Built by robots: This Swiss company could change the construction industry forever

Construction labourers work on steel cables at a construction site for a commercial building in Fort Bonifacio, metro Manila November 20, 2007. REUTERS/John Javellana (PHILIPPINES) - GM1DWQFJWGAA

In recent years there has been increased focus on making homes sustainable, efficient and carbon friendly. Image: REUTERS/John Javellana

Anne Quito
Design Reporter, Quartz
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Erecting a new building ranks among the most inefficient, polluting activities humans undertake. The construction sector is responsible for nearly 40% of the world’s total energy consumption and CO2 emissions, according to a UN global survey (pdf).

A consortium of Swiss researchers has one answer to the problem: working with robots. The proof of concept comes in the form of the DFAB House, celebrated as the first habitable building designed and planned using a choreography of digital fabrication methods.

The three-level building near Zurich features 3D-printed ceilings, energy-efficient walls, timber beams assembled by robots on site, and an intelligent home system. Developed by a team of experts at ETH Zurich university and 30 industry partners over the course of four years, the DFAB House, measuring 2,370 square feet (220 square meters), needed 60% less cement and has passed the stringent Swiss building safety codes.

“DFAB” stands for digital fabrication.
Image: DFAB House

“This is a new way of seeing architecture,” says Matthias Kohler, a member of DFAB’s research team. The work of architects has long been presented in terms of designing inspiring building forms, while the technical specifics of construction has been relegated to the background. Kohler thinks this is quickly changing. “Suddenly how we use resources to build our habitats is at the center of architecture,” he argues. “How you build matters.”

DFAB isn’t the first building project to use digital fabrication techniques. In 2014, Chinese company WinSun demonstrated the architectural potential of 3D printing by manufacturing 10 single-story houses in one day. A year later, the Shanghai-based company also printed an apartment building and a neoclassical mansion, but these projects remain in the development phase.

Kohler explains that beating construction speed records wasn’t necessarily their goal. “Of course we’re interested in gaining breakthroughs in speed and economy, but we tried to hold to the idea of quality first,” he says. “You can do things very, very fast but that doesn’t mean that it’s actually sustainable.”

Robots at work.

Man and machine

Any mention of automation necessarily conjures concerns about robots edging humans out of their jobs. But Kohler believes that embracing technology will actually augment human creativity and even foster a revival of craftsmanship. “Like a craftsman may have an iPhone in his pocket, I think that future machines will be less separated from human.”

How will this work? Kohler says that partnering with robots means letting the result of machine processes inform the design. Instead of forcing machines to fake handmade surfaces, he suggests that there’s a totally new aesthetic that results from working with digital fabrication. The DFAB House’s ornamental ceiling, created with a large-scale 3D sand printer, hints at these decorative possibilities.

A 3D-printed ceiling in the DFAB house.

Benjamin Dillenburger, the 3D printing specialist in DFAB’s team, adds that learning to work with robots may even safeguard the health of construction workers. “One should not romanticize the jobs on the construction sites,” he warns. “[It] really makes sense to have this kind of collaborative setups where robots and human work together.”

Have you read?

Beyond the experimental structure in Switzerland, Kohler and Dillenburger explain that they’re interested in fostering a dialogue with the global architecture and construction sectors. They’ve published their open-source data sets and have organized a traveling exhibition titled “How to Build a House: Architectural Research in the Digital Age,” opening at the Cooper Union in New York this week.

The DFAB House.

Nader Tehrani, the school’s dean of architecture, hopes to attract a broad audience to the free exhibition, which runs until Oct. 13. “We had imagined that it would be of interest not only to architects, but also to engineers, artists, and builders,” he says. “At once sober, rational, and thoughtful, the research in this project is also projective, unprecedented, and speculative.”

Dillenburger believes the DFAB House will be interesting even to those outside the architecture and construction sectors. “Architecture is always a public project,” he says. “It’s for anyone curious about how we’re building for the future.”

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