We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

21st Century Skyscrapers, Vertical Farms, and Modular Construction

Marina Bay Sands makes a major first step towards
Skyscrapers as Pillars. Imagine these buildings
facing each other and...
The corporate cliche of synergy is often correct. In this case, architectural synergy between the commercial, residential, administrative, and agricultural skyscrapers all brought under one psychologically exhilarating roof.

Well not exactly one roof. We don't do car oil change where we eat. As noted in Skyscrapers as Pillars concept article, an individual skyscraper does not necessarily need to be a world onto itself. Sorry Burj Dubai, you're very 20th century in terms of ego centrism.

However a few skyscrapers can create a microworld between them if arranged to enclose it and to take Singapore Marina Bay Sands and Gothic cathedral concept to a new level. This also flows with current international tendency to create innovation, technology, and business hubs from scratch in one sitting with a few showpiece skyscrapers clustering in a readily accessible central location.

A modern skyscraper has a lot of weight on its shoulders. From fighting architectural height fearing luddites as happened with Okhta Center in St Petersburg to promoting itself as an off the grid showpiece of green technology, a modern groundbreaking building has a lot to prove. Skyscrapers can cooperate in this regard.

The dual opposing tendencies of:

1) having building specialization (separate hyperspecialized structures) and

2) centralization of multiple functions within one giant corporate mall type super building

can be reconciled with Skyscrapers as Pillars.

St Paul's Cathedral
Rather than waste time and resources on architectural uniqueness of each skyscraper within a hub cluster, the rapidly constructed skyscrapers serving as pillars within a greater structure can be identical yet not look bland next to each other as they would if they were separate. This greatly decreases cost, saves on planning time, allows for rapid modular construction of different skyscraper pillar heights (depending on population of a city), AND actually increases the awe factor of the structure. We want to avoid the government project look when it comes to inspirational structures in the 21st century yet. Even if one is skeptical of the story concerning Chinese BSB's plan to construct a skyscraper taller than Burj Dubai within 90 days using prefabricated modules, the fact remains that modular construction is the future.

If a recently wealthy mineral rich country orders 30 Burj Dubai equivalents for a dozen cities, one factory can mass produce floors for all of them, greatly reducing the cost of each. The new Tata Motors car plant in India has a goal to produce $2,000 dollar cars. It will be able to manufacture 350,000 Nanos a year (think of Model-T's price tag of $21,000 or Volkswagen's $11,000 in today's dollars for comparison). Hyundai Motors plant is able to manufacture 1.53 million vehicles a year with one car made every 13 seconds and ship them out on massive container ships that its sister company manufactures at a shipyard a short distance away. Same principles can and will be applied to modular floors of showpiece net energy positive tall structures in this century whether residential, commercial, or agricultural. This finally allows rapid construction of entire compact cities from scratch and thus replacement of inefficient slum cities in most parts of the world.

Why the emphasis on arranging modular architecture to serve the pillar function?

In an increasingly socially fractured and unstable world, states can reclaim and command authority through architecture by having skyscraper pillars replace the function of the Gothic cathedral in a medieval village by having it be the most visible and awe/trust inspiring object around. As the public rejects the false choice between "cutting spending" and raising taxes/debt, it will be looking for ways to increase efficiency in other ways such as states directly owning certain essential productive and distribution functions. The new public space and government function arrangements will require popular legitimacy to become institutionalized and to take hold. Architecture greatly helps in this regard. Besides serving as crude awe inspiring visual propaganda the way cathedrals used to do, there is also the cheapness and efficiency of construction as mentioned above.

A centrally located Skyscrapers as Pillars construct already starts off as presenting a much cheaper and more effective/efficient government. Additionally, and with time perhaps crucially, there is also of course the function of each "pillar". One pillar (the one that stands out among the rest for that colorful touch) can be a massive vertical farm projecting a psychologically benign high tech agricultural function. The government can literally feed itself and provide surplus to others. Another pillar can be administrative and commercial, another can be residential (taking a horizontal elevator to your office is even better than taking a high speed MagLev train to get to work), while yet another serves to house research and development facilities, a hospital, a school, etc. The new technocratic regime can thus rapidly construct functionally beneficial and aesthetically pleasing houses of government (of various heights and sizes of course depending on the location).

Here is an example of a public skyscraper farm, suitable to support the government architecture of a medium sized city.

Every major plant food group is represented within a highly automated-mechanized industrially
mass produced yet organic and clean environment.

This is not to say that we want most of the city to live in a high tech vertical town. However, governments can reclaim their power from private oligarchies if their administrative centers are located within inspiring and hyper efficient self powered productive structures that create inner solidarity and sense of community among their numerous residents and people of surrounding areas. Various social events can be held in the main microworld created by the Skyscraper Pillar enclosure.

To help visualize this from the top, here's basic sketches.

We start off with

It is relatively easy to enclose a space and create an enormous "megaroom" microworld that would put the tallest church rooms to shame if at least one side of the modern skyscraper is straight all the way up. For super tall skyscrapers, Burj Dubai's triangular base currently serves as a role model of wind resistance stability for the tops of our pillars. Marina Bay Sands and high tech bridges show how we can roof the inside space and even create additional stability towards the top. For shorter skyscraper pillars (and as technology improves), the inside megaroom can eventually be widened or covered with ultralight carbon nanotube roofing. We are not asking for a small recreational area with a park, space observatory, and 1-2 story buildings to be on the roof just yet..

There are endless variations. It is of course also possible to continue taking lessons from Gothic cathedrals and create internal pillars. Here are 4 Burj Dubais from the top with a 5th wind protected core serving as supportive pillar to create more of a circular donut room (still highly impressive if you think about it).

Obviously roof stability challenges will be the main thing to overcome (consider how many incredible meters of leeway is given to skyscrapers to move around at the top currently). The importance of megarooms is described in the original article.

A final productive structure can be added in terms of a giant factory space (typical height, nothing grand, 5-10 stories in height, probably underground) that surrounds the pillars as a sort of partial fence. The Skyscraper Pillar structure can thus produce certain essentials such as medical supplies, clothing, tools, etc for personnel living and working within and for nearby city areas. This provides additional psychological base from which political legitimacy can be built. The overall complex thus becomes the heart and brain of the city. As mentioned previously, floor modules can be mass delivered by ship and rail, the way containers are currently.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Modular Apartment Buildings

Click to Enlarge: Brooklyn developers are getting in on the act
having been inspired by China
Modular construction of residential high rises will rapidly aid in the major shift of American suburban population to urban areas. It also stands to provide sufficient amount of housing units to reduce social tensions in parts of the developing world where insufficient housing is a dangerous political issue.

The obscene and ridiculous fascination (although often interesting!) with shipping containers used as houses and office spaces shows that the public psyche approves of modular housing as a concept. Current container experiments may be fine as art projects or for disaster relief (although even that can be reconceptualized from the bottom up and mass produced) but real modular construction needs to be collectively thought about.

Military style techniques for rapid construction of modular housing were used to erect modern suburbia in the 1940s and 1950s starting with Levittown. Similar thought and application of elements of the military-industrial complex alongside Chinese construction companies can rapidly build new residential urban centers  in North America during the ongoing population shift there from suburbia. And throughout the world at large for that matter.

Ideally, most of the module would be printed in factories for extra speed and uniformity rather than assembled by robotic hands like cars. Modified supercargo ships can also be outfitted with printing factories to eliminate the need to load completed modules onto ships in the first place. Finished apartment buildings should allow for rapid disassembly/removal of modules every 20 years or so (to sell off/give away older modules to poorer areas of the globe the way old cars are sold off) and to allow replacement of modules in case of damage or fire.

Basic electrical, water, and insulation elements within the modules should also be readily accessible (for maintenance and appliance/furniture related modification) and introduced into the module during the printing process. Various insulating and protective coatings of nanomaterials are to be sprayed on just as naturally as on doors in a car assembly line process.

These days it is relatively easy to plan out a number of geometric module shapes to allow construction of much larger livingrooms and bedrooms from a few specialty modules. We're not talking a 50 story apartment project constructed of completely uniform boxes. Just like LEGO, diversity will arise from arrangement of a number of mass produced module parts. Some parts will be a lot more ubiquitous than others (think the equivalent of the connecting 6 hatch main module on the International Space Station that allows joining of other parts). But please no shipping container high rises for the love of god!

Those people choosing to remain in rural areas don't need to be discounted from this process. There is no need to remain in increasingly deteriorating wooden structures. Less high tech modular housing is currently primarily used for rural and suburban homes but it can be bumped up a notch in terms of materials from current cheap wooden models. Lets not forget that price comes down with economies of scale. To quote a previous article about modular hosing for rural areas:

"Modules are built "off the grid ready" with solar panels and clean water from air systems. A buyer modifies a module before buying the way one does a Dell computer and its parts. Since the price of a laptop went from thousands of dollars to 35 dollars (India also produced the world's cheapest car as well), mass production stands to do the same for housing. Entertainment and furniture systems can be added, subtracted, or reconfigured within individual modules. When one's kitchen becomes obsolete, the whole thing can be sold like a used car and replaced while keeping the rest of the house. This housing is not made of wood. People buy mass produced cars, yachts, and computers and there is no reason to not do the same for homes. It's about time to apply space tech for hyper efficient land living."

Some may complain that humans are not bees or ants to be "pigeonholed" like this. Well, current research shows that major urban human settlements are beginning to resemble massive ant colonies, However, when we understand the process, we can direct it and interject concepts like modularity into it to give extra psychological comfort, autonomy, and options for living space diversity. Currently as the world continues breakneck pace of urbanization, we're looking at roughly 300 mega cities being rapidly filled with corporate real estate developments or government projects. Paradoxically, single housing unit modularity or modularity of bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, etc allows for visual architectural diversity through rearrangement on an apartment complex by apartment complex basis. Outside, the residential high rises may look like relatively uniform glass/21st century concrete tombs but inside there would be all the diversity desired for families of various sizes and backgrounds.

Most importantly, the inner diversity of modular arrangement within the residential complex would take relatively similar amounts of time and electrical energy to erect (and of course dramatically much less time and energy used to construct even simple boring project-esque condominiums currently).

In developing parts of the world it would even be theoretically possible (if often not practically) to transplant an entire small village or hamlet right into a residential complex within an urban area with inner modular arrangement catering to the social dynamics of the entire village. In areas like India and China where thousands of villages have to be moved due to infrastructure development needs, such moves would be aided by flexibility that modular housing allows and would preserve social relations in strange, new, and unfamiliar urban environment. Modular construction can even thus reduce social anomie if done properly.

Module housing unit construction has to be dramatically faster than rise in world's annual birthrate. This means a number of mass assembly sites by deep water ports. Former or modified military naval construction installations serve as good springboards. For example, if Scotland declares independence from United Kingdom in 2014 and kicks out the Trident submarine fleet, the empty area would be perfect for a modular set up to serve along the coast of the North Sea region.

Whenever a slum is destroyed (as was the case with Rio Favela in Rio De Janeiro recently to make room for World Cup Infrastructure), modular units should be introduced as rapidly as possible to get back the hearts and minds of the locals. More authoritarian and thus speedy governments in Beijing and Moscow will probably (unfortunately) popularize this concept first before it takes off in the West. The West can preempt (these possibly too streamlined "ant-colony" efforts in the east) with large scale modular housing drive under the cover of environmentalism, green energy, smart grid integration, innovation hub construction, etc.

Modular housing should be sold as:

1) A public health issue (reducing rodents, filth, spread of disease)

2) A public safety issue through crime reduction/prevention (via psychological quality of life increase)

3) An economic issue (connecting rural and urban population to newest efficient energy, information, and utility grids)

4) An environmental issue (scraping and recycling older, less efficient, and less insulated housing)

5) A governance issue to create better social cohesion and possibly allow better census tracking to cater to populations politically

We need to go beyond this.
We can hope that once the concept is popularized sufficiently, we'll see apartment complex designs that go way and above the dreams of Scandinavian planners for government projects in the 60s and 70s. It is not enough to create a modernist looking high rise building, paint it in cheerful colors, stuff it full of poor people, and hope for the best.

What must be kept in mind going forward is generational renewal of modules, constant adaptation, experimentation, and application of newest mass production practices for module construction that would allow for additional renewal and experimentation within modules when it comes to shifting inside space, walls, furniture, and appliances.

This looks better :)
add a sprinkle of vertical farm modules and...

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