Digitisation within an architectural design is becoming more ubiquitous. It is impractical that today’s architectural endeavour would not have some digital method within either the design process or fabrication and construction. The connection between the digital design process and predominate technology in today’s built environment and digital fabrication process, still in an experimental stage within large scale architecture, is at a disconnect. DFAB HOUSE is a prototype that is digitally designed and predominantly built using digital fabrication and construction processes.[1]

Designed and built in a collaboration between the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication and 8 ETH Zurich professors. DFAB HOUSE is a functional residential unit located on the NEST building of Empa and Eawag. Within DFAB HOUSE, new digital building processes have been transferred from research to architectural application [1]. Each of these applications focused on streamlining construction processes and minimising construction waste.

image: ETH Zurich

The autonomous construction process can be identified into six separate components: Mesh Mould, a robotically fabricated formwork and reinforcement for waste-free concrete construction is used on the curved wall. [3] An In-situ Fabricator (IF) is used on-site. The IF fabricated the mesh through continuous bending and welding of 6-mm rebar in vertical layers. [4] The result is a double-curved wall that dominates the architecture of the open-plan living and working area on the ground floor. A pre-fabricated Smart Slab made of 3D printed concrete sits cantilevered atop the Mesh Mould wall. Then Smart Dynamic Casting, an automated robotic slip forming, is used to create the façade mullions on the ground floor. These autonomous concrete constructions  created far less waste then regular concrete construction methods.

The second and third-floor change materiality with Spatial Timber Assemblies a dual robotic prefabrication process for non-standard timber structures. [2] Two robots cooperate in measuring, cutting, and joining the timber frame. With the entire building being finished in a Lightweight Translucent Façade that allows light to pass without compromising privacy and thermal performance. A novel material processing was developed to enhance the façade’s thermal insulation without increasing the wall thickness by the high packing density of aerogel particles. [5]

image Roman Keller
image Roman Keller

From a design point of view, the levels are conflicting between the clean organic concrete space on the ground floor to the geometric alpine-style timber upper levels. The stairs transition between these spaces was not enough. This seems suspicious of the design being dictated by the construction and suspect that the ground level did not have the engineering performance to be replicated on the upper levels. Although innovative, this type of construction is not yet completely reliant. 

I am personally attached to the ideas of handcrafted materiality and the artisanship that comes with this, but these new technologies have a place. DFAB HOUSE serves as an interesting case study for this type of technology. The common conception is that machines building anything is the limitations of how diverse or complex a structure they can create, and that machine construction and, by extension, computer-aided design can very easily fall into the monotonous replication of similar ideas. The DFAB house, however, seems to demonstrate the ability of computerised construction machines to replicate the variation of a bespoke tradesperson with much less waste. Such application could translate well into areas of architecture that are tightly managed by budget yet still could have a sense of creativity and uniqueness. The construction represents a significant step forward in the economy and sustainability in architecture. Autonomising areas of the construction process in design could be the way forward to solve complex areas of architecture that relate to sustainability and cost.





[1] DFAB HOUSE https://dfabhouse.ch/dfab-house/

[2] DFABHOUSE-AComprehensiveDemonstratorofDigitalFabricationinArchitecture, Konrad Graser, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341120054_DFAB_HOUSE_-_A_Comprehensive_Demonstrator_of_Digital_Fabrication_in_Architecture

[3] https://dfabhouse.ch/mesh_mould/

[4] https://dfabhouse.ch/in_situ_fabricator/

[5] https://dfabhouse.ch/lightweight-translucent-facade/