The craft of automation


Design and construction processes are becoming increasingly automated. This City Conversion will look at the current and future status of craft in buildings. It will identify whether computation and prefabrication are a new type of craft and if so, how the design community can respond to preserve a sense of identity and place.

Speakers include:

- Sarah Prichard, engineering director at BuroHappold (chair)

- Adam Locke, partnership and innovation leader at Laing O’Rourke

- Michael Stacey of Michael Stacey Architects

- Glenn Howells of Glenn Howells Architects

- Geoff Morrow, director of StructureMode 

Technocrats (who are increasingly international) in the design industry would like to sell visions of a new age and an imminent change in the way to build cities: new systems of design that communicate with manufacturing processes; off-site pre-construction and automation; delivery of materials by autonomous vehicles; mobile robotics onsite making the assembly process more accurate and risk free. These technologies are already deployed at the leading edge in many industries from manufacture to agriculture.

The entrenched ‘psychology of a city’ - the behaviour of citizens - is very hard to shift: for example the private petrol-engine car is so efficient and so much part of our lives that autonomous greener vehicles may struggle to displace them. The very reason that the construction industry is so successfully backward is that the system works. Labour is still relatively cheap and demand for places at craft colleges remains high.

The industry finds itself in a dilemma: should it be more courageous and plan to lead a brave new world of building technology? Supply-side advances will push the progress to some extent. Government policy can also create activity, but often out of sync with the market, which also has an impact. To construct in a leaner and more efficient way, automated systems may have to be adopted. But can we still look to design our urban realm in a way that is enduring and pleasing to the eye and the soul?