Researchers are using 3D printing and robots to design, plan, and build a house

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Eight scientists from Switzerland’s ETH Zurich University have embarked on a bold plan to build the next generation of construction robots, and their proof-of-concept is a first-generation robot that is actively building a 200-square-foot home on the school’s campus. The project is bringing together a suite of cutting-edge technologies including 3D printing, modular construction, and new methods of construction. The DFAB House claims to be the first house in the world to be designed, planned and built using primarily digital processes.

“Unlike construction projects that use only a single digital building technology, such as 3D printed houses, the DFAB House brings a range of new digital building technologies together. This allows us to use the advantages of each individual method as well as their synergies, and express them architecturally,” says ETH professor Matthias Kohler.

The new technologies include an invaluable new robot, the In Situ Fabicator I, which is mounted on caterpillar tracks that can fabricate dense mesh sections that act as a framework and reinforcement for poured concrete walls. This robot is dust-proof and waterproof and is internet-connected so that architects and builders can make real-time changes to the construction process at any time.

Once the walls harden, they are topped with an integrated ceiling slab manufactured by a large-scale 3D printer. This “Mesh Mould” technology received the Swiss Technology Award at the end of 2016.

Simultaneously, the individual rooms for the second and third floors are being prefabricated at ETH Zurich’s Robotic Fabrication Laboratory using constructing robots to assemble the timber and concrete elements.

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In addition to testing new building and energy technologies under real life conditions, the ETH Zurich house project also allows the team to design solutions for future robots. The current In Situ Fabricator I is too heavy to enter many standard buildings, and can only manipulate objects up to 88 pounds. The scientists would prefer a subsequent design to manage more than 130 pounds. The team has already designed and built a next-generation robot arm with a hydraulic actuator that can manipulate heavier objects with equal precision and better reliability.

The DFAB House is part of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication Project. Along with other futuristic construction experiments, the University is erecting the DFAB House on the periphery of the NEST (Next Evolution in Sustainable Building Technologies), a modular research and innovation building at the ETH Zurich campus.

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The DFAB House isn’t the first project to use 3D printing technology in its construction — projects all over Europe from Amsterdam to Russia are actively using 3D technology, and the  Massachusetts Institute of Technology is said to have a robot on its Boston campus that can print an entire home within 14 hours. But the combination of digital design and planning and digital building processes is a substantive step toward making construction more sustainable and efficient, while lending architects and builders more real-time control over their building projects. Homeowners could see distinctive advantages as well, including lower home prices, better energy efficiency and lower utility bills, and smart home technology that has been integrated from the ground up instead of being added in a piecemeal fashion.

The DFAB House is scheduled to finish construction in summer 2018. Once the home is ready to occupy, the University plans to use it as a residential and working space for guest researchers of the NEST project.