Future of Architecture: Robotic Reconfiguration
Imagine downloading new furniture just like an app or a song. Then seeing it automatically assemble in front of you in minutes.
Imagine requesting a meeting room and watching it grow from the floor.
This looks somewhat magical, but you don’t need to wait decades until this vision becomes a reality. In fact, it’s possible today.
Why Does Reconfiguration Matter?
Architects, researchers, and corporations have been trying to figure out spatial reconfiguration for two reasons:
First, to get more space out of tiny spaces. Rising real estate costs are pushing people and companies into smaller places. Reconfiguration helps combine multiple use scenarios in the same environment.
Second, to adapt to an unpredictable future. How will we work and live? How many people will there be? Buildings should be able to adapt to changing spatial requirements.
Spatial reconfiguration will become increasingly important in the near future as real estate prices continue to grow and organizations become even more mobile, flexible and collaborative. Now, the question is how can we make reconfiguration technologically feasible and comfortable for users?
Architects and researchers made several prototypes and showcases of reconfigurable homes: Gary Chang’s Hong Kong apartment, Graham Hill’s New York City apartment, Hyperbody with TU Delft students, MIT CityHome project.
Most of them follow a similar path: making custom transformer furniture and walls that are pre-installed in the apartment. This approach hasn’t gained mass adoption because it’s rather expensive. Every project must be tailored for a unique customer and space. Then a custom space is manufactured. It’s simply not scalable.
The second constraint is that once a transformer space is installed, it’s difficult to make changes to it to adapt to new users and new scenarios. Such transformer environments are also permanent and rigid in their own way.
Smaller modules could be reused in multiple configurations and could solve this problem. Unfortunately, small modules make manual assembly prohibitively time-consuming or expensive.
Robots are at their best when it comes to simple repetitive tasks and could automate assembly and reconfiguration. For example, Google has recently announced its plans to use large industrial robots to automate the reconfiguration process of their future campus.
This a promising approach, but it makes every reconfiguration process quite disruptive to work. Large robots cannot operate in the presence of people for safety reasons. And they are expensive. So this approach may work for Google, but it would have trouble gaining mass adoption.
Small Modules + Small Robots
Existing approaches to spatial reconfiguration have serious limitations. They either require large custom-made modules, or large industrial robots. An interesting niche remains unexplored: small robots assembling small modules.
Research project Dom was initiated by Asmbld to experiment with the potential of tiny robots combined with tiny modules. The system had to be designed completely from scratch. They’re simply no off-the-shelf modules or robots that would be up to the task.
In the proposed solution structures are assembled layer by layer from the floor level. After a layer is completed under the floor, lifting robots take over and push the layer up. The process is repeated until the structure is assembled — or reversed to disassemble an existing object.
The system can be integrated into almost any existing open space. At rest, it looks like a typical raised access floor. Robots operate in the void under the floor. That’s crucial for the user experience and safety: people can stay in the space that robots reconfigure.
Robots are tiny. Even at the prototype stage their envelope was less than 5"x5"x5" (or 10 x 10 x 10cm), and each robot can eventually cost under $100. Robots orient themselves using light sensors and markers on the surface.
The robots can bring and place modular frame elements and surface tiles to any desired position under the floor. For the prototype, the structural frame was 6"x6" (or ~ 12 x 12cm) and the modular tiles were 5"x5" (or ~ 10 x 10cm). Tiles can be of different materials and textures: wood, metal, plastic, even ceramic. Eventually, the frame could be made razor thin.
Lifting robots are the second type of robots that push the layers up and hold them until other robots secure new supports underneath.
Four robots could build a regular wall in about 30 minutes. To speed up the assembly process or increase its area, more robots could be deployed.
Impact On Architecture And Design
You can think of the modular tiles as pixels. Users can design almost any shape in this environment. It’s like Minecraft brought to life.
Architecture becomes equivalent to 3D models. Now, an architect can design a customizable room layout and sell it directly to anyone in the world. And furniture designs become equivalent to selling a song on iTunes. By buying modular elements, customers can, in fact, buy hundreds of objects at once.
Anyone, even children, can rebuild their environment in minutes without architects or waiting for professional help. Software becomes a crucial component of the system, ensuring that every configuration complies with building code and other safety provisions.
In apartments, users can build new rooms for guests or kids. And a new renter can reconfigure and personalize the space when they move in.
In office spaces, companies can allocate flexible spaces to build meeting rooms on-demand, or increase the supply of private offices when needed. Retail chains could use reconfigurable spaces to conduct A/B testing of layout performances. Imagine a hotel that creates a personalized room for you and every guest.
Robotic reconfiguration is crucial for the future of architecture. In looking at different approaches to reconfiguration, the combination of small robots and small modules looks very promising. Small modules are best for customization, small robots are best in safety, cost, and user experience. Finally, this approach has potential to make buildings more sustainable by using fully reusable elements.
The best part is: it’s not a fantasy, the system can be built today.