DFAB HOUSE is a collaborative demonstrator of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication on the NEST building of Empa and Eawag. As part of the full-featured building project, researchers from eight ETH Zurich professorships have come together with industry experts and planning professionals in a unique way to explore and test how digital fabrication can change the way we design and build.

DFAB HOUSE is distinctive in that it is not only digitally designed and planned but also built using predominantly digital processes, both on-site and off-site. Its design concept is based on exploring the architectural and technical implications of selected novel digital building processes resulting from the interdisciplinary research conducted by eight ETH Zurich professorships as part of the NCCR Digital Fabrication.

Within DFAB HOUSE, for the first time, six novel digital building processes have been transferred from research to architectural application: the In situ Fabricator, a versatile autonomous on-site construction robot; Mesh Mould, a formwork-free, robotic process for steel-reinforced concrete structures; Smart Dynamic Casting, an automated concrete slip-forming process; Smart Slab, integrated ceiling slabs fabricated with 3D-printed formwork; and Spatial Timber Assemblies, a robotically fabricated timber structure. Combining these novel processes in one built object makes it possible to rethink the overall planning and construction process and to exploit the advantages inherent in the digital chain of design, planning and fabrication: design flexibility, material economy, time and cost efficiencies, and improved quality control.

Construction work began with the implementation of the Mesh Mould technology, which received the Swiss Technology Award in 2016. Here, the In situ Fabricator; an autonomous and versatile construction robot designed to perform under the changing conditions of a construction site; played a role. A steel reinforcement mesh fabricated by the robot serves as both formwork and reinforcement for a load-bearing concrete structure. The result is a double-curved wall that dominates the architecture of the open-plan living and working area on the ground floor.

The prefabricated Smart Slab was then installed atop this wall – a structurally optimised and functionally integrated ceiling slab, using formwork manufactured with large-scale 3D sand printing technology that achieves a level of complexity and precision unprecedented in building-scale concrete construction.

Smart Dynamic Casting technology was used for the façade on the ground floor. This automated robotic slip-forming process produces bespoke concrete façade mullions with changing cross sections adapted to the individual structural loads of each element.

The two upper floors, with individual rooms, were prefabricated as Spatial Timber Assemblies in ETH Zurich’s Robotic Fabrication Laboratory; the geometrically complex 3D timber units are assembled by cooperating robots.

In addition to these six novel digital building processes, a novel lightweight translucent façade system has been integrated with the structure of the timber assemblies. User comfort and energy performance data related to this system will be collected and analysed during the building’s operational phase.

Furthermore, Smart Home technology is used to control the building’s mechanical systems, lighting and security, exploring new ways of user interaction with the built environment and optimising the building’s operational energy performance.

Being part of the modular research and innovation building NEST of Empa and Eawag, after completion, research into DFAB HOUSE will continue, including long-term monitoring of the digitally fabricated structural systems, verification of building energy performance and evaluation of user comfort and experience. The knowledge generated during construction and operation of the building will help bring new technologies closer to the market.

Project credits:
Prof. Matthias Kohler, Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich
Prof. Fabio Gramazio, Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich
Prof. Dr. Benjamin Dillenburger, Digital Building Technologies Group, ETH Zurich
Prof. Dr. Jonas Buchli, Agile & Dexterous Robotics Lab, ETH Zurich
Prof. Dr. Robert Flatt, Chair of Physical Chemistry of Building Materials, ETH Zurich
Prof. Dr. Joseph Schwartz, Chair of Structural Design, ETH Zurich
Prof. Dr. Walter Kaufmann, Chair of Structural Engineering – Concrete Structures and Bridge Design, ETH Zurich
Prof. Dr. Guillaume Habert, Chair of Sustainable Construction, ETH Zurich

Concept: Prof. Matthias Kohler, Konrad Graser
Design and project management: Konrad Graser (Lead), Marco Baur, Sarah Schneider
Contributors: Arash Adel, Dr. Aleksandra Anna Apolinarska, Prof. Dr. Benjamin Dillenburger, Dr. Kathrin Dörfler, Rena Giesecke, Prof. Fabio Gramazio, Dr. Norman Hack, Matthias Helmreich, Andrei Jipa, Prof. Matthias Kohler, Dr. Ena Lloret-Fritschi, Dr. Mania Aghaei Meibodi, Fabio Scotto, Demetris Shammas, Andreas Thoma

Structural design
Concept: Prof. Dr. Joseph Schwartz
Project Engineer: Marco Bahr
Contributors: Dr. Jaime Mata Falcón, Prof. Dr. Walter Kaufmann, Daniel Rönz, Thomas Wehrle


Planning team
Architecture: NCCR Digital Fabrication
General planner: ERNE AG Holzbau
Structural engineering: Dr. Schwartz Consulting AG
Building physics: BAKUS Bauphysik und Akustik GmbH
Electrical engineering: Elektro Siegrist AG
HVAC/Sprinkler planner: Häusler Ingenieure AG
Building technology: Schibli Gebäudetechnik
Lighting design: Sommerlatte & Sommerlatte AG

General management and communications
Managing Director: Dr. Russell Loveridge
Finances: Blanca Hren
Communications: Dr. Linda Seward, Tanja Coray, Giulia Adagazza, Orkun Kasap

Image credits:
NCCR Digital Fabrication