In the architectural project DFAB HOUSE, several new, digital construction technologies are making the leap from the laboratory into reality for the first time.

Digitalization in timber construction is nothing new. Individual construction elements have been manufactured with computer-aided systems for several years now. Nevertheless, thanks to digital design and construction, fundamentally new forms and styles await architects in the not-too-distant future. In recent months, researchers from the Chair of Architecture and Digital Fabrication at ETH Zurich have developed a new digital timber construction process known as “spatial timber assemblies”. The method allows architects to implement geometrically complex timber modules efficiently.

Waves instead of edges

In the Robotic Fabrication Laboratory at ETH Zurich, humans and robots work hand in hand. The robots cut the wooden beams to size and hold them in the correct position. The humans screw the laths on tight. © NFS Digital Fabrication / Roman Keller

“Digital fabrication and the use of robots in construction can be compared to a 3D printing process,” says Matthias Kohler, Professor of Architecture and Digital Fabrication at ETH Zurich. “Robots cut up individual elements such as wooden slats at exactly the right angle and then join the parts together with precision down to the millimeter. Extremely tedious and lengthy manual construction processes are becoming easier to implement thanks to the use of robots.” Wavy roofs and walls, which today can often be produced only in a time-consuming process, could in future offer a contrast to today’s primarily rectangular building forms. Architects are pleased with the development: “This enables us to tap totally new design potential,” says Kohler.

The new construction method has now been used for the first time in an architectural project: The three-story DFAB HOUSE was opened in February 2019 on the NEST research building of Empa and Eawag in Dübendorf. This is the first time that a large-scale architectural project with the use of ABB robots has been implemented in the globally unique Robotic Fabrication Laboratory at ETH Zurich and the NCCR Digital Fabrication.

Sustainable building operation

ABB technology has also been used for building automation and power distribution in pioneering construction. With a KNX system, the energy flows in the building can not only be measured in detail, but also optimized. The guest researchers at Empa, who will be accommodated at DFAB HOUSE in the near future, can therefore look forward to countless comfort- and convenience-enhancing smart-home functions.

“As a partner in the DFAB HOUSE project, ABB is committed both to basic research and to knowledge transfer between research and industry,” says Bernhard Caviezel, Product Marketing Director at ABB Switzerland. “The innovative construction project is a vivid example of what we can achieve when people and modern technology work hand in hand”.

The DFAB HOUSE is a three-story residential unit built on the imposing NEST research and innovation building of Empa and Eawag in Dübendorf; it opened on 27 February 2019. It is the first building in the world to combine several innovative digital construction processes under one roof. Eight faculty chairs at ETH Zurich and various industrial partners, including ABB, are involved in the project. Most of the building modules will be prefabricated with ABB robots in the ETH Robotic Fabrication Laboratory.

ABB Switzerland is a member organisation of digitalswitzerland.

Cover photo: The DFAB HOUSE on the NEST building © ETH Zurich and © NFS Digital Fabrication / Roman Keller

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Author Gioia da Silva, ABB Switzerland

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