From 'Printed' Houses to Wooden Skyscrapers
The renewal of housing stock offers plenty of opportunities.
Published: March 20, 2014 (Issue # 1802)
Science parks around the world have been hailed as a way of enhancing their nations’ GDP. This may well be true in the long term, but novel science does not translate quickly into GDP and a general sense of “well-being” until years of trials have occurred. Science parks such as Skolkovo are one of the main drivers behind the Russian strategy through 2020, with technology and innovation fostering a growth in productivity. Yet with the route from pure science to innovation fraught with pitfalls, renovating existing housing stock may be a more homely way to elevate the lives of ordinary people. And this activity, which would be perceived as the government wishing to help all of its citizens, might do much more to raise the spirits of the innovators themselves than high-tech enclaves that seem far from ordinary life.
Modernizing the housing stock of European nations is important on two counts. Shoddily built after each of the world wars to poor building standards that do not permit easy upgrading to modern eco-standards, scientists have shown that Europe’s legacy buildings produce directly, or indirectly, 40 percent of global CO2.
Governments have an intensely costly puzzle to deal with — and Russia is no exception in this respect. Working with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Russian Institute for Urban Economics reported in 2011 on the status of urban housing renewal, the potential opportunities and costs. Essentially, Russian building stock is old and urgently needs to be repaired or rebuilt. The authors also noted that Federal laws mandate high levels of energy efficiency but realities suggest three separate renovation routes: Basic, realistic and energy efficient, with the latter costing up to 4,000 rubles ($109) per square meter while offering savings of up to 28 percent on heating costs. In total, the government faces a bill of some 2.5 billion rubles ($68.24 million) to eliminate dilapidation and improve energy efficiency throughout the housing stock.
One potential solution is to print the houses. Not printing as in banknotes, but by extending this technique via the new technology called additive manufacturing. 3D printing has become established across many manufacturing sectors through all high-tech industries and to aerospace with its exacting requirements for strength and low weight in ever-larger single structures.
This increase of scale stimulated researchers at the University of Southern California to consider spraying thin films of concrete to build walls. Essentially they are doing little more than replacing traditional manual methods with robot-guided sprays. The thin films dry quickly without hidden, structure-weakening cavities and the surface finish is good. As in all 3D printing, the robots can spray complex shapes, with openings for doors, windows and pipework. Thermal insulation can be sprayed at the same time. All in all, this process is very fast and yields a superior product more cheaply than using craftsmen. Russian technicians could easily develop this system to re-build much of suburbia and, having gained experience, could export the methodology.
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