close by, so many small-to-medium warehouses all over the country would be more beneficial than large factories that then have to ship parts thousands of miles.

I give it 20 years until we see something like this take form. Not due to technical limitations, we could do all of this right now, but mostly human factors.

This is what I get for having so much construction in Noe Valley; everywhere I go I see humans cutting and nailing wood together and I have to think “can’t we improve this?” In my opinion, we can.

Sat, Feb 16, 2013