The Road Ahead: Technology and Urbanization

Driverless, automated cars, and innovations in 3-D printed building materials

are working to change the future of homebuilding and land development

By Patrick Duffy

As recently as 1960, just 34 percent of the world’s population lived in urbanized areas, but today it is over 50 percent, and is expected to reach 66 percent by 2050. This is important to note, because as the years ahead promise continued changes in how and where we live, work and play, the first experiments will likely be played out in our cities and adjacent suburbs.

One emerging technology getting lots of press lately, and which could greatly impact land use, is the driverless vehicle, which may be rolled out even faster in the trucking industry. Eventually, this will be paired with car-sharing services, which could mean a wholesale change in the very idea of private car ownership (and Uber is already planning for the day when its cars use automated technology).

If more than one-third of land in some cities today is devoted to parking, the need for fewer spaces could free up valuable parcels for better uses. If up to 30 percent of traffic in downtown areas is due to drivers in private cars looking for parking spots, driverless cars would eliminate that extra congestion by dropping off their riders and retreating to a centralized parking lot.

Out in the suburbs, if fewer households own their own cars, driveways could become unnecessary or even optional. Instead of driving to the nearest light rail stop, suburban residents could order their shared, driverless car to start what was once an unbearable commute. Suddenly, the ability be more productive during that twice-daily commute makes a distant exurb a practical choice.

Another car-related company making future changes to the building industry is Tesla. Besides offering a global network of brightly branded charging stations for their all-electric fleet, in 2015 the company announced its PowerWall, a battery storage system for the home that will soon be able to interact with solar panels and store peak energy at night. For now, Tesla’s problem is keeping up with demand, as it continues to build out its 5.8 million square foot battery factory in the Nevada desert and deal with a 38,000-unit backlog. Since Tesla has yet to announce any direct deals with home builders, for now they’re selling and installing the PowerWall—when available—through a national network of dealers.

While the PowerWall is a great start—and already has several competitors, including Nissan—the idea of local energy generation is ideal for urban environments. Half of American states now have a least one shared solar farm, which is great for renters, shaded or those not appropriate for solar installations, and, if adopted nationwide, could account for up to half of the distributed solar energy market by 2020. In the most dense urban areas, ‘microgrids,’ which can tap a variety of local energy sources including wind, solar and even fuel cells, also have the option to disconnect from primary power grids in the event of extreme weather events or other emergencies.

Of course, all of this technology will be made even more useful with the Internet of Things, which will provide the basic infrastructure for the information-based society, and is estimated to connect between 20 and 30 billion different devices by 2020. With evolving wireless technology becoming more robust and reliable with each passing year, today a home builder can much more easily offer a ‘future-proof’ design than in the days when structured wiring was the only option.

Even the way we build homes is starting to change, with 3D printing potentially making a dent in the 10,000-year-old methods still in use today. While several companies are already attempting to build 3D-printed buildings from scratch, the founders of Tennessee-based Branch Technology are taking more of a hybrid approach, in which their Cellular Fabrication walls provide the initial structure but are then paired with traditional construction materials. The result is a wall which is not only lighter, but also stronger. According to Branch, one of their 1.5-pound plastic walls can support 1,500 pounds, while a 2.5-pound wall with spray foam added is able to support nearly 3,000 pounds. Because these walls lack the traditional base foundation of a wood stud or concrete wall, they not only waste less material, but can be shipped to virtually anywhere in the world for on-site installation.

For now, Branch is tackling a six-month backlog of orders to create non-critical structures for use in office buildings, lobbies and conference rooms—the first of many steps to bring new technology to a global industry expected to reach over $15 trillion by 2030.

Patrick Duffy is a Principal with MetroIntelligence Real Estate Advisors and contributes to BuilderBytes. He may be reached at
pduffy@metrointel.com or at 310-666-8288.

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