Recently, the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences (SATW) hosted an evening debate on the future of construction. 80 people met on the Empa premises in Duebendorf to discuss with renowned experts the impact digitization will have on construction and the built environment. Members of the NCCR Digital Fabrication strongly contributed to the lively debate.

The evening debate was organised by SATW together with the NCCR Digital Fabrication, Empa, the Swiss Association for Engineers and Architects (sia) and the Swiss architecture and engineering magazine Tec21 as part of SATW’s ongoing “Tec Today” event series. The goal of the series is to discuss the impact of technology on our daily lives. Before and after the event the public had the opportunity to visit the DFAB HOUSE construction site.

Digital fabrication as materialization of the digital
After the welcoming speeches of SATW President Willy R. Gehrer and Empa Director Gian-Luca Bona, NCCR Principal Investigator Fabio Gramazio introduced the public to the concept of digital fabrication. According to Gramazio, digital fabrication means to bring digital data back into the physical world, to materialize the digital. In order to illustrate this, he introduced the public to the “Sequential Roof”, the roof of the Arch_Tec_Lab building at ETH Zurich. The Swiss timber company Erne AG Holzbau used one single robotic system to fabricate the roof which consists of more than 50’000 individual slats and close to 1 million nails. The whole roof was programmed, as humans would not be able to handle plans for such complex projects. The public was visibly impressed by the truly digital appearance of the completed roof.

Will our future houses be built by humans or machines?
The evening event continued with a lively panel discussion moderated by Judit Solt, the Editor-in-Chief of Tec21. The panel featured NCCR Principal Investigators Fabio Gramazio and Marco Hutter, Reto Largo, Managing Director of the NEST building of Empa and Eawag, Thomas Wehrle, former NCCR Researcher-in-Residence and Deputy Director of Erne AG Holzbau, Nathalie Rossetti from the Zurich-based architecture office Rossetti+Wyss and sia President Stefan Cadosch. According to Hutter, robots are ideally suited to perform repetitive construction tasks. Whenever one has to deal with the unexpected, humans continue to be indispensable. Gramazio highlighted that humans and machines should not be perceived as rivals, but rather as collaborators that complement each other. For Wehrle, the highest priority should be given to the education of employees: only this will ensure the successful collaboration of humans and machines. Rossetti argued that humans will always be required for the creative work, idea generation and conception. NEST General Manager Largo underlined how important it is for the Swiss construction sector and architects to quickly get accustomed with the novel technologies. Reacting to this, Cadosch expressed his conviction that Swiss architects and engineers will not be left behind.

At the end of the event, many questions were left open or only touched upon. What became clear is that architects and engineers and the whole construction sector are all facing rapid developments that opens up many new opportunities if the workforce is educated in a timely manner on how to make use of the novel emerging technologies.

German-speaking readers can get more information about the debate in the blog article of SATW and in the online report of the Swiss special interest magazine Tec21. More information about DFAB HOUSE is available on the project website.

Image caption: NCCR Principal Investigator Fabio Gramazio during his presentation about the concept of digital fabrication in architecture and construction.
Image credits: Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences