A new way to build?

A revolutionary, digitally-fabricated steel mesh could make construction more sustainable – and open up a world of possibilities for architects

Forget diggers, concrete mixers and wheelbarrows: if researchers at ETH Zürich research institute have their way, the construction sites of the future will feature an unprecedented sight: mobile robots 3D-printing delicate structures made of steel.

Mesh Mould, to give the award-winning technology its proper name, may well look like a type of futuristic sculpture – and in a way, it is. But its principal purpose is to serve as a skeleton that – once filled with concrete – will be strong enough to create load-bearing walls of almost any shape.

Mesh-Mould from Gramazio Kohler Research on Vimeo.

If that sounds like the province of star architects and prestige projects, it isn’t. In fact, since Mesh Mould simplifies the current process of building with reinforced concrete, it’s set to make construction more sustainable, opening up the possibility of avant-garde architecture for everyday buildings.

Mesh Mould simplifies the current process of building with reinforced concrete

Currently, building in concrete is a two-step process: first, concrete is poured over a reinforcement of steel rods, and then a temporary wooden shell known as formwork is applied in which the concrete solidifies. If the concrete shape is unusual, the formwork has to be custom-made, only to be discarded after single use. Because this is expensive, most buildings tend to use standardised block shapes, which allows the re-use of standardised timber formwork. Even so, the process remains resource-intensive and expensive.

Mesh Mould does away with formwork entirely. Because the digitally created mesh is both fine and dense, the specially-formulated concrete mixture does not seep out of it and there’s no more need for a temporary wooden shell. This is thanks to the two core qualities of steel: its strength and malleability.

In short, steel Mesh Mould enables architects and engineers to build complex concrete structures without any additional costs. In addition, it allows for the saving of material, contributing to more sustainable construction.

Robotic end-effector with fabricated, two metre high mesh structure

But it’s not just steel which is integral to the new technology: “For the development of the project, knowledge of researchers from the disciplines of architecture, robotics, materials science and structural engineering was needed,” says Norman Hack of ETH Zürich – the fifth-ranking research institute in the world.

Considering how cutting-edge the project is – and how momentous its potential significance for our built environment in the future – it’s perhaps not surprising that Mesh Mould has already won a prestigious accolade. At the end of last year, Hack’s team of five received the 2016 Swiss Technology Award, the most important Swiss prize for innovation and technology transfer in the “Inventors” category. It’s a recognition Hack’s team share with their mentors, architects Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, who kicked off the project at ETH’s Future Cities Lab in Singapore.

‘Mesh Mould’ technology during a test fabrication

So, what’s next for Mesh Mould? Luckily, the Swiss have an experimental building in place specifically designed to put their inventions to the test in a real-world environment. The NEST “building of tomorrow”, designed by Gramazio & Kohler, is intended as a “forever-unfinished” construction that can accommodate up to 15 ever-changing experimental modules around a fixed four-storey core that does away with the need for a façade. It is here that Mesh Mould will find its first application – as part of a load-bearing wall. It may sound quite modest, but so might have been the perfection of the arch by in ancient Rome, or the invention of the lift in the 19th century.

Now, of course, we know that the ability to create stable domes and arches made urbanisation itself possible because it allowed the construction of aqueducts and sewers. And it was the humble lift which enabled architects to reach for the skies, shaping the way we live today.

If in the future, Mesh Mould will allow everyday, utilitarian architecture to express itself in a riot of shapes – and save entire forests in the process – we may well point to that concrete wall in a village near Lake Zürich and say: this is where the next phase of steel and concrete construction was unleashed.

 

Images: NCCR Digital Fabrication
Video: Gramazio Kohler Research, NCCR Digital Fabrication