At about 5:30 in the morning on December 26, 2003, the ancient city of Bam in southeastern Iran was jolted awake by an explosive 6.6 magnitude earthquake, an event that was to have a profound effect on Berok Khoshnevis, the future “Father of Contour Crafting,” and an Iranian by birth. The Bam earthquake destroyed 85% of the structures in the region in an instant, leaving an estimated 75,000 people immediately homeless just as Iran’s harsh winter was arriving in the region with a vengeance.
The U.N. responded quickly, as did an international volunteer community. 1,700 volunteers from 40 countries arrived within days. Tent cities were hurriedly assembled to shelter the survivors, but the tents were no match for the sub-zero nighttime temperatures. Many who survived the quake later died of exposure. Khoshnevis took all this in with a countryman’s pain, and an engineer’s problem-solving acumen. Might there be an efficient and inexpensive way to fast-track life-saving shelter—four closed walls and a ceiling—for natural disaster survivors?
Flash forward 13 years. Today Dr. Khoshnevis is a Dean’s Professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering, Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering, Astronautics Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Civil & Environmental Engineering. He is also the Director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT), and the impassioned inventor-advocate of Contour Crafting—a large-structure building process that can provably erect a functional weatherproof shelter in 20 hours. Dr. Khoshnevis sees in the process a way to house the houseless. This includes both disaster victims and the estimated 1 billion people in the world who do not presently have sufficient shelter. Khoshnevis’ goals are not modest.
“My ultimate vision is the total automation of building construction, going right through the various stages.”
Layering the Future
Contour Crafting (more popularly known as 3D printing) is a construction and fabrication model in which structures, large and small, are formed as a series of stacked layers exactingly dispensed by a large-scale, printer-like apparatus. In practice, a cement-like substance is pumped from a specially designed nozzle, which is itself attached to a gantry that moves back and forth on rails along either side of the structure’s footprint. The gantry/nozzle assembly is essentially a large printer head, taking its commands from a computer in the same way a traditional printer does, except for one crucial difference; the computer in the case of Contour Crafting is describing to the print-head a 3 dimensional image.
On the computer’s instructions, the Contour Crafting printer sets about building the structure, layer by layer. Contour Crafting promises a cleaner, greener, safer, faster and cheaper way to build. As the Contour Crafting technology improves, the design possibilities will expand to allow structural design subtleties that will enable an escape from the “framed box,” even allowing for curvilinear surfaces that are better able to absorb the shock of an earthquake.
Dr. Khoshnevis Has a Plan
Reached by telephone, Berok Khoshnevis spoke with The Jobsite about his Contour Crafting technology; what it could mean to the construction industry, to the world’s homeless, and even its role in colonizing other planets.
JS: Contour Crafting promises among other things, of course, housing for populations that don’t have access to simple shelter. Do you believe Contour Crafting will first be used to address emergency situations, and then over time become a more common housing solution for all populations?
BK: The entry level applications would be disaster relief and emergency response. As the technology changes around, demand will drive its other uses.
JS: In a 2015 interview, you predicted that contour crafted homes would be common in 5 years, with high-rises and more complicated structures becoming commonplace within a decade or so. Do you still hold to those timelines?
BK: Yes. I stand with what I said, I still believe in that. The technological challenges will be there, yes; but there aren’t any that can’t be solved. There are also regulatory barriers, a lot of those issues involved. And lots and lots of testing of the process and the structures.
JS: What regulatory details in particular seem most likely to slow the rollout of Contour Crafting?
BK: Mostly liability issues. You are liable if something happens. Civil authorities will not allow you to build if you don’t have the proper approvals. It will of course be necessary to have the proper permits, and to go through those protocols. It’s a truly intensive process, a very costly and time-consuming process, getting the regulatory approvals.
JS: Do you foresee the permitting and regulatory issues actually becoming greater barriers to Contour Crafting than any of the technological challenges?
Initially we’ll just build the shell. After the shell is built, we’ll try and include plumbing, electrical —and all those skilled trades are going to be engaged in the build.
BK: Yes. Permitting and regulatory concerns will become a complex issue mainly because every locality has its own regulatory necessities. Just as one example, in Southern California, the regulations are much more stringent than in Saudi Arabia, because Southern California is seismically active. So every place will be different.
JS: So really, problems with the future adoption of Contour Crafting are mostly to do with the regulatory complications. That's a big concern of yours.
BK: That’s right.
JS: As far as the actual building process, what specific human worker intervention is required in the Contour Crafting home building model? From what I’ve read, the walls are automated, the conduit and the spaces for the plumbing and the electricity are already present in the printed output of the structure. What is the role of the skilled tradesperson in the building of a contour crafted home?
BK: Well, my ultimate vision is the total automation of building construction, through all the stages. But initially we are concerned with producing the shell of the building and perfecting that. Then later we’ll look at automated tiling and automated plumbing, and automated electrical and ductwork. Walls will be textured, and not be just bare concrete.
JS: The full treatment, including aesthetic considerations.
BK: Yes. But it is going to take some time before we get to all of those details. Initially we’ll just build the shell. After the shell is built, we’ll try and include plumbing, electrical —and all those skilled trades are going to be engaged in the build. So, initially the Contour Crafting will deal with maybe 30-35% of the building as far as cost and labor saving is involved.
JS: What of the possible effects on the construction economy? What might Contour Crafting in the homebuilding marketplace do to the value of traditionally hand-built homes, so to speak, or existing homes? Are those considerations being folded into the forward thinking on Contour Crafting?
BK: We just have been thinking about those. It’s hard to predict the dynamics of the economy. Everything you’re saying has relevance. Some people might prefer the traditionally built house, so we’re not going to be impacting any of those choices. Advancement of technology has always resulted in better economies, which help everyone. For example, it looks like the electric cars are gradually taking a foothold. So, the giant conventional automobile industry, they are trying hard to catch up. The (auto industry interests) are now beginning to think about making electric cars in the future.
JS: The appearance of the viable electric car, and the public’s interest in it, has caught the auto industry somewhat off-guard.
BK: Yes. But there is still a market for conventional cars because the infrastructure is not quite ready for a lot of electric cars on the road. So the electric vehicles are relatively expensive and not widely popular.
JS: While the electric car establishes its place in the market, conventional cars will do what they can to maintain market share. You believe that Contour Crafting will likewise grow slowly into the marketplace as it overcomes its own technological and other challenges? It won’t just suddenly appear in the marketplace to challenge conventional building.
BK: Right. To continue with the analogy, there are technological limits for the electric cars—limited miles that they can go on one battery charge, for instance. Customers are not rushing to buy electric vehicles for this and other reasons. But conventional car makers are really just running behind companies like Tesla. Eventually they’re going to catch up and every car is going to be electric or hybrid. In this same way, I believe there will be a movement toward automation in construction of all kinds.
JS: I understand that NASA is in some stage of taking a serious look at Contour Crafting, and making use of indigenous materials on other planets, principally the moon and Mars at this time, to build structures for possible later colonizing efforts. Is that really an ongoing effort with NASA?
BK: Yes, of course. At this time I’m a part of that NASA-wide project. We are working with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the Kennedy Space Center and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to advance Contour Crafting technology for these extraterrestrial buildings.
JS: Incredible. Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with Procore’s Jobsite about Contour Crafting, Dr. Khoshnevis. It's clearly a wide-ranging subject.
BK: We will eventually use your software, you know. I may work with your company to have a dedicated version of your software for Contour Crafting construction. Eventually we’d like to integrate the Contour Crafting logistics with a CAD model. Please bring that to the attention of your people.
JS: I will pass the word, Dr. Khoshnevis.