Friday, 14 June 2013

The hopeless future of slow building

One of my abiding concerns with the accelerating pace of integration between information technologies and manufacture, is that however cheap it might make consumer products, however much it might reintroduce a certain kind of diversity after our fascination with mass production, however much it might make possible the miraculously fast erection of buildings and whole cities, ultimately it won't be very good for us.

In the world of food, the overwhelming dominance of international agribusiness with its overwhelmingly efficient global logistics, has spawned the so-called slow food movement.  Not only does the movement place emphasis on organic produce, but also on local differences, artisan skills in the growing and cooking, and an appreciation of  discriminating sustenance.  Implied in all this is the value placed on labour and time well spent, rather than indiscriminately saved.

Building work is often unfavourably compared to factory-based production, precisely because it retains some of the vagaries of individual building trades.  Though the pressures for efficiency have been so great, that few of those trades retain much of their former craft.  Many current developments, like building information models (BIM), CAD/CAM and 3-D printing all conspire to eliminate even more people from the production of our built environment.  As a trend, this has been going on all my professional life.

One of the iconic elements of urbanscapes, to which I have fondly clung as a kind of talisman of an alternative, has been the brick paved roadways of some parts of Europe, notably the Netherlands.  Maybe it is because I live in Australia, where roads have to leap great suburban distances in ribbons of asphalt, laid by thundering machines and phalnxes of dump trucks in the middle of the night.  Be that as it may, I have given life to my romantic ideal, by also personally laying several hundred square metres of brick paving in and around several homes I have renovated in my life.

So imagine my shock, when I came across TigerStone, a Dutch company that makes machines to lay drafted brick paving by unrolling it like broadloom carpet. 

I am torn between disappointment and fascination.  Disappointment at the loss of guys on their knees patiently placing each brick, those wonderful lumps of fired clay exactly the right size for the span of a muscular hand, and weight that you can lift and lay all day.  Fascination at the idea that brick paved roads may replace some of that obnoxious blacktop, which the day after it's laid is partially dug up again for extra pipes.  Because after all, the other advantage of brick paving – however it is laid in the first place – is that you can pick it up and put it down for centuries, healing the skin of the city, tolerant of the small buckles and wrinkles as it gracefully ages.


Anonymous said...

People these days are in familiar with the rapid technology development that happens worldwide. One of the evidences is shown in how the design process is shifted into a mass modeling process by the use of technologies. For instance, “Broad Group” company in China had an achievement in constructing a 15 storeys hotel in just six days ( The building of the hotel with such an enormous speed was accomplished through the employment of 20,000 workers and the usage of pre-fabricated materials (

Such a “fast building” phenomenon is beyond believe and unimaginable to be achieved in real life. In comparison to the normal building construction, which is much more time consuming, this “fast building” is actually getting far away from the real meaning of a design process. The beauty of creation or handmade is being replaced with a much more accurate and rapid mass modeling machinery. In addition, the “fast building” phenomenon also received higher risk of safety due to its short time building construction. Even though the “Board Group” company claimed that their strategy is safe, the society still hesitates in regards to its durability and safety during the building life usage.

These two approaches of constructing a building in both fast strategy and slow strategy have its own positive and negative aspects. For the fast building strategy, the loss of the means of craftsmanship of design and safety issue that involves is still controversial, but the express amount of time that is required basically reflects the rapid growth of development happening nowadays. In contradiction, the traditional way of building constructions is far behind in terms of the speed and accuracy, but still has the value of design process and craftsmanship.

Anonymous said...

I agree that ultimately mass-produced rapid construction will not be good for us. Rapid construction has become highly favourable within Australian society. This generation does not tend to be patient and tends to want things quickly. New efficient ways to construct buildings have emerged in Australia and include various wall systems to replace the typical brick and mortar construction seen in residential architecture.

Examples of these wall systems include the Ritek wall system which involves pre-fabricated panels using a composite stud assembly, providing a permanent framework for reinforced concrete. ( Its benefits are listed to have speed of construction, ease of installation, durable, water resistant and cost efficient. These wall systems may begin to be used in Australian residential architecture and it is unknown whether they will be safe or thermally efficient in the long run.

It also begs the question; will the fast growing technology in the construction industry lead to the eventual demise of certain labourers? As the world becomes increasingly industrialised and robotised, more and more jobs are becoming redundant. Working with large pre-fabricated panels will also be highly dangerous in the workplace.

Faster construction will lead to increased demand and thus more business for architects as a whole, as one of the off-putting factors about constructing a building is the slow process. However as stated above by ‘Anonymous’ fast construction process leads to a decreased design quality and most buildings will be mass-produced. This removes the unique qualities seen in buildings, which are produced from careful craftsmanship. They will begin to be similar in aesthetics and form in order to save costs- but cheaper is not always necessarily better.

Anonymous said...

A new technology, which has recently been used in the construction industry, is 3D printing. A Chinese firm, WinSun, claims to have printed 10 prototype houses in only 24 hours ( The printers use a mix of cement and industrial waste to render load-bearing structures. This efficient construction process will also dramatically reduce labour costs. The idea of a machine printing out houses is quite extraordinary although costs for the 3D printing process are high at $3.4 million as it is a new technology. This is similar to the concept of ‘upcycling’ as it is using industrial waste from demolished buildings to create environmentally friendly houses. Currently they are only simple grey structures and aesthetics could be enhanced, however with further testing this could definitely be improved in the future and would be ideal for innovative affordable housing.