Robots Build The Houses Of The Future.

Robots Build The Houses Of The Future.

Digital technologies allow the construction of previously impossible building shapes, building materials are becoming lighter, and the building is becoming more environmentally friendly. Gradually the face of the cities is changing.

Robots And Construction

Big pliers tirelessly pinch off short steel rods, and a welding device uses them to build an elegantly curved grille. The result is a new type of load-bearing wall – twelve meters long and three meters high. It will give a new apartment a distinctive character. Workers could not build the wall efficiently, and the shape was far too complex. That’s why a robot is at work in the research building in Dübendorf. He welds around 20,000 times in 120 hours until the reinforcement is so tight that the concrete can be injected directly in between – there is no need for complex formwork.

“The digital building culture will not only change the building process but also the face of cities,” says Matthias Kohler, architect at ETH Zurich. He assumes that digitization will make settlements more diverse and monotonous buildings less common. Because a new generation of construction robots enables the production of unique elements, such features are no more expensive than components from conventional series production.

New technologies have permanently changed architecture: the invention of reinforced concrete at the end of the 19th century has shaped the way of construction to this day. Now comes the next step – researchers are developing digital technologies that may revolutionize forms and manufacturing in construction.

First digitally built house

The National Research Focus Digital Fabrication, which Kohler led until summer 2017, investigates how can these technologies be applied to the construction process. The scientists are building the “DFAB House” on an Empa test building in Dübendorf. It is the first house in the world constructed digitally: the robots receive their instructions directly from the architects’ planning data.

In the “DFAB House,” the researchers test several new construction methods. In addition to the wave-shaped wall built by the robot, a richly shaped, ornate concrete ceiling is created and poured into a formwork from a 3D printer. Other parts, such as concrete pillars for the facade, are pre-produced under robot control. This is how the most extensive wooden roof in the world was created: robots connected almost 50,000 wooden slats to form a structure that now swings over the Arch-Tec-Lab at ETH Zurich.

The prefabrication of components has been widespread in timber construction for years. “In concrete construction, on the other hand, we are lagging behind other countries,” says Josef Kurath, a civil engineer at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences ZHAW in Winterthur. He wants to catch up with prefabricated concrete slabs that are trimmed to be lightweight. With this, he has already constructed the lightest concrete bridge in the world. Winterthur crosses the small river Eulach and is about four times more delicate than a conventional bridge.

Kurath and his team achieved this by replacing the previous steel reinforcement in the concrete with bundles of carbon threads. As a result, the bridge does not require half a ton of steel – just 14 kilograms of carbon. The high-tech material also enables thinner elements: the panels are only four centimetres thick. In contrast to steel, carbon does not have to be protected from rusting by moisture with a thick layer of concrete. The new elements are to be prefabricated en masse in a hall in the future, thus making cladding on the construction sites superfluous.

Not that element construction would only become possible with digitization – Ernst Göhner invented this in Switzerland as early as the 1960s by casting significant concrete wall elements in the factory and assembling them on the construction site. But to keep the unit costs low, this was done in enormous quantities. That is why prefabricated housing estates such as in the Zurich municipalities of Greifensee or Volketswil appear monotonous. The new carbon concrete slabs are different – they can be worked like wooden boards, and Computer-controlled milling machines can cut any shape from the blanks – each piece can look different. “This way, we stay flexible and at the same time become more efficient,” says the civil engineer Kurath.

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Better Recycling Needed

But not all experts consider the further development of concrete construction to be the right solution. Dirk Hebel, an architect at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology KIT, says: “It is of no use to run more and more efficiently in a single direction if the goal is not right.” He criticizes the construction industry because raw materials such as gravel and sand will run out in the foreseeable future. “We cannot afford to carry on as before,” warns Hebel.

That is why he is looking for ways of extracting high-quality raw materials for new buildings from demolition material from old houses. Too often, building materials are glued or mixed not to be separated later when demolished, and complete recycling is impossible.

In search of alternatives, Hebel and a research group recently installed a residential unit in the Empa’s test building in which all the materials used are neither glued nor cast but plugged or screwed. After dismantling, everything can be reused or, in the case of plant-based materials, even composted.

Digitization alone leads to more ecological construction, says ETH architect Kohler: Every single piece can be optimized for its function. This saves raw materials because the material is only used where the loads require it – such as the supporting pillars of the “DFAB House”. The first residents should soon find out what it feels like to live in such a digitally built house.

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