Scientists at the Universities of Stuttgart and Frieburg are experimenting with robotics, virtual reality, and materials that mimic biological materials, to nurture next-generation sustainable construction
As the world’s population continues to grow, the construction industry faces the challenge of using fewer resources and switching to sustainable materials.
In a joint project, the researchers have built a lightweight timber construction pavilion at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Freiburg, where they are testing and researching new materials and construction methods.
For the construction of the “livMatS Biomimetic Shell @ FIT”, the scientists used new computer-based planning methods, robotic manufacturing and construction processes, and new forms of human-machine interaction, which they claim enabled significant resource savings compared to conventional timber construction.
The pavilion was designed according to biomimetic principles – that is, they mimic the properties of biological materials – and was created in a collaboration between the Clusters of Excellence Integrative Computational Design & Construction for Architecture (IntCDC) at the University of Stuttgart, and Living, Adaptive and Energy-autonomous Materials Systems (livMatS) at the University of Freiburg.
Sustainable timber materials
The “livMatS Biomimetic Shell @ FIT” consists of hollow wooden cassettes, which minimize the use of materials for the building envelope and its weight.
A detailed life cycle analysis shows that the building’s material consumption is reduced by more than 50% and its global warming potential by almost 63% compared to a conventional timber building.
Professor Achim Menges, from the IntCDC, said: “We have already used the material-efficient principle of the hollow cassette in a temporary, open structure for the ‘BUGA Holzpavillon 2019‘, which we presented at the German National Garden Show 2019 in Heilbronn.
“We have developed this principle for a permanent, closed building that can be used all year round. We have optimised this timber construction method by using more sustainable timber materials and by adapting the components to minimize waste during robotic production.”
The entire building structure is designed to be easily dismantled and reused, and its components remain sortable by material type.
Bio-inspired: The modular sea urchin skeleton
The modular structure and design are based on the construction principles of the sea urchin skeleton. It is made up of individually arranged plates, making it particularly light and strong. The careful use of scarce resources is a key evolutionary advantage of natural structures.
Professor Jan Knippers, of the Institute of Building Structures & Structural Design, said: “The pavilion shows how a load-adapted and material-efficient structure can be produced economically even under today’s conditions. The key to this is the consistent digitalisation of planning and production.”
“In times of climate change and the resulting increase in heat stress, efficient and low-maintenance shading systems … are becoming increasingly important.”Professor Thomas Speck
Augmented reality was used to integrate manual partial assembly steps for special components such as lighting and acoustic elements.
Menges said: “This form of human-machine interaction in the manufacturing process enables the effective, digitally controlled production of complex components with a high degree of precision.”
For the first time, automated hydraulic manipulators have been utilized in a real-life construction site setting for the “livMatS Biomimetic Shell @ FIT”.
The Institute for System Dynamics addressed the automation task and equipped the manipulators with special end effectors such as a vacuum gripper, which pick up components, automatically place them at the appropriate installation position and hold them in position until they are screwed into place by another manipulator.
An important aspect is the localisation and precision of the construction robots, the team say.
Professor Volker Schwieger, from the University of Stuttgart’s Institute of Engineering Geodesy (IIGS), said: “To ensure that these construction robots work precisely, we have developed an automated real-time total station network to determine their positions.”
Automated spider cranes with vacuum grippers, place the components at the installation position until they are bolted by another crane.
“Our goal is to operate the pavilion in an energy-neutral way,” said professor. Jürgen Rühe from the Department of Microsystems Engineering, and a member of the spokesperson team of the livMatS Cluster of Excellence at the University of Freiburg.
The building has a thermally activated floor slab made of recycled concrete, which heats and cools the building using geothermal energy. A weather-sensitive shading system made of bio-based, 4D-printed materials on a skylight regulates the building’s climate by shielding the interior from high heat loads in summer and letting in sunlight in winter.
Professor Thomas Speck, director of the Botanic Garden, and a member of the spokesperson team of the livMatS Cluster of Excellence, said: “In times of climate change and the resulting increase in heat stress, efficient and low-maintenance shading systems such as the ‘Solar Gate’ realised in the ‘livMatS Biomimetic Shell @ FIT’ are becoming increasingly important.”
The ‘solar gate’, which passively adapts to solar conditions, is based on a biomimetic principle modelled on pine cones, which open and close in a moisture-controlled manner.
“In the future, we will also explore other solutions for designing building facades that can adapt to changing environmental conditions, such as temperature. In this way, we can create a pleasant indoor climate and enable the building to operate in a CO2 neutral manner,” said Rühe.
Main image: Exterior view of the livMatS Biomimetic Shell @ FIT. Credit: ICD/ITKE/IntCDC Universität Stuttgart. Photo: Roland Halbe
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