Robots Built This Futuristic House That Generates More Energy Than it Needs

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By Lucy Wang
The DFAB House is the world’s first home designed, planned, and built with mainly digital processes—and it's entirely powered by the sun.

Step inside the newly completed DFAB House in Dübendorf, Switzerland, and you'll be whisked away to a world of science fiction. From the swirling grooves on the 3D-printed ceiling panels to the networked household appliances (like an intelligent teapot that can seemingly be brought to a boil by itself), this experimental building is a snapshot of what our future homes could be—digitally planned and built by giant robots.

A view of the three-story DFAB House perched atop the NEST Building.

A view of the three-story DFAB House perched atop the NEST Building.

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Developed by eight ETH Zurich professors in collaboration with planning professionals and industry experts, the DFAB House is a three-story residential unit perched atop Empa and Eawag’s NEST research and innovation building.

The DFAB House officially opened its doors at the end of February 2019. Construction began in 2017.

The DFAB House officially opened its doors at the end of February 2019. Construction began in 2017.

The structure showcases an array of pioneering ETH-developed construction processes, including: Mesh Mould technology, in which an autonomous "In Situ Fabricator" robot builds a 3D mesh formwork for concrete load-bearing walls; Smart Slab, a lightweight concrete slab with 3D-printed sand formwork that’s less than half the weight of a conventional concrete slab; Smart Dynamic Casting, an automatic robotic slip-forming process; and Spatial Timber Assemblies, a digital prefabrication process that uses a dual robot system to create timber frame modules.

A team member manually bolts timber beams together for a prefab module.

A team member manually bolts timber beams together for a prefab module.

Robots cut, hold, and position the timber elements.

Robots cut, hold, and position the timber elements.

Although robots and digital processes are the predominate building forces involved, people are still very much part of the construction process. The construction team manually filled in formwork, bolted CNC-milled and 3D-printed pieces into place, and tweaked the digital design process.

A close-up of a prototype Mesh Mould wall fabricated by the In Situ Fabricator robot.

A close-up of a prototype Mesh Mould wall fabricated by the In Situ Fabricator robot.

With the metal mesh manually filled in with concrete, the curvaceous load-bearing structure pictured here will be used for the living room wall.

With the metal mesh manually filled in with concrete, the curvaceous load-bearing structure pictured here will be used for the living room wall.

The team installs a 2.5-tonne section of Smart Slab, built from glass fiber-reinforced concrete sprayed onto a 3D-printed formwork.

The team installs a 2.5-tonne section of Smart Slab, built from glass fiber-reinforced concrete sprayed onto a 3D-printed formwork.

"The DFAB House is actually the first time very new and different building technologies come together in an inhabitable building," says Matthias Kohler, initiator and lead of DFAB House. "It’s a very exciting milestone for architecture, for science, and for the future digital building culture."

Fifteen bespoke, digitally fabricated concrete mullions made with Smart Dynamic Casting line the facade. The free-form Mesh Mould wall supports the weight of the Smart Slab ceiling.

Fifteen bespoke, digitally fabricated concrete mullions made with Smart Dynamic Casting line the facade. The free-form Mesh Mould wall supports the weight of the Smart Slab ceiling.

The ribbed Smart Slab ceiling combines the structural strength of concrete with the flexibility of 3D printing—and it’s less than half the weight of a conventional concrete slab.

The ribbed Smart Slab ceiling combines the structural strength of concrete with the flexibility of 3D printing—and it’s less than half the weight of a conventional concrete slab.

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The curve of the Mesh Mould wall creates a snug nook for the living room.

The curve of the Mesh Mould wall creates a snug nook for the living room.

Guests at DFAB House will share a living room, dining area, and kitchen on the ground floor.

Guests at DFAB House will share a living room, dining area, and kitchen on the ground floor.

Spanning an area of approximately 2,150 square feet, DFAB House will serve as a living research area with four single-person units for Empa and Eawag’s visiting academic guests and researchers. Guests will have access to shared communal spaces as well as innovative smart home and Internet of Things technologies, including the latest intelligent household appliances, multi-stage burglar protection, and automated glare and shading options.

The top two floors of the DFAB House are made of prefabricated, load-bearing timber modules.

The top two floors of the DFAB House are made of prefabricated, load-bearing timber modules.

Four single-occupancy bedrooms are located on the upper two floors.

Four single-occupancy bedrooms are located on the upper two floors.

Each bedroom comes with a private bathroom.

Each bedroom comes with a private bathroom.

The design also integrates a forward-thinking approach to energy management: Rooftop photovoltaics provide, on average, 1.5 times more energy than the unit needs (an intelligent control system eliminates the risk of load peaks), while waste heat recovery systems recycle heat from shower trays back into the boiler. Smart home technology ensures optimized energy performance and user comfort.

Photovoltaic modules mounted on the roof will cover all of the building's electricity needs.

Photovoltaic modules mounted on the roof will cover all of the building's electricity needs.

"The technology shown here in the DFAB House has multiple implications and advantages," Kohler adds. "The [environment] is much better if we build with these technologies. The economy changes, and lastly, as what we can experience here, architecture changes [too]."

Constructed using ETF-developed technology, the Lightweight Translucent Facade is a thin, double-curved system with highly effective insulation made of aerogel granules inserted and stabilized between specially developed membrane panels.

Constructed using ETF-developed technology, the Lightweight Translucent Facade is a thin, double-curved system with highly effective insulation made of aerogel granules inserted and stabilized between specially developed membrane panels.

Angular windows punctuate the translucent facade, framing views of the outdoors and bringing in additional natural light.

Angular windows punctuate the translucent facade, framing views of the outdoors and bringing in additional natural light.

The NEST team behind DFAB House is offering regular guided tours of the experimental building for the public. Those in San Francisco are also in luck—DFAB House will be spotlighted at Swissnex San Francisco’s exhibition How to Build a House: Architectural Research in the Digital Age, running from March 12, 2019 until June 28, 2019, open on weekdays.

A lighthouse of cutting-edge digital fabrication, the building glows like a beacon at night.

A lighthouse of cutting-edge digital fabrication, the building glows like a beacon at night.

Related Reading: How ICON Is Building the $4,000 3D-Printed Homes of the Future 

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: 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