Researchers at ETH Zurich University in Switzerland are building the first house in the world to be designed, planned and built using digital processes – the DFAB House.
From robots that brick the shell of the building overnight, to 3D printers that construct bridges on site — digital technologies are on the brink of fundamentally changing the way we build. A research team from ETH Zurich University is currently testing how these technologies could work in both artificial test environments and in practice. The DFAB house will be the first house that is not only designed on a computer but also predominantly constructed using digital building processes.
The three-story complex is being developed at the modular NEST research and innovation building constructed by the Empa and Eawag institutes based at ETH Zurich on the campus in Dübendorf. Scientists from the fields of architecture, robotics, materials science, structural analysis and sustainability research have been collaborating to implement the ambitious project. As a result, the process of building the DFAB House combines four innovative construction techniques at the same time, all of which were developed by researchers from ETH in recent years.
Robots and 3D printers: The construction workers of the future?
One of these techniques is Mesh Mould technology, which was awarded the Swiss Technology Award at the end of 2016. The star of this new building method is a two-meter robot known as the “In situ Fabricator”, which moves around autonomously on crawlers. This state-of-the-art robot manufactures the double-arched steel wire grids that are used as the formwork for the load-bearing walls. Both the close-mesh structure of the grid and the unique concrete mix ensure that the concrete does not flow through the mesh when it is poured out.
Once the pouring process is complete, a “Smart Slab” is added — a structurally optimized and functionally integrated ceiling. The formwork for the “Smart Slab” is constructed using a large-scale 3D sand printer, explains Architect and Project Manager Konrad Graser. According to Graser, using this method allows construction workers to form complex shapes that would not be possible using conventional manufacturing techniques, including prototypes and cavities.
The two upper floors, which are designed to have individual rooms, are being pre-assembled in the Robotic Fabrication Laboratory at ETH Zurich University. They are made of complex timber structures (Spatial Timber Assemblies) assembled by several interacting robots. Smart Dynamic Casting technology will be used for the exterior facade, adding the finishing touches to the house. This is an automated sliding formwork process used to construct bespoke concrete facade posts.
Living and working in the DFAB House
The 200-square-meter DFAB House is set to be ready by summer 2018, and will be used as accommodation for researchers visiting Empa and Eawag. Digital building processes will then give way to digital living, explains Graser. Several digital concepts will be tested, including new smart home solutions and technologies related to the Internet of Things, as well as intelligent devices and systems that communicate with each other and that can learn and regulate the building in a way that increases both energy efficiency and comfort.
The ETH team’s aim for the pilot project is to investigate how innovative technologies can increase efficiency and sustainability during building processes and to open up new creative possibilities. One of the effects that the team has already seen is the fact that all components can be automatically designed with each other in mind thanks to the digital construction plan, meaning that conventional implementation planning was not necessary. The initiator of the DFAB project, Matthias Kohler, is convinced that using modern technologies will not just mean that buildings are constructed faster and more effectively in the future, but that they will also have a long-term effect on how we talk about architecture and our living spaces.