Where architecture meets robotics

On behalf of BAU, Elias Baumgarten went to visit the Arch_Tec_Lab in Zürich

Switzerland leads the world in the development of digital technologies for architecture. On a visit to the laboratory of the National Centre of Competence in Research Digital Fabrication in Zürich, I asked Managing Director Dr. Russell Loveridge to show me what they are working on at present.

Assembly of timber construction elements
Assembly of timber construction elements for the DFAB HOUSE in the robotics laboratory of the NCCR Digital Fabrication in Zurich © Roman Keller

Digitalization in the construction sector is a slow process – work has been going on now for three decades. But after that tentative start, in recent years we have seen acceleration. When I was a student in Austria around ten years ago, parametric design was already a part of every design course. Forms were not drawn by hand as previously, they were done via computer programs. In the very first semester we learned how to use Rhino; we were shown how to script, how to use plug-ins and how to re-program. The driver behind this was the desire to create new forms discontinuously – following on from Austria´s avant-garde of the 1960s and ´70s. But as soon as it came to actually building the designs created in this way, things quickly got a bit tricky. For example, the free-form roof of the Martin Luther Church in Hainburg by Coop Himmelb(l)au – curved steel plates on a steel frame – had to be made in a German shipyard, because of the metal-processing and manufacturing expertise required. No building firm in Europe, let alone Austria, had that kind of know-how.

NCCR—A pioneer

Since those early days of digitalization much has happened. Switzerland is now a pioneer in this field, in particular the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication, which was launched in 2014 and in which five universities, Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) and many industrial partners are participating. Why Switzerland should be so advanced in this field might at first be a little surprising, considering that Swiss architecture is known more for simple but powerful geometries, a sensitive use of materials and solid craftsmanship. Free forms were until recently (unlike in Austria) not very popular here. However, the political will to push ahead with digitalization in the building sector is strong in Switzerland, and the necessary financial means are available.

I went to visit the Arch_Tec_Lab in Zürich, the research laboratory of NCCR Digital Fabrication, to talk to Russell Loveridge about his work. The very building in which the lab is located is a demonstration of the capabilities and innovative strength of Swiss research and the Swiss building sector. Around 60 experts from a range of disciplines have been working here since 2016. The building was designed parametrically. Its sweeping wooden roof is made up of 50,000 individual elements that were nailed together by robots in the factory of Erne Holzbau, one of the industrial partners involved with NCCR Digital Fabrication. The connection points are so complex that designing and building it was only possible through the combination of a parametric model and precise robotic fabrication.

Robotic prefabrication

The centerpiece of the Arch_Tec_Lab is the robotics laboratory. The hall offers enough space to build prototypes and smaller buildings in a scale of 1:1. As well as robots fixed to crane tracks, there is also a mobile unit that can be used on building sites. Here they test robotic fabrication techniques, and researchers experiment with new materials.

The latest result of this work is a pavilion at the headquarters of Basler & Hofmann in Esslingen in the Canton of Zürich. The wooden frame was designed parametrically by Gramazio Kohler Research, at the Chair of Architecture and Digital Fabrication at ETH Zürich. It was built by the company Erne Holzbau, and robots sawed, drilled and assembled the wooden elements. The entire construction rests on an elegant concrete column which was designed at NCCR Digital Fabrication. Based on a 3D model, 1.5 mm thick formwork was printed for the concrete column. Under the pressure of conventional fresh concrete this would have split immediately, so, together with the Chair of Physical Chemistry of Building Materials at ETHZ, they developed a new special concrete with ultra-fast setting properties. The formwork can be melted down after use and the material re-used.

Ceiling of the Arch_Tec_Lab
The ceiling of the Arch_Tec_Lab was designed parametrically in 2016 and manufactured by robot © Andrea Diglas

Robots on site

I was curious to find out from Loveridge if robots can also be used on the building site. He explained that this is a challenge because of the rough conditions on site. Often it is cold and damp, and sometimes it is difficult to secure the power supply for the robots. An added problem for the robots is orientation in space, because building sites are generally not tidy places and do not have reference points unlike the factory or laboratory environment. Loveridge thinks it will be years before robots can be deployed on site. However, successful tests have already been carried out: For example a robot fitted the reinforcement on a multiply curved wall of an experimental residential unit, the DFAB HOUSE, in Dübendorf near Zürich. The DFAB HOUSE, a module on the NEST research building, is used for testing fabrication techniques and building materials. And now students have even moved in for tests purposes. Delegations from research and industry come from far and wide to inspect this facility.

China is gaining ground

Today it is China that is becoming world leader in digitalization. In 2017 most of the publications on this subject came out of China. But already in 2016 a US government report warned that Chinese researchers would be publishing more about deep learning than American researchers. So what is the picture as regards the use of digital technologies in the construction industry? I asked Loveridge, a Canadian who knows China well and has worked there, for his assessment of this: “I think we are still a few years ahead,” he said, before adding: “But our lead is getting smaller. In Stuttgart a large research center is currently being set up, and we are involved as consultants. The Chinese are catching up fast. They have enormous means in terms of finance and personnel.” In Switzerland and Europe we will have to continue to work hard in the future to maintain our lead in the development of digital technologies for architecture.”

Good to know

The National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCRs) are interdisciplinary research networks funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. They promote research in areas of strategic importance for the future of Swiss science, the Swiss economy and Swiss society. The NCCR Digital Fabrication was launched at the ETH Zurich.

Other partner institutions are the EPF Lausanne, the Hochschule für Technik Rapperswil, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Bern University of Applied Sciences and Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology).

The aim is to revolutionize architecture through the seamless integration of digital technologies with the building process. In order to fully exploit the potential of digital fabrication, six different disciplines work together at the NCCR Digital Fabrication: architecture, engineering, robotics, control technology and material and computer sciences.

Published on April 20, 2020
Elias Baumgarten, PSA Publishers Ltd.