February 28, 2007 —
By CBSNews.com's Christine Lagorio
Building a home in one day is a feat accomplished rarely without dozens of plucky Habitat for Humanity volunteers or an entire "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" cast. But a California academic named Behrokh Khoshnevis is sure he can do it.
Actually, he thinks a robot can do it.
Khoshnevis — an inventor, engineering professor and director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies at the University of Southern California — says the idea is a simple one: "If you look around, everything else we use is made automatically, like the pen you're holding, the shoes, the cars. The reason we don't have [automated homebuilding] is simply that we haven't had the large-scale technology."
It came to him a decade ago when an earthquake damaged his house. When using a hand trowel to fill in cracks, he thought, "a machine could do this."
"Through that experience it occurred to me that I could use this simple tool, the trowel, with mechanical elements and construct things," Khoshnevis tells CBSnews.com.
For the past ten years he's been working on an idea he calls Contour Crafting, a process by which a concrete mixture-depositing bulky one-armed robot layers rows atop each other until a structure forms. The robot takes its orders from a computer, and prints the concrete onto the earth the way a printer lays down ink.
The first attention-getting building machines Khoshnevis constructed were small, table-top robots that took computer instruction to make shapes that resembled beehives, funnels or curvy vases. By 2004, he made a larger version able to build a wall.
"It attracted a lot of publicity, and a lot of people thought this was going to revolutionize the construction industry," he says. "When you build one wall, you can build four walls and have a room, and with many rooms to have a house."
Dr. Dan Boss, Associate Director of the Discovery Group at construction-supplier USG's Corporate Research and Technology Center, came across Khoshnevis's Contour Crafting at an innovation session at USG. Boss watched Khoshnevis's machine build a small freestanding structures out of concrete, and USG decided to invest in the research for Contour Crafting.
"It is very early, but I think we see that it could change how at least some buildings are done in developing parts of the world and in remote sites where you don't want to bring in a lot of outside material," Boss says.
Khoshnevis says it could bring about a more sweeping change in the construction industry.
"Eventually this technology can be used to make single-residence structures, condos or high rises," he says. "We are just at the beginning of an era in construction where full automation is going to be important."
But first, Khoshnevis must show the world he can build even one house, in one day, using a robot. He says this is the year.
By the end of summer 2007, his structure – an undulating, futuristic concrete demonstration building – should be in place at the information sciences institute at the University of California in Marina Del Rey.
"It will use curves to demonstrate the process," he says. "This technology allows you to be very flexible, and make domes and curves at the same price as linear walls."
But the house has been 10 years in the making already, and Khoshnevis has had trouble making a large-scale machine support enough weight and be precise enough to build a reliable structure.
Should he succeed, the "very conservative construction industry," as he puts it, might not welcome replacing workers with robots. And it is unclear whether the concrete-and-gypsum structures will be able to abide by federal or local building codes. Due to codes, the structure set to be built in Marina Del Rey is not for inhabitation.
"There are a lot of things to do yet — this probably has a long battle ahead of it," Boss says. "There is a lot of testing to do."
Khoshnevis, an energetic interview subject, grows weary when talk of timelines before seeing a full-scale building is introduced. Epstein says that's to be expected from an entrepreneur.
"If he's frustrated, that's par for the course," he said. "That's the part of new business activities. From his standpoint, for someone that's a builder and developer, you just have optimistic."
With a sigh, Khoshnevis acknowledges seeing a finished product will take time.
"We're going to start with ground-level and up. We cannot do everything at the same time," he said. "First flight was only 12 seconds. Today you can fly for 16 hours to get from LA to Japan."
Some other engineers and scholars are optimistic at the prospect of introducing more robotics to the construction industry.
"I think he can do it and I think he will do it. What I'm particularly excited about it is that this technology can be used for lots of different materials and lots of types of buildings," says Brian A. Alenskis, an associate professor of mechanical engineering technology at Purdue University. "It can make things more efficient on other scales."
Thinking on the standard scale of U.S. homes is difficult, because Contour Crafting is still in its youth. But Khoshnevis says it could greatly reduce the cost of constructing a new home — perhaps by two-thirds. And considering that the median cost of buying a home in California is hovering near $550,000, that's a lot of cost to be saved.
"Basically, it would be a fraction of what a cost would be from the cost of going out and stick-building them," says Daniel Epstein, chairman and CEO of the ConAm group of real-estate companies. "In a lot of places there isn't available lumber – they currently build with mud or forms of earth."
Some of Khoshnevis's associates are thinking outside of the United States for the future of Contour Crafting. And perhaps Khoshnevis's earthquake-spurred idea could come full-circle and alter the disaster-recovery process for certain communities, in or outside the United States.
"This is natural for low-cost housing," Epstein says. "Or can you imagine in a place that had an earthquake that leveled the countryside? You could set up there and grind these out – a block long at once."
By CHRISTINE LAGORIO © MMVII, CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.