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Lego-like bricks for full-sized buildings (arstechnica.com)
93 points by nealabq on July 5, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 31 comments

The idea of prefabricated concrete as a solution to sheltering the poor in poor countries is a long standing pipe dream of architects. My mentor, The late David Crane, FAIA told me his experience in the early 1960's. He had a grant and designed wonderful prefabricated structures. Then he looked at logistics. The solution was viable in Manhattan. Tooling ate up the budget.

The problem this solves is high labor costs. That's what most prefabricated systems solve. The exchange is large capital investment and shipping costs for onsite labor. High labor costs are distinctly not a problem in poor societies. Moreover even in wealthy societies shipping heavy items is cheap compared to shipping bulky items.

Lastly, concrete is in forgiving. Mistakes are literally cast in stone. Steel can be welded, boards nailed. Nothing like that for concrete...I guess I should add that high tech adhesives typically require a lot of prep, controlled environmental conditions for application, and testing of installation or at least monitoring by independent agents, i.e. more infrastructure and expense.

This looks like a business person with Sketchup's idea. $3 million barely covers a batch plant and forms, not worldwide distribution.

An alternative way to provide housing for the poor in developing countries is the beer bottle: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-heineken-bot...:

"In 1960, Freddy took a trip to the island of Curacao in the Caribbean Sea and discovered that he could barely walk 15 feet on the beach without stepping on a littered Heineken bottle. He was alarmed by two things: First, the incredible amount of waste that his product was creating due to the region’s lack of infrastructure to collect the bottles for reuse. (Back then, bottles were commonly returned for refilling, lasting about 30 trips back and forth to the breweries). Second, the dearth of proper building materials available to those living in the impoverished communities he visited. So he thought up an idea that might solve both of these problems: A brick that holds beer."

That approach was less ambitious by aiming at building small houses only, and had the advantage that distribution already existed, but failed, too.

The architect behind "earthships"[1] made a similar observation regarding used tires -- finding it was the most readily available resource pretty much anywhere. Fill a tire with packed sand, and you have a very good brick, making a wall that has excellent properties wrt heat (either keeping it in, or out).

You can also use regular bottles for construction[2]: you need to cut them in two, and fit them together, and layer them into clay/concrete/etc -- and you have again a wall that lets in light, and has good isolation properties (due to the air pockets in the empty bottles).

I recommend watching "Garbage Warrior" for more on real-world sustainable eco-housing:


[1] http://earthship.com/Designs/simple-survival

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bottle_wall

And are not traditional bricks a form of lego anyway you just use mortar rather than studs to connect the bricks.

Check out this podcast about "Bubble Housing" http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/bubble-houses/

bubble houses are very easy to build and most of the costs would be material cost of concrete.

This might work nicely as a wall system, and making it CNC-style construction is REALLY nice.

But the tetris-style 2nd story floor they were doing is a non-starter. First off, you couldn't hold the kind of tolerances necessary to make that floor stay level -- rather than slowly curving downwards -- as it cantilevers out from the wall. And second, even if you could somehow (and you can't!) that's not how concrete works. Concrete is strong in compression and weak in tension. The only way that floor cantilevers out is through a lot of both tensile and compressive strength. That's how horizontal beams work.

This is a concept, not a reality. It looks like it was done by someone who understands a lot about the problems that face architects and builders, but not much about the structural engineering required to make a building actually stand up.

But if you're willing to forego the brick-together build-a-floor/ceiling it seems like there's a lot of good design in it. Design, not engineering.

The illustrated second story floor is a non-starter, to be certain. Could not crossbeams be manufactured in the same style? The article mentions hollow bricks with slots for reinforcement. I would assume a crossbeam style brick with a reinforced core would fit the bill just fine.

Maybe you could do that?

I think you'd be much better off making "hardpoint" bricks where you can slot actual steel or concrete beams. Monolithic ones, not something that snaps/clips together.

One of the reasons that beams work is that they're basically unbroken over their length. If you want to take two halves of beams and bolt that together into a single beam you're going to lose strength because the joints are often weaker than the unbroken beam. Introducing more joints reduces strength a bit further, but the first one is the killer.

Ultimately you're much better off buying steel beams which are long enough (or too long and cutting them down) and placing them in whole. Or getting concrete beams pre-cast somewhere and shipped to the site. Yes they're not plug-n-play the way you'd like. But the extra materials that it would take to make the click together type of system work will substantially increase costs to the point where you can overrun the labor savings. The point of this system is that it's (theoretically) cheaper.

It's kind of like saying "well we'll just index EVERYTHING on disk and that'll make all the queries fast!" Yeah that might work in some cases but at some point there are diminishing returns to further indexing and if you're in a write-heavy enough environment more indexes can actually slow things down.

Engineering tradeoffs are everywhere.

I don't know much about this. But I pretty much glossed over the details about whether this would be structurally sound due to the sentence: "Steel bars can be slotted through dedicated channels in the bricks to provide the same support as traditionally reinforced concrete."

Would that not solve the problem you mention? Or is it somehow unsolvable if you use per-fabricated concrete blocks like this even with steel reinforcement?

Depends on how the bricks were designed.

If you insert the bars during the fabrication of the bricks, yes, that'll do. If you insert them later, the steel will oxidate, and the building collapse in a couple of decades.

The aspect I found most interesting was the built-in horizontal and vertical routing channels. It would be fantastic to be able to remove some detachable wall panels instead of tearing out and replacing drywall when adding to or upgrading home infrastructure.

I don't want to come across as being too obtuse, but what's the significant advantage of this over regular old rebar reinforced concrete blocks? I'm far more interested in that comparison than with the Lego one.

It looks like these blocks have significantly higher material costs than CMUs, require completely different tooling to manufacture, deliver and construct, and apparently needs some kind of robot.

In areas that need rapid, cheap and sturdy construction, concrete blocks are pretty proven technology. For example, you'll find concrete block housing all over the Caribbean (hell, all over the world) because the structures are relatively cheap to put up, last near enough forever, and stand up extremely well to natural events like hurricanes.

They have good thermal properties already, can be filled in with all manner of insulation, conduits, whatever; have excellent compression properties (a great many building foundations are just regular old CMUs). And are easy enough to put a nice looking facade over that most of us would probably have a hard time picking out a concrete block building if he had to.

I mean, I get that these don't need a welder to work the rebar, or a masonry guy to do the mortar, but you'll still need good footing to work off of. Construction estimates for material and labor to build with regular old concrete are something like <$2.50 per block or something like $50/m^2.

This has long been a dream for architects.

Back in the 60's Fritz Haller produced a building system for the Swiss company USM. If you've ever played with the fischer-price toy Construx you know exactly what it was like.

The USM building system consisted of three sizes of connections, interfaces and panels. Each panel would be surrounded on four sides by four connection beams, and four interfaces at the corners. Build up enough of these together and you could put together a building.

Sadly, the building system was too far ahead of its time. But they did build furniture for inside the factory, which was a huge seller.

If you speak German, there's a great talk about the USM systems history. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZNbJoI2DuE

I wonder if it's significantly cheaper than using AAC[1] which also uses interlocking blocks (it uses thin-bed mortar, I couldn't find any details on the Kite Bricks site for what adhesive you use).

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autoclaved_aerated_concrete

I built my house using insulated concrete forms (ICF), which work just like giant foam lego blocks that you fill with concrete after assembly. They're already in wide use and have been for decades. The material described in this article is different. I can't judge whether it's better, but ICFs work pretty darn well. Their big downside is that you get a very strong, very well-insulated concrete house, but it costs a lot of money to make a concrete house, and unless you live in a hurricane or tornado area, you might be better off building a flimsier house.

Concrete houses are required by banks in some countries, for example, Mexico. You can't get away with a wood house there.

This doesn't seem very realistic. Looking at the tires of they're robot, it would be almost impossible to manoeuvre on that kind of surface.

If you look at Lego vehicles for example, they all have to have disproportionately wide wheels to be able to navigate the studs on the bricks without getting caught.

In addition, there are the problems of forming non-rectangular and non 90 degree walls anywhere in the house, the problem of recognising and targeting the bricks correctly with the robot, the 'spray on' cement that seems a fantasy.

"It's ultra scalable!"

lol, I'm just joking. Well, half joking. But this kind of thing does looks very scalable for mass building.

I wonder what kind of problem is it aiming to solve? Does it solves the homeless problem by way of mass building? Does it solves urbanization problem by allowing buildings to continuously add more floors? If so, can these blocks scale to support hundreds of floors above it?

My guess is it lowers time and cost for pumping out subdivisions. You don't need bricklayers or framers if all you have to do is slot together blocks.

A lot of the cheaper subdivisions already use prefabricated wall panels. Framing in those jobs is more about following the paint-by-numbers plans and cutting MDF.

sub divisions in the usa are typically wood construction so this wouldn't really assist in residential construction

This idea reminds me a bit of insulating concrete formwork, where you use interlocking bricks made from something like polystyrene to make a form. This is then filled with concrete to give it strength.


It's not the same thing, but I'm reminded of Edison's concrete houses: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/06/14/thomas_ediso...

They're building a block of modern flats over the road from me at the moment not too dissimilar to the one in the video.

It took 9 months to build the foundations and about 3 months to get the superstructure up (concrete) and another 9 months now doing internal and external decoration. They're now tidying it all up.

That begs the question: this product saves the 3 months bit. That is only 14% of the time on such a structure. Is that worth saving? Is it viable on those grounds?

Laying a stable foundation (your Lego board) for this must be pretty hard as well to stay in tolerance.

Having done the electrics on an old Victorian house, I do rather like the built in conduit system though although another question: do the bricks break their structural strength if you make a whole in the skin to run cables/faceplates)

Well... This seems pretty similar to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panel%C3%A1k . Are there any fundamental differences or is this essentialy the same idea, just more modern?

I like it, and I like the machine.

I guess the only thing I disklike is that the title is "These bricks are like Lego for full-sized buildings" rather than e.g. "Lego-like bricks for full-sized buildings".

Your wish is our command.

Use of "these" and "this" in titles is a linkbait device, so this change is covered by the HN guidelines.

Who is it supposed to bait? It makes me less likely to click the link. Here the words "Lego" and "Full-sized buildings" overruled it though :)

Presumably these tricks have been a/b tested to the hilt by the Upworthies of this world, so whoever they're supposed to bait, there's a lot of them.

FYI, when an ars article ends with the wired logo, that usually means it's a reprint. The original can be found at http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-07/01/kite-bricks

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