Innovation at Work: New approaches to housing could lead to more efficient homes

Shelby Doyle stands in front of two robotic arms in a laboratory in the ISU Student Innovation Center

Shelby Doyle, associate professor of architecture and the Stan G. Thurston Professor in Design Build, in the Architectural Robotics Lab at the ISU Student Innovation Center. Larger image. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

By Fred Love, News Service

AMES, Iowa – Shelby Doyle switches on a light in a darkened room in Iowa State University’s gleaming Student Innovation Center, a cathedral of creativity where Cyclones can design and build everything from original video games to solar cars.

The light reveals a pair of orange robotic arms fitted to a giant table at the back of the Architectural Robotics Laboratory. The robots help Doyle, an associate professor of architecture and the Stan G. Thurston Professor in Design Build, research how automation can help make home construction safer and more efficient. They also teach ISU students how to approach cutting-edge technology, a skill sure to come in handy over the course of their careers.

“Digital technologies change really fast,” Doyle said. “I can’t teach students everything they’re going to need to know over the entire arc of their careers because they will encounter technologies that don’t exist yet. What I can do in a laboratory like this is help students have an attitude and a set of skills about how to approach new technology as a designer.”

The robotic arms, and the work done with them in the ISU laboratory, could illuminate a future in which robots play a significant part on construction sites. In fact, innovative minds across the ISU campus are inventing, researching and perfecting new applications for emerging technology that could change how homes are built and maintained.

Robots and 3D printing: Coming to a construction site near you?

Doyle said robots won’t be building houses on their own any time soon. But they can provide support for repetitive or hazardous jobs that traditionally require intensive human labor. For instance, they could lift and move large panels or tie rebar and stack bricks.

“I think the future of robots in construction isn’t about replacing human labor; it’s about augmenting things we already do,” Doyle said.

That’s because construction sites are often such dynamic environments that it’s difficult to automate many tasks. Think of a typical factory floor, where robots can be built and programmed to carry out the same task the same way at the same location thousands upon thousands of times on a flat surface in controlled temperatures. Now compare that to a construction site where work often takes place on uneven terrain in changing weather conditions. All those variables complicate the use of robotics. Doyle said machine learning could lead to robots becoming more adaptable to the ever-changing conditions on construction sites. But such sophisticated technology will take time to develop and integrate.

In the meantime, Doyle said robots show promise in their ability to operate 3D printers, which can shape concrete to precise specifications. Doyle’s research aims to address one of the biggest challenges currently holding back the use of 3D printing in construction, that of combining printing with other construction systems and reducing the carbon footprint of construction materials such as concrete.

Doyle is working alongside Pete Evans, an assistant professor of industrial design, and other ISU faculty and staff on the 3D Affordable Innovative Technologies Housing Project. The project involves a collaboration among Iowa State, Iowa Central Community College and the private construction firm Brunow Contracting to address a lack of affordable housing in rural communities. The project began in 2022 and received a $2.1 million grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

The project will create a training ground for students and professionals in the construction industry to gain experience with emerging technologies at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge. This includes opportunities to experiment and establish best practices at a nearby construction site. Evans describes the Fort Dodge facilities as a “home base” where students, faculty and construction professionals can teach, train and test new ideas.

That work is sorely needed due to the many unanswered questions surrounding the use of robotics and 3D printing in construction, Evans said. 3D printing, for instance, is a practice in which computer-controlled machines form materials, layer by layer, to fit precise specifications. Evans and his colleagues are studying whether industrial-sized 3D printers can form concrete structures that could be combined with other advanced construction materials and methods to build homes more efficiently. This spring, Evans and his colleagues are assembling a 3D construction printer capable of depositing digital model-based concrete structures. The massive printer will measure 41 feet by 40 feet, but its modular design will allow it to be packed up and hauled from one construction site to another.

The hope is that robotics and 3D printing can lead to greater efficiency in home construction, just as robotics has done in manufacturing and other industries. But it’s not there yet.

“New technology is not a silver bullet,” Evans said. “It has to mature through a lot of iterative implementations to be able to advance existing processes.”

Among the biggest challenges these technologies face as they mature is updating building codes to allow for their use, Evans said. Current building codes don’t account for the use of robots and the experimental materials Evans and Doyle are studying.

Another big question Evans’ group is tackling is how to optimize the kind of concrete to use with 3D printers. Because the concrete is pumped through the machine’s nozzle, the mixture is different than conventional concrete, which is usually cement, sand and water mixed with an aggregate like gravel to make it stronger. Evans and his colleagues are studying workarounds, such as recycled materials, plastics and biomaterials for a more sustainable mixture.

Typically, concrete also is reinforced with steel and other materials to add tensile strength. On a modern construction site, workers build steel inside forms and then pour concrete into the formwork. But that approach won’t work with 3D printing. To find a solution, Doyle is testing different methods, like using two printers in concert to combine concrete and reinforcement.

Earlier this semester, Doyle and a group of students spent two weeks in Boston at the Autodesk Technology Center, a high-tech fabrication company. They explored additive manufacturing of reinforcement for reducing thermal bridging and strengthening concrete walls produced by 3D printers. Doyle said that kind of opportunity, plus getting hands-on experience in the Architectural Robotics Laboratory, prepares students to adapt to the ever-changing technology in the architectural world.

Can gaming make community engagement and planning topics fun?

Technology could also be a game changer for communities seeking citizen feedback or working to increase community engagement. Alenka Poplin, an associate professor who teaches geoinformation science in the community and regional planning department, admits it can be difficult to convince busy people to devote their time to improving bike trails or energy efficiency in their communities. But what if you could find a way to make that process fun?

Poplin leads a smart and sustainable cities course in which students explore the usefulness of video games, online platforms and even collaborative arts and crafts projects to encourage public input. The students also work directly with the city of Ames to implement playful engagement strategies and help city officials gain valuable insight from residents, which can inform important community planning decisions.

Inviting public comment at city council meetings is a tried-and-true method for gathering that kind of information, but Poplin said those traditional methods might miss some portions of the community, particularly marginalized groups.

But what if you could gamify the project? What if the city offered an online platform for residents to drag and drop buildings onto a virtual landscape to show city officials what they want to see in a proposed marketplace? And what if residents could see what other community members come up with and leave comments on what they like or don’t like?

The geogames approach may build a new kind of relationship between residents and city planners and provide new perspectives when cities consider construction, bike paths, walkability, internet access and a whole raft of other topics.

“This goes beyond the data and the technical point of view,” Poplin said. “This work is to provide the human point of view, the experience residents have and the experience they’d like to have.”

Geogames can also help residents better understand complex topics and tradeoffs, like energy efficiency, Poplin said. She has worked on a prototype game that allows players to employ various construction techniques to see how they affect the energy efficiency of a building. Could a geogames app that simulates how to optimize your utility bill become the next Candy Crush? It’s just one of the questions Poplin is asking in her research.

“When you ride a bus or train, you can see people immersed in games on their handheld devices,” she said. “Can we take that gaming experience and learn from it and apply it in the community engagement process so people enjoy exploring these issues?”

(Re)discovering how to build homes that don’t rely solely on electricity for cooling

Ulrike Passe, a professor of architecture, is rediscovering the benefits of pre-electricity design methods that nearly vanished in the United States during the 20th century – and she’s using the latest technologies to take those principles further than ever.

“Before electrification and before mechanical systems were part of homes, there was only one way of cooling a building, which was spatial composition and ice boxes,” Passe said. “Those strategies got lost over the last 80 years.”

Spatial composition refers to how a building is laid out and how it interacts with its surroundings. The landscape, vegetation and weather conditions, for instance, can all play a role in how shade and natural airflow can cool and ventilate a structure. Those elements diminished in importance when widely available cheap electricity made air conditioning a staple of building design and construction.

“In the modern era, we’re designing buildings of any shape without connections to the environment surrounding the building,” Passe said. “But, over the last 20 years, natural ventilation as a means of reducing energy consumption has started to come back for residential construction and most other building types.”

That resurgence in interest is due largely to climate change, she said. A growing number of home owners prize energy efficiency to save money and lessen their carbon footprint. They’re also looking for ways to adapt to increasingly common disruptions to the electrical grid posed by natural disasters. Homes designed with spatial composition principles would be more comfortable to live in during emergencies, like the 2020 derecho that left many Iowans without power for days.

Passe said the placement of balconies, porches and interior hallways can all influence how air flows naturally through a structure. The choice of construction materials is also of critical importance.

To maximize these principles, Passe and her collaborators are conducting experiments and creating new technologies to support architects. The research team includes Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, professor of mechanical engineering; Alberto Passalacqua, associator professor of mechanical engineering; Janette Thompson, Morrill Professor of natural resource ecology and management; Yuyu Zhou, associate professor of geological and atmospheric sciences; and Michael Dorneich, professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering.

In 2009, the team participated in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, a collegiate competition to design and build high-performance, low-carbon buildings that mitigate climate change. The ISU researchers created the Interlock House at Honey Creek Resort State Park in Moravia, Iowa. Built with a slanted roof covered in solar panels, the structure utilizes a passive solar design and natural ventilation to regulate temperature with less electricity needed for cooling. It operates at near net-zero, meaning it produces nearly as much clean energy as it uses.

The research team collected almost a decade’s worth of data from the building’s energy use. This includes a suite of sensors that mapped out how air and sunlight flow through the structure, providing Passe with a wealth of information to guide her future work.

More recently, Passe is leading a multi-institutional research team designing an app to provide advance warning of extreme heat emergencies. The researchers received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation earlier this year to gather data and develop the automated heat warning system for susceptible Des Moines neighborhoods.

Participants in the study will install a sensor in the hottest part of their home that monitors temperature and airflow. Machine learning algorithms will sift the data compiled during the project and account for the physics of temperature differentials and airflow. Next, the researchers will design an app that allows residents to input data specific to their living environment and then receive personalized warnings about the potential for dangerous heat.

Combining pre-electric construction principles with the latest technology and materials could change how homes are built for decades to come.

“It’s just a mindset that needs to switch a little bit,” Passe said. “Cutting out six months of actively pushing air through a building is a lot of carbon emissions saved.”