lifestyle

Futuristic houses are being 3D printed by robots — and could go on sale for £360,0000


Building the future: A 3D-printed home in Austin, Texas

The robots are coming to a plot near you, revolutionising the building industry by creating new homes fast.

Some are laying bricks, others are welding and yet more climbing walls to undertake dangerous high-level weather-proofing.

Meanwhile, in Europe and the US, huge robotic 3D printers are pumping out concrete to build houses in days rather than months.

Now Xcavate has arrived in London to sink apartments constructed on top of homeowners’ gardens into the space beneath, creating new living space before restoring the lawn.

The first will break ground next month, and the ambition of their creator is a subterranean takeover of the nation.

Basement excavations may have had a bad rap — think neighbour disputes and collapsing construction — but the owner of Xcavate Robotics believes he has the problem nailed by building under gardens rather than gouging into the foundations that prop up houses.

XCavate’s plans for a sunken garden flat

‘People will be invited to come and see how the robot can build fast and safely,’ says CEO Senake Atureliya, an electromechanical engineer.

He promises to deliver a subterranean one-bedroom apartment for around £300 per sq ft, with innovations including ground-source heating, garden wall skylights and an optional lift designed to take care of lighting, ventilation and accessibility.

But what about the risks? Under- garden apartments, as he dubs them, are safer than conventional basement projects in mitigating both potential collapse and flooding, says Senake.

For one thing, if built under a garden, the weight of the house ceases to be a consideration — although neighbouring homes abutting the end of a garden or adjacent roads on a corner plot still have to be provided for and protected.

He adds: ‘Where our method of construction differs is that we create reinforced concrete shells for the apartment and its optional sunken courtyard garden above ground, and then use robotic diggers to sink them faster than would be possible with conventional mini-excavators.’

Flood risks can be minimised by getting a basement impact assessment before even contemplating a dig, he says. The current show home in Acton is being sunk into a clay layer 12m thick, averting any risk of the one-storey apartment coming close to the base or the aquifer beneath.

The robotic digger, which can be seen doing its own thing by invitation in the coming weeks, has huge potential, says Dominic Keen of Britbots, a seed fund which has invested £175,000 in the Xcavate prototype and more in Hausbots, a Birmingham-based invention climbing walls to undertake high-level tasks for housing associations and Highways England, among others.

‘There will be an ever-greater degree of automation in construction as interest grows in prefabrication,’ he says, explaining the company’s interest was piqued by ‘the attractive idea of making dead space under gardens habitable with minimal levels of disruption’.

Building under gardens should have particular appeal for home-workers and the elderly, believes Senake.

The underground space could make a great home office or granny annexe

A subterranean home office could be an attractive WFH option, which does not encroach on existing living space, and an underground granny flat a way for the elderly to downsize close to family while retaining independence.

The prototype robot, which is electric-powered rather than running on diesel like conventional diggers, is nestled within the shell of the 8m x 8m apartment, and only goes into action once the low-carbon concrete shell is complete and ready to sink into the ground.

After completion of the first project, the garden will be made good and restored to the owner, who is not financing the £250,000 build but will be paid for facilitating the space for a show home with an estimated £360,000 resale value.

If this new method of building is successful, it won’t stop at homes.

‘In addition to residential space, we are looking to build inner-city underground eBike storage and charging facilities next to Tube stations,’ says Senake.

Why build a home when you can print one?

Robots are already at work constructing homes and institutions all over the world. In France, the machines that built the first code-compliant 3D house in Europe in Nantes are now employed in Beaucouze, in the west of France.

There, they have made the leap to printing two-storey homes, as have Mense-Korte, whose robots 3D-printed a fireplace as a star feature of their fabulous award-winning 3D-printed home in Germany and are now training machines to print furniture.

Mense-Korte designed and built this 3D printed home in Germany (Picture: Peri)

A pedestrian bridge in Amsterdam was also pumped out of a 3D printer by robots, while others in California and Shanghai have also been created by machines. Yet more robots are charged with creating the brick facades for a new science campus at the University of Milan, while another has carved striking feature walls out of sandstone for a new winery in the Rhone Valley.

Some robots actually think and make calculations before they build, like HadrianX, an Australian-based bricklaying machine, which can put up the walls of a house in a single day using blocks which are lighter, stronger and 12 times the size of conventional house bricks.

Robots can build walls using 3D printing technology (Picture: Valery Joncheray)

In San Francisco, a robot the size of a kitchen stove has even perfected the skilled art of drywalling, which takes humans years to learn.

No wonder, then, that the global market for robotic construction, valued at just $22.7m in its infancy in 2018, is estimated to grow tenfold by 2025 and, according to industry commentators, change the future of construction forever.

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