Although a situation in which machines which integrated plans for urban design is still far from now, features inside this design are actually able to be generated by computers. Nowadays, design is perceived to be a task for humans instead of a task for computers. Due to recent developments we might have to shift from this general idea, since machines can make the built environment better and even more beautiful than it is today. This article will zoom in on the role and impact machines can have on the build environment and the opportunities created by making use of machines.

In the current society, there is a genuine fear of robots taking over human jobs. A recent study undertaken by Oxfort University contacted 1634 Artificial Intelligence (AI) experts from around the world about the moment they think certain disciplines will be completely taken over by machines. 364 experts responded, and from all those reactions a consensus was formed. The results were astonishing: in 125 years, as predicted by the AI experts, all human jobs are predicted to be taken over by computers.

Rest assured, according to the a global management consulting firm Mckensey&co the complete urban planning process is very hard to automate. An urban planning process is highly creative: the needs of a population have to be translated in urban design. This includes design of buildings and objects, and interaction with pathways and other people. Jobs which contain high levels of creativity are preserved as being harder to take over by machines, therefore it appears as if the field of spatial planning and design is relatively safe. Only three percent of the tasks performed by urban planners is already suitable for automation, like reviewing environmental permits, plans and reports. Other tasks, as mediating in disputes, developing environmental sustainability plans and programs  and creating healthy environments are far from being automated. Nevertheless, the impact of machines is already noteworthy.

3D printing
You have probably heard of 3D printers: machines read a digital blueprint and ‘print’ the designs layer upon layer resulting in a single pieced product. Since there are no parts involved in printed three dimensional (3D) products, designs often are stronger compared to designs which consists out of parts. Also, 3D printing enables single pieced designs and shapes which were simply not possible before. When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) started applying 3D printing for the first time around the year 2000, they used metals as a printing material. Today, the materials used appear to be endless, with a range from gold to sand and from plastics to ceramics.   

In the early stages of 3D printing, the printed objects were fairly small, like chess figures and flower pots. We saw that printing bigger structures is possible as well when suddenly even complete houses were printed, first in China and then all around the world. The interest given to constructing large objects by use of 3D printing is no coincidence. There are some major advantages over ‘traditional’ building techniques. It is environmental friendly, since the plethora of all plastics floating around in the oceans or laying around in waste dumps can be recycled into printing material. Concrete and other materials can be used more efficient than ever before. Prebuilt blueprints can be used for fast construction of houses and other structures, which could be especially useful after natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons. Finally, the materials for 3D printing are quite cheap, making the 3D printing process inexpensive as well after the 3D printer has been bought.

3D printing in the Netherlands
Of course, the advantages of 3D printing have not gone unnoticed in the Netherlands. Several Dutch companies and research facilities are doing experiments with printing constructions. The province of Groningen is partaking in those experiments as well: the province is planning to build the very first 3D printed bridge that is able to withstand cars. The project will be executed by the Dutch firm FDN in collaboration with the Technical University of Eindhoven.

This bridge won’t be printed in one piece, but all pieces will be printed in reinforced concrete. The project is environmentally friendly since less concrete is used to build it. Furthermore, the printed bridge will require less maintenance compared to traditional bridges.

Last September the construction was tested with encouraging results. The next step is to print a bridge of ten meters long and test it in Blauwestad. If that project succeeds, the final bridge can be printed. The final bridge will be twenty meters long and eight meters wide, giving space to two separate car passages.  When completed, it will be the biggest 3D printed bridge in the world.  

Dynamic designs using algorithms
The blueprint for the previously mentioned bridge has been designed by human designers. The Dutch architectural firm ‘Studio RAP’ demonstrates that this doesn’t always have to be the case. RAP is located in Rotterdam and is short for ‘Robotics, Architecture, Production’. Studio RAP not only wants to be the architect of structures, but the developer of those structures as well. The firm redefines the role of the architect by using robots in their way of production and succeeds stunningly well in doing this. Girugten went to the site of production in October 2017 and had a quick introduction to their new vision for the building environment.

Wessel van Beerendonk explained that the Studio has got an assignment of the municipality of Rotterdam to construct forty unique bus stops for the so called ‘water-taxi’. It was decided that the bus stops were to be 3D printed in concrete, for which there were blueprints needed first. The studio could have designed all forty bus stops by hand, but this would have been a very extensive and therefore costly process. Instead, they decided to build a computer program to generate the designs. The demands and restrictions were listed by the municipality and implemented into the program together with standard construction rules. Using these fundamental rules, the program generates blueprints for designs that are both feasible and pretty. It also does not matter anymore how many designs the municipality needs, since the opportunities are almost endless. Whether the client needs four, forty of four hundred designs, the algorithm will generate them at the same costs.

The designs are instantly usable by the 3D printer owned by the company and the designs are printed in all kinds of forms and (combinations of) colours. As can be seen above, the designs are very distinctive from other stops, which is also due the dynamic nature of 3D printing. The design really pushes against the limits of concrete 3D printing. Interested in how this will turn out in real life? The first stop will soon be built in the Marconistraat in Rotterdam.

Conclusion
As described in this article, new technologies in designing and building structures are being explored. The new methods of building are better for the environment, are more cost efficient and are very well applicable in the natural world. Although artificial intelligence will cause some people to lose their jobs, it will generate jobs as well. Besides that, it will pave the way to a more unique and dynamic built environment.

This article was published in our December 2017 issue.

Top photo: by Mr. Zabej – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37018024.

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Bart-Peter Smit Bart-Peter is a third year Human Geography student. His curiosity causes him to explore a lot of subjects. He switched to Human Geography after he had done one year of Artificial Intelligence. Combining his broad range of interests is what drives him in what he does, like organizing lectures with the lecture committee, organizing excursions with the excursion committee, doing research with Collectiv Kreativ and naturally writing for and being chief editor of Girugten. Topics he especially likes are Geographic Information Systems and technical innovations in spatial sciences. Bart-Peter began writing for Girugten during his first year Human Geography in 2016.