Digitalization is about to reach the building industry – and enables an unseen degree of complexity.
The iconic modern architect that revolutionized the New York skyline of the 1940s, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, defined the beginning of architecture as the tectonic moment when two bricks are carefully put together. However, we might now have to rethink his definition.
Even though we are currently on a trajectory to build as many houses as the inner city of Paris each week, methods of construction have surprisingly barely evolved from the times of Mies Van der Rohe. Compared to other manufacturing sectors, the increase in productivity of our industry shows stagnation – mainly because digitization has not yet found its way into the sector. This is especially surprising given this sector's size and impact: The cement industry is responsible for more CO2 emissions than airplane travel each year, and over 15% of our global GDP is related to construction.
How can you digitize the process from design to construction? What are the opportunities and challenges that come with digitally constructed buildings? Our research group at the ETH Zürich explores these questions. Our focus: large-scale 3D printing technologies and their potential to challenge traditional construction paradigms.
New fabrication technologies help us reinvent future building components, the “future bricks” of architecture. We consider three interrelated key developments as the most relevant drivers of this fundamental change: Digital Design, Fabrication, and Materials.
“Future bricks” will be developed with digital design intelligence. The demands on architecture – such as sustainability, material efficiency, structural or other performative requirements – can become parameters orchestrated by smart design software.
Methods to computationally simulate, analyze, and predict the properties of construction elements are becoming more and more available and intuitive. They generate and test an unlimited amount of design iterations in seconds; they coordinate design and functional requirements. The beauty of it: 3D printing overcomes the limits to complexity and creativity. It creates patterns that have not existed until now. Forms evolve in an unprecedented degree of freedom and precision.
Additionally, in the design process, artificial intelligence will turn the computer from a passive instrument to an active design-partner, substantially supporting the planner and architect in making decisions.
As in so many other industries, robotic manufacturing is becoming a key driver for innovation. The digitization of fabrication allows us to efficiently fabricate geometric, complex forms and to automate fabrication – be it in a prefabrication setup or on-site.
With their capacity to sense the environment, the new generations of robotic systems permit the collaboration of humans and robots in uncontrolled environments such as construction sites.
New modes of robotic fabrication such as 3D printing drastically reduce the time needed for prototyping and fabrication. This allows us to create designs that are impossible to build with traditional fabrication techniques. Already today, we print “future bricks” that are several meters long and contain design details measured in micrometers – all within a single day.
Material properties are just as central as design. Today, materials need to be considered not only from a cost perspective, but in their full life cycle: in regards to the primary energy used within the fabrication process, the logistic effort to bring them on the construction site and their recyclability.
Additive manufacturing allows us to distribute material only where needed: We can now functionally grade material, strategically controlling where it should be strong or where lightweight. We can design and program the properties of objects on the material level. The result: digital materiality.
Research into new materials for digital fabrication allows these “future bricks” to be efficient not only in form, scale, and sustainability – it also opens up completely new aesthetic opportunities.
As we research further and delve deeper into the potential of digital technologies and construction, we are establishing a digital building culture that will revolutionize the construction industry – and help create a more sustainable, but also a more rich and diverse building environment.
Header visual: © Fabrice Dall'Anese.