Early in his new book, Jonathan Waldman – the author of “Rust: The Longest War” – declares that one of the dreams that have preoccupied engineers over the last half century or so is the creation of a mechanical device that can lay blocks and bricks.
“Getting an inanimate machine to do what only hands and brains could was apparently some kind of universal geek fantasy,” he writes. “And while it sounded like child’s play, it was phenomenally difficult. To put it in context: The first machine that successfully picked up small wooden blocks did so only eight years before humans landed on the moon.”
Close to 60 years later a start-up operation called Construction Robotics, based near Rochester, New York, came up with a software-programmed device that could build an entire brick wall. CR branded their creation “SAM” (for “semi-automated mason”), and in “SAM: One Robot, a Dozen Engineers, and the Race to Revolutionize the Way We Build,” Waldman chronicles the long hours, endless frustrations and arduous struggles it took to come up with a version of SAM that was viable. That meant a machine that was easy for contractors to operate and could function effectively in an outdoor environment (“construction sites were terrible places for robots”).
As he tells the story of SAM, Waldman supplies brief histories of the construction industry and robotic arms. He also highlights the almost primal connection we have with brick that we don’t quite have with steel and glass.
“Clay resonates,” Waldman says. “Around the world, across religions, mythology has it that God fashioned mankind out of clay. … Like us, bricks are of the earth; like us, bricks breathe; and like us, each brick is imperfect but also good enough.” Even in the 21st century, he adds, “[b]ricks strike a sociological nerve, presenting a familiar, comforting fabric in our lives. Bricks make schools feel school-like and churches church-like.”
The economics of construction with brick, however, are under pressure. Starting in the 1890s, with the introduction of steel as a construction material, “[m]asonry went from fundamental — from essential — to just a veneer,” Waldman writes. One result was an 80-percent reduction in the use of brick in buildings. Another was that masonry became more of a specialized trade.
While masonry accounts for only four cents of every construction dollar, building in brick is still a big business. “Ten billion dollars’ worth of bricks are installed annually in the United States,” Waldman informs us. “Of all the surface area on the exteriors of all the non-residential buildings in the country, a quarter is covered in brick.”
Although bricklaying remains a significantly unionized industry with many masonry firms clinging to their traditional way of working and union-negotiated level of pay, some union leaders have pushed for technical innovation as a way to save costs and bring some relief to an aging work force (the average mason is 55 years old).
This was where Scott Peters, the head of Construction Robotics, sought his opportunity.
“Scott wasn’t trying to replace humans,” Waldman writes. “[H]is aim was to combine forces, and save men their jobs by marrying man and machine. By creating a bricklaying robot, he aimed to eliminate lifting and bending and repetitive-motion injuries in humans; to improve the quality of walls; to finish jobs faster and safer and cheaper.” SAM, it should be said, still needed close human supervision even when working well. It also needed to be manually supplied with bricks and mortar.
Waldman immerses you eyeball-deep in the technological and logistical challenges Scott and his team faced, while also taking the marketing side of things into account. Peters initially embraced a corporate theory of “minimal viable product,” which meant he booked construction gigs before SAM was completely ready. The idea was that customer feedback would suggest improvements to SAM.
“Scott’s gamble,” Waldman writes, “was certainly bold. It was also somewhere between ridiculous and insane.”
Waldman is clearly exhilarated by the story he’s telling, and his zest comes through in the book’s best turns of phrase, whether he’s critiquing the appearance of an early iteration of SAM (“It looked, frankly, like a hot dog cart”) or noting the way that in “the choreography that is construction … [o]ne changed note altered the whole tune.”
That said, “SAM” poses some stumbling blocks for the lay reader. An index and glossary would have come in handy to help keep track of all the acronyms and specialized vocabulary Waldman uses. You can, perhaps, intuit the meaning of a sentence like “Kerry turned an electric drill into a slump meter with a digital readout, and made a viscometer from a Sawzall and a spade bit.” But to fully understand the book’s details requires constant Googling. Elsewhere, Waldman’s word choice can seem off – for instance, when he talks about an early version of SAM being “disfigured and overhauled.” Might he mean “dismantled” or “disassembled”?
The book’s incidental pleasures include Waldman’s visit to the annual “World of Concrete” trade show where Construction Robotics introduced SAM. Details on the U.S. Brick Olympics and International Brick Collectors Association offer quirky surprises, too.
All in all, “SAM” reveals a world that surrounds us but mostly eludes our notice – and that’s quite a feat.
SAM: ONE ROBOT, A DOZEN ENGINEERS, AND THE RACE TO REVOLUTIONIZE THE WAY WE BUILD
By Jonathan Waldman
Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster, 267 pp., $28
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.