Buildings that Build Themselves

by Matt Pietras AIA | Director of Architecture

3-D printing? Snooze. What’s next? Buildings that build themselves.  

I’m not really down on 3-D printing. You can now custom design your own cell phone case, have it 3-D printed exactly to your specifications and then mailed to you.  You can also buy a 3-D printer for your own home for the cost of a plasma TV.  Jay Leno uses one to make out-of-production car parts when working on his auto collection.

The process of automated production has had quite an evolution.  There is evidence that it predates the Industrial Revolution.  Computer Automated Manufacturing (CAM) showed up in the mid-20th century.  Now, we have 3-D printing small-scale objects and kit parts.

But, let’s think bigger: what about building an entire building through automated construction? I’m not talking about just pre-fab building kits. I mean automated fabrication AND erection.

First though, why?  You’ll probably agree that the traditional construction industry is way too slow to adapt to economic market conditions, environmental concerns, and immediate demand situations.  Here’s a short list of problems with construction:

  • Slow
  • Costly
  • Labor-intensive and inefficient
  • Most Hazardous job (moreso than mining and agriculture)
  • Wasteful, emissions producing

And, what can we hope to achieve through automation?

  • Cost saving through savings in time and dangerous labor
  • Useful for critical purposes: immediate response to natural disasters, assist economically disadvantaged populations
  • Manufacture on site, produce, and source locally
  • Limited over-seas manufacturing, create jobs locally
  • Limit (or eliminate) waste
  • Free up resources for thoughtful design


So, how far away is this fantasy?

It’s already here…almost.  Dutch architect, Janjaap Ruijssenaars is scheduled to realize the first building ever made completely from 3-D printing by 2014.  It’s a building built layer by layer.  Link:


And, Behrokh Khoshnevis, director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT) at the USC, has made it his mission to perfect that technology, which he calls “Contour Crafting.”  He is verging on being able to make a 2,500 square foot custom home self-built on site in 20 hours from scratch.  All good.

Getting more interesting though, there are materials that build themselves. We can use fungi that can be grown to make furniture and insulation.  Nanotechnology and bio-manufacturing already help concrete repair itself, employing simple bacteria.  Link:


Then there are the robots…

Vijay Kumar, professor and inventor at U Penn, is developing technology that could feasibly automate building erection at large scale, eliminating many of the issues that make construction so obtuse: slow, dangerous, costly.  Professor Kumar is working on flying robots that that cooperate with each other using ‘swarm’ dynamics like birds and bees use to sense each other’s proximity and coordinate movement.  It springboards off the military’s drone technology, applying it to coordinated efforts for commercial purposes… for now anyway.  His prototype robots demonstrate being able to pick up, manipulate, and move materials through coordinated flight.  While he hasn’t applied his experiments to the construction industry, at larger scale, they could be used to assemble buildings like erector sets, without cranes.  Link:


But, where it gets really wild is buildings that build themselves.

Without external machinery to manipulate them, individually coded building elements can organize and assemble themselves though applied energy sources.  Design, computer scientist, and lecturer at MIT’s Department of Architecture, Skylar Tibbits is a leading innovator on the subject.  His research focuses on developing self-assembly technologies for large-scale structures.  Link:

Energy sources could be in the form of sound waves, wind, or kinetic sources.  Imagine buildings that could self-correct, adapt, or repair through energy transmitted by seismic energy.  Energy applied from ground shaking provides energy to built-in elements that allows them to adapt and respond and change the state, a huge application in western California and other parts of the seismically active world.


Photo credit: Chiral Self-Assembly: Autodesk Univ., Las Vegas 2012

Materials that self-assemble, connect, and shape themselves can be used for quickly deployable structures like emergency shelters or mega assemblies like space elevators.

By taking out the need for extensive labor, reducing risk and time, construction could cost about a fifth of what traditional construction methods cost.

What’s next?  Buildings that disassemble (or decompose) themselves on cue and return themselves to raw material—cradle to cradle.