House Built by Robots and Digital Fabrication Could Change Everything

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Robison Wells
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A new house built in Switzerland, designed by the ETH Zurich University, could be one of the first steps in a construction revolution. The DFAB house (digital fabrication) was developed by the university and two dozen partners as part of the Next Evolution in Sustainable Technologies (NEST)project.

It’s a three-story, 2370-square-foot house, and it was built almost entirely by robots and digital fabrication methods, both on and off-site. It is claimed to be "the world's first modular research and innovation building aimed at accelerating the innovation process in the construction sector."

There are five main technologies at work in the construction of the building: the In-Situ Fabricator, the Smart Slab, Smart Dynamic Casting,Spatial Timber Assemblies, and the Lightweight Translucent Fascade.

The In-Situ Fabricator is a robot that redefines conventional construction processes with the use of robots. Used primarily for building reinforced walls with Mesh-Mould Technology, the robot moves along the length of the mesh structure, while a camera measured its surroundings to situate the robot in context. The mesh was fabricated by twisting and welding 6mm rebar. The robot was programmed, and enabled with two additional cameras, toi dentify and respond to deformation and unintentional “spring back” of the bent rebar, ensuring that there would be no unexpected problems. It built a twelve-meter-long undulating wall on the ground floor of the house consisting of 335 layers and 20,000 welds. The production time took the robot 125 hours.

Smart Slab is the first concrete slab fabricated with a 3-D-printed form work. It is lightweight and organically shaped, allowing fo rultimate strength as well as appealing aesthetics. The 78-square-meter slab cantilevers across the undulating Mesh Mould wall and carries the weight of the two stories built above it. The material is distributed in a grid of curved ribs, varying from 30-60cm in thickness. Because of the design, the 15-ton slab weighs 70% less than a conventional concrete slab.

Smart Dynamic Casting is a way of continuous robotic slip-forming that enables the prefabrication of load-bearing concrete structures: the concrete is able to be moved and formed during its delicate drying phase. The house has 15 mullions (vertical bars between panels of glass)and the SDC was able to build each 3-meter mullion in four hours.

Spatial Timber Assemblies is the development and implementation of a robot-based fabrication process for timber framing. Notonly does the STA cut and place the timber beams, it also does the design process while it works, determining strength and assembly constraints as it builds.

Finally, the Lightweight Translucent Fascade combines the lightweight flexibility of a membrane system with the insulation and translucency of aerogel granules. Built around the Spatial Timber Assemblies, the membranes between the timbers are filled with aerogel. This process allows for light to enter the building while providing strength and a high R-value.

In addition to all of these fabrication processes, the house is built to use Smart Home technology, including digital thermostat and lighting controls, automated locks, and many other Internet of Things innovations.

To learn more about the DFAB house and see pictures and videos of the processes in action, check out the website at:

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