Building sustainably turns slowly but steadily from suggestion to norm. The general aim is to ensure that actions today are laying the foundation for a healthy future for future generations. Robotic innovations have revolutionized the construction industry, ushering in an era of sustainable building practices. “Sustainability in architecture needs to consider the natural resources and conditions at the site, incorporating these into the design wherever feasible. It also means utilizing materials that minimize the structure’s environmental footprint […].” This is the broad technical understanding, but certainly, urbanists will want to add another dimension of sustainability, as explained by the same author: “The concept of sustainable development is often broadened to include the protection and development of human resources. Communities founded on principles of sustainable development may strive to provide abundant educational resources, career development opportunities, and social services.”
Sustainability is, therefore, a duplex term that describes technical aspirations, such as lower carbon emissions throughout the construction and design process, but also aims at ensuring a healthy environment focused on the psychological well-being of its residents. If people feel well, responsible, and in charge of a space, such space is better organized, taken care of, and designed smoothly into the existing natural environment, so the theory.
In historical classes in architectural studies, students might find that a lot of archaic, domestic architecture was very resource-efficient and in line with the natural surroundings – from living in caves to erecting relatively primitive wooden and stone shelters – if we, for example, disregard the Egyptian pyramids. It seems as if the absence of any machine limited people to an extent, that every endeavor to provide shelter mainly was sustainable. Since the Industrial Revolution and concomitant population growth, building anything has become more complicated. A building needs to be fireproof, warm, long-lasting, somewhat beautiful, or at least fitting into the context or to the demands and so on.
Technologies such as cars, any form of construction vehicles, and Fordist-style factories have allowed for a faster erection of buildings for the masses and generally speaking, cities were replacing otherwise natural land to a hitherto unheard-of extent – one might just want to think about the enormous size of many American car-oriented cities. This expansion and urbanization is now met with a new requirement: Building sustainably. Again, technology can be of use, since new materials, automated building processes, and construction robots can help to do tasks, that previous materials or human labor could not fulfill. In this article, we will explore how some of these robots, especially such used during the fabrication and construction of a building, can help to lower carbon emissions, dangers, and threats and simply erect buildings more sustainably.
Single-task robots are marking the start of the use of robots in the construction industry. In a paper called A Framework for Utilizing Automated and Robotic Construction for Sustainable Building, various authors state: “In the 1980s, many single-task prototype robots have been developed, primarily in the construction of the low productivity and possible future labor shortfall and issues. […] Examples like mobile handling robots, concrete finishing robots, ceiling board installation robots, and fireproofing robots. These robots can help to do lots of repetitive, dangerous or sophisticated words, relieving pressures on labor shortage and skill mismatch.”
One can imagine that at the time, a choice of various robots for different tasks did not exist thus the robots that existed and their potential applications were limited. Nowadays, this has changed and robots can actually take over sufficiently where humans cannot, such as asbestos removal, for example. The authors continue: “Recently, new forms of single-task robots emerged building on aerial approaches, additive manufacturing technologies, exoskeletons, swarm robotic approaches, self-assembling building structures, and even humanoid robot technology, which bring the new tendency goes towards collaborative robots that work together with and assists the human being instead of substituting it.”
One can imagine that a non-versatile single-use robot is an expensive endeavour to develop, deliver and operate at a construction site. This may be so except when the robot works on something that exists in excess, such as potholes in streets. In an article called Can autonomous robots make construction more sustainable? Worldwide operating architecture and engineering company Arup states: “A ubiquitous and always-on-duty infrastructure repair robot, aware and mobile as UCL’s prototype demonstrates, could patrol streets, identify potholes (or the initial damage that leads to bigger gaps) and fill them in on the go. This approach would stop problems before they happen, save lives, as well as extending the life of an asset, reducing the environmental impact of unnecessary additional maintenance or pre-emptive replacement.”
In a white paper titled Building the future – how robotic automation can transform the Construction Industry, technology company ABB Group states: “The construction industry itself will also need to improve its environmental footprint radically. The industry accounts for 36% of global energy use and 39% of CO2 emissions, while buildings account for 40%. […] Nearly all construction companies anticipate a skills crisis by 2030 Of the 1,900 people surveyed, 1,734 responded yes to the question “Do you think the construction industry faces a skills crisis over the next 5-10 years?”, amounting to 91 percent of respondents. This sentiment was reflected strongly across all countries surveyed.” These countries include, for example, Germany, France, Sweden and the USA.
With the need to improve the sustainability of the construction business and a skill crisis, robotic automation seems to make sense. But how easy is it to apply robots wherever possible? Arup describes the state-of-the-art: “A robot with a 3D printing arm is successfully laying down an initial layer of construction clay, tracing a complex pathway across the floor. However, like many a confident tradesperson before it, it suddenly stops. It has found an unexpected obstacle – to continue would involve rolling over the material it has just deposited. The robot pauses a moment, reverses, before relocating to a better position and then continues with its task.”
A construction worker can learn the behavior (or misbehavior) of a robot but, most likely, cannot change its programming to the changed needs or unforeseen circumstances. In that sense, construction workers need to be programmers or programmers working on construction robots might want to have experience with the often harsh reality of the construction industry. The industry of robots in the construction business needs more awareness and knowledge transfer so that builders, architects and engineers know how to design so that robots can construct a building more efficiently and environmentally friendly.
Robots operate well in clean and dry environments. After all, that is where they have been developed – exceptions included. Off-site construction facilities provide such an environment and keep robots away from harsh weather conditions, uneven roads, and other machines and people in the way. The paper on Robotic Construction cited earlier states further that off-site factories are generally more environmentally friendly because they “[…] contribute to the reduction of environmental impact during construction through the reduced material use, energy consumptions, and waste reduction.” The ABB Group adds: “The ability to achieve consistent and repeatable processes is a key enabler for sustainable construction, particularly when it comes to the minimization of waste.” It is to learn that if architecture was solely designed for the purpose of being sustainable and its construction energy efficient, architects would design their buildings with the same high-tech modular elements for larger projects potentially even produced in temporary factories near the construction site. Thus, buildings would all look alike. The materials for this production would be as much locally as they can be and every modular element of the building could easily be disassembled and reused for new projects. In these factories, humans work alongside robots and ideally, alongside programmers, engineers and construction workers (such as builders and mechanics) alike. Robots would potentially perform all tasks that are related to speed, efficiency and precision whilst humans are better in creative problem solving and if not, can cooperate with an artificial intelligence.
What are the ways to utilize robots sustainably?
The ABB Group provides us with a short but useful summary: “A successful robot installation starts with a proper specification. Knowing exactly what you need, and communicating it to a supplier, will help to avoid problems caused by miscommunication or a mismatch in the capability of your system versus your requirements. Factors to consider at this point include the types of products you need the robot to handle and how long you want it to operate.” Constructing sustainably is to know what needs to be done as well as knowing whether a robot alone, together with a human or a human alone is doing it best (meaning highest in quality), safest and quickest. This counts from the initial design phase where architects want to consider the potential of robotics to the end of a building’s lifespan. In all of these scenarios, one of the main factors to consider is the primary energy consumption – for example: An elevator robot can travel up and down an elevator shaft better than a human and drill various bolts into it.
However, if no such robot is available, for example in a given geographical area or for a particular elevator model, developing it or delivering such a robot from afar makes hardly any sense. In that case, a human might be better off doing it as it reduces transport costs and consequently carbon emissions. One might also think about autonomous driving construction machines that flatten out the soil or erase foliage from a future building site: Whereas it might be quicker and more efficient, its effects on the natural fauna in a given area might be more harmful than if humans were to do it more manually. As with many other technologies, the best implementation is the one that does not blindly trust any technologies but questions their sustainable impact. However, to do that, construction companies and architects need to understand what is possible today and what is not – with special regard to their geographical location.