It's midwinter and I am watching a bunch of houses get built. Yet I'm in my shirtsleeves, warm and dry, because the construction is happening indoors: I'm walking through the shop of Home Technology in suburban Toronto, where wood sections of walls and floors are being assembled by a company of workers and an armada of Swedish robots.
The only sounds are the whine of automated saws and the staccato clack of nail guns, aimed precisely at their targets.
This 200,000-square-foot facility doesn’t show the chaos of a typical building site, and that’s by design. Its owners, the residential developers and builders Great Gulf, believe that tech will transform the construction industry – a process that’s been imagined by architects and builders for a century. Here, it’s happening, and this plant represents the state of the art.
“The building of homes hasn’t changed much in 50 years,” Great Gulf’s president, Christopher Wein says. “But look at the automobile industry: Using technology, and using manufacturing principles, they’ve been able to find efficiencies and bring costs down. We want to do the same.”
That’s no small task. The construction industry is resistant to innovation; builders generally communicate with drawings on paper and rely on a fractured labour force of guys (they are usually guys) in pickup trucks.
The solution that Home Tech offers to Great Gulf, as well as other builders, pulls together a series of different technologies. Step 1 is three-dimensional computer design, known as building information modelling. In one section of their facility, architects and technologists translate building designs into a computer model, finding the right position for every stud, duct and wire.
In another section, their counterparts examine those computer models and input them into the systems that will guide the robots. Then, out on the factory floor, the machines themselves translate those designs into panels, or sections of buildings. Guided by about 40 workers a shift, running 21 hours a day, the plant will produce the walls and floors for about 1,500 housing units in a year.
As I walk the floor with a manager, the lines are producing pieces for detached houses at Summerlyn Village, in the exurban town of Bradford, Ont. At one end, raw lumber and engineered wood components come in off a truck to be inspected and sorted.
Then the robots take over. Components are placed into separate production lines for wall and floor components, where they get cut to precise lengths by computer-controlled saws. On the wall line, a worker lifts a joined pair of two-by-fours, lays it down on a work surface, then a hammering machine scrolls into place to pound in nails – dead centre – from either end. Repeat this a few times and you have a framed wall section of about 20 feet; the next machine hammers sheets of oriented strand board onto its surface, then cuts out window holes in precisely the right location. When it’s done, each panel – up to 12 feet tall and 45 feet long – is lifted by a crane onto a truck to be strapped down for the 56 kilometre trip. On site, installers will be expecting each piece and a house can be erected and enclosed in three days.
Ironically, the resulting houses will be “traditional” in style, with a mix of Shingle Style gables, neo-classical porticoes and Victorian gingerbread trim. The robots will leave no visible mark on the streetscape.
And yet, this represents the culmination of a radical dream. Since the birth of the Modern movement in Europe around 1900, some architects have been trying to alter construction from a craft to an industry – to capture the efficiencies and economies of scale that were brought to consumer goods by the Industrial Revolution. (Many Modernists aimed to address the brutal social upheavals of industrialization at the same time.)
But how to do it? The most elegant response is prefabrication, building a structure complete or in finished segments and then shipping it to the site. The current fashion of prefab uses shipping containers; you can buy custom shipping-container buildings in Canada now. Containers have their uses, but also their limitations; simply put, long, narrow steel boxes are not the ideal components for many kinds of buildings, particularly houses.
With Home Tech, Great Gulf is testing a less sexy but ultimately more useful strategy – building on the manufacturing processes that are already common in building.
Many of the components that make up a house are factory-made: among them windows, doors, stairs, cabinets and siding, all of which were once built or assembled by hand on site. Trusses – the assembly of structural supports that hold up a roof – have long been made off-site as well. The frame of a typical subdivision house is among its few hand-made elements.
“Once, it was desirable to have a hand-built automobile,” Wein, the president, points out. “I don’t think a lot of people are asking for that today, as opposed to in a state-of-the-art factory.”
And what if the single-family house doesn’t have much of a future? Already Great Gulf is predicting for the Toronto area that “the single-family home will be a shrinking asset class,” Wein says; this is broadly keeping with other industry forecasts and provincial policy that is pushing toward an incrementally denser and more transit-oriented region.
Great Gulf also has a large high-rise construction arm, which is in expansion mode. (Full disclosure: Great Gulf’s sister company, the commercial developer First Gulf, is The Globe and Mail’s landlord.) In this context, the company is using building information modelling extensively across its operations and experimenting with wood structure of six storeys and even up to 12 storeys, using new engineering techniques and components.
Panels of an apartment building, delivered just in time from a factory? It could happen here, and Wein argues the associated lower costs could help contain housing prices.
“We think technology is part of the major solution for how we’re going to deal with affordability,” he argues. “In order to combat higher construction costs, you need to find efficiencies, and you need to move from a construction mind to a manufacturing mind.”
Send in the robots.