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From ‘Printed’ Houses to Wooden Skyscrapers

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

The St. Petersburg Times, March 20, 2014

The renewal of housing stock offers plenty of opportunities

Science parks around the world have been hailed as a way of enhancing their nations’ GDP. This may well be true in the long term, but novel science does not translate quickly into GDP and a general sense of “well-being” until years of trials have occurred. Science parks such as Skolkovo are one of the main drivers behind the Russian strategy through 2020, with technology and innovation fostering a growth in productivity. Yet with the route from pure science to innovation fraught with pitfalls, renovating existing housing stock may be a more homely way to elevate the lives of ordinary people. And this activity, which would be perceived as the government wishing to help all of its citizens, might do much more to raise the spirits of the innovators themselves than high-tech enclaves that seem far from ordinary life.

Modernizing the housing stock of European nations is important on two counts. Shoddily built after each of the world wars to poor building standards that do not permit easy upgrading to modern eco-standards, scientists have shown that Europe’s legacy buildings produce directly, or indirectly, 40 percent of global CO2.

Governments have an intensely costly puzzle to deal with — and Russia is no exception in this respect. Working with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Russian Institute for Urban Economics reported in 2011 on the status of urban housing renewal, the potential opportunities and costs. Essentially, Russian building stock is old and urgently needs to be repaired or rebuilt. The authors also noted that Federal laws mandate high levels of energy efficiency but realities suggest three separate renovation routes: Basic, realistic and energy efficient, with the latter costing up to 4,000 rubles ($109) per square meter while offering savings of up to 28 percent on heating costs. In total, the government faces a bill of some 2.5 billion rubles ($68.24 million) to eliminate dilapidation and improve energy efficiency throughout the housing stock.

One potential solution is to print the houses. Not printing as in banknotes, but by extending this technique via the new technology called additive manufacturing. 3D printing has become established across many manufacturing sectors through all high-tech industries and to aerospace with its exacting requirements for strength and low weight in ever-larger single structures.

This increase of scale stimulated researchers at the University of Southern California to consider spraying thin films of concrete to build walls. Essentially they are doing little more than replacing traditional manual methods with robot-guided sprays. The thin films dry quickly without hidden, structure-weakening cavities and the surface finish is good. As in all 3D printing, the robots can spray complex shapes, with openings for doors, windows and pipework. Thermal insulation can be sprayed at the same time. All in all, this process is very fast and yields a superior product more cheaply than using craftsmen. Russian technicians could easily develop this system to re-build much of suburbia and, having gained experience, could export the methodology.

Looking to the East, one finds that India and China face different problems to those of Russia. They too need to renovate old and inadequate urban housing. A high percentage of Indian houses do not have access to sanitation, for example, but they face mass rural migration to cities as they change from an agrarian to technological mode. That was the situation in Europe through the 1930s to 1950s, which caused an almost uncontrolled urban building boom. In India and in China, some 400 million people now demand new houses in cities through the next few decades. This poses the problem of how to design very large eco-cities. On this point Russia can nurture a new world-class industrial sector — building high-tech, high-rise buildings in its cities, or more precisely, in new dormitory cities.

Russia needs bedroom communities since existing cities cannot easily be renovated to meet carbon-neutrality: Their infrastructures need to be replaced by a system of integrated local services of all types, including schools, medical centers, corner shops, malls and green spaces all connected by routes that link urban mass transit to intercity systems and work places. The dwellings ought to offer a larger floor space than presently available with a mix of single as well as family homes built to the new standards of carbon-neutral HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) minimizing energy demands. Then old housing can be pulled down with historic buildings retained and other structures recycled allowing for modern eco-infill.

Developing high-tech wooden buildings is an appealing idea which could also stimulate a global market. Russia has abundant forests which can be harvested and eco-managed. The timber could be used for “glu-lam” technology to create strong, tall buildings with a low embodied energy. The wood, glued and laminated to form structural items, usually has greater strength than steel as well as being fire resistant. While such new buildings are being offered globally — up to 9 floors in the UK, and even 33 floors are being proposed in Vancouver, Canada — Russia has planning restrictions on wooden buildings of more than four floors. It is time to move forward.

Tall wooden buildings look good and will be great to live in. Thus urban Russians living presently like other city dwellers worldwide in old buildings could have their “happiness quotient” boosted. The new cities would be desirable and generate a sense of “being,” and they would demand much less energy than is the present case.

Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community committed to enacting visions for a sustainable future.