“Complexity becomes an even bigger opportunity for architecture”

Mar 2, 2021

Interview with Prof. Dr. Benjamin Dillenburger

“Digital Building Technologies” sounds to many people familiar with the construction industry like an oxymoron. Benjamin Dillenburger, Professor for Digital Building Technologies at ETH Zurich, is here to change that. His research focuses on the development of building technologies based on the close interplay of computational design methods, digital fabrication and new materials. He searches for ways to exploit the potential of additive manufacturing for building construction – something we are similarly excited about over at Mighty Buildings. If you want to know why complexity is an opportunity for architecture, read on!

Today’s construction industry is not the first thing that comes to people’s minds when thinking of “digital”. Could you briefly explain your field of research?

My field of research can roughly be classified into two themes. On the one hand, I’m working on computational design methods that leverage artificial intelligence, machine learning, and evolutionary strategies to automatically generate and evaluate building designs.

On the other hand, I’m looking for ways to exploit digital fabrication technologies (eg. 3D printing, milling machines) and new materials (eg. polymers) for building construction. 

It’s important to understand that both research streams cannot be viewed in isolation. Making sure that computational design methods and digital fabrication technologies are aligned and harmonized is an integral part of my research focus.

How will your research change the construction industry?

Our research will ultimately increase the level of automation in construction and by that eventually increase the overall efficiency of the industry. 

Let’s use the DFAB house as an example: The idea was to erect a building relying almost entirely on robots and 3D printers. As part of the project my team was responsible for the design and fabrication of the slab. Instead of directly 3D printing the whole element, we decided to only print the formwork allowing us to use the geometric freedom and precision of 3D printing and pair it with the structural capacity of cast concrete. With this fabrication system, we could optimize the slab structurally by using computational design methods eventually reducing the amount of materials needed by 60%.

Beyond efficiency, our research will also allow architects to turn complexity into opportunity. Designs will be less constrained by limited building technologies and materials.

Let’s double-click on how computational design and digital fabrication will change the look of buildings. Are buildings of the same type (eg. multi-family homes) going to look similar, as the level of automation and optimization in construction progresses?

I think this scenario is not very likely for multiple reasons. In the construction industry the lot size is usually very small, in most cases only one. The boundary conditions vary from construction site to construction site: soil properties, orientation of the building, ambient environmental conditions, building codes to only name a few. Building designs need to be customized along those constraints, and will hence not be similar. 

We can apply analogies from other industries as well: in the automotive industry we see an incredibly high degree of automation and standardization leading to a high productivity in fabrication – still, not all cars look similar. 

In the context of construction, “standardization” has a negative connotation for many people – maybe because they associate the term with “Plattenbauten” (click here for translation) and everything that comes with it. 

As a matter of fact we are already using standardized parts beneath the surface of a building for good reasons. However, to continuously increase the customer acceptance of standardization and automation in construction we need to ensure the flexibility for customization. Digital technologies can allow for an efficient systematization, without the need to rely on fixed modules. Standards can become more fluid and open. 

We can expand the use of standardized components and processes without compromising on flexibility of customization.

So we are not going to see fully standardized blueprints for buildings like hospitals, schools, etc.?

I expect this to happen only to a certain degree and for some building types. I believe we will see an increase in systematization of construction, but those systems need to stay flexible. Again, optimizing a building design is essentially a multi-parameter optimization with project-specific constraints. In an ideal case we have full transparency on how a specific building design affects the manufacturability, CO2 footprint and total cost of ownership of a building. Based on that transparency we can then perfectly fit a building design with the lowest-possible cost, time and CO2, instead of applying a “one-size fits all” solution that actually wouldn’t fit any project.

Speaking of building design: how will the job profile of architects change given that many tasks may be automated?

That is a far-reaching question which will have multiple answers depending on whom you ask. 

What’s safe to say is that the understanding of all trades involved in a construction process and their respective intersections will be increasingly important for architects. 

Tech-savvy architects will leverage digital technologies to enhance their focus on design work by automating repetitive legwork. In a nutshell: when being done right, complexity is an opportunity for architects.

Benjamin, thanks a lot for your time! What’s the easiest way to learn more about your work and your projects?

Take a look at our website.

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