Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Engineers are racing to unveil the world’s first robot capable of building a house at the touch of a button.

The first prototype — a watertight shell of a two-storey house built in 24 hours without a single builder on site — will be erected in California before April.

A rival design, being pioneered in the East Midlands, with £1.2m of government funding, will include sunken baths, fireplaces and cornices. There are even plans for robots to supplant painters and decorators by spraying colourful frescoes at an affordable price.

By building almost an entire house from just two materials — concrete and gypsum — the robots will eliminate the need for dozens of traditional components, including floorboards, wooden window frames and possibly even wallpaper. It may eventually be possible to use specially treated gypsum instead of glass window panes.

Engineers on both projects say the robots will not only cut costs and avoid human delays but liberate the normal family homes from the conventional designs of pitched roofs, right-angled walls and rectangular windows.

“The architectural options will explode,” predicted Dr Behrokh Khoshnevis at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who will soon unleash his $1.5m (£940,000) robot. “We will be able to build curves and domes as easily as straight walls.

“Your shoes, clothes and car are already made automatically, but your house is built by hand and it doesn’t make sense.”

At Loughborough University’s School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, the technology is being backed by a £1.2m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

It involves computer-controlled robotic nozzles which pipe quick-drying liquid gypsum and concrete to form walls, floors and roofs.

Inspired by the inkjet printer, the technology goes far beyond the techniques already used for prefabricated homes. “This will remove all the limitations of traditional building,” said Hugh Whitehead of the architecture firm Foster & Partners, which designed the “Gherkin” skyscraper in London and is producing designs for the Loughborough team. “Anything you can dream you can build.”

The robots are rigged to a metal frame, enabling them to shuttle in three dimensions and assemble the structure of the house layer by layer. The sole foreman on site operates a computer programmed with the designer’s plans.

The researchers in Los Angeles claim their robot will be able to build the shell of a house in 24 hours. “Compared to a conventional house, the speed of construction will be increased 200-fold and the building costs will be reduced to a fifth of what they are today,” said Khoshnevis.

The rival British system is likely to take at least a week but will include more sophisticated design features, with the computer’s nozzle weaving in ducts for water pipes, electrical wiring and ventilation within the panels of gypsum or concrete.

Jala El-Ali, structural designer at Buro Happold — the firm that helped design Arsenal’s new football stadium, which is shaped like a flying saucer — said future homes could carry features borrowed from ant hills, honeycombs or sea shells.

Dr Rupert Soar, in charge of the project at Loughborough, has travelled to Namibia to seek inspiration from termites, which construct giant mounds by regurgitating earth in intricate designs.

“If you ask a bricklayer to lay bricks in anything other than a straight line, you’ll run into problems,” said Soar. “But if you ask the robot to make a squiggly line it really doesn’t care.”

The robots will also create a smaller “carbon footprint” than conventional building methods; and, theoretically, a family could grind down a spare room when the children leave home.

Original Article

However, the robot appears to be afflicted by all-too-human obstacles. While the Americans’ first robot-built home is predicting a completion date of April, the Loughborough prototype is unlikely to be built for at least five years.