Towards a digital building culture

17.12.2013 | News

By:  Franziska Schmid

Matthias Kohler, Professor of Architecture and Digital Fabrication, takes over the leadership of a National Centre of Competence in Research. He talks to ETH News about why it is so important that novel design and fabrication processes evolve and that such a research approach does not remain purely theoretical.

Matthias Kohler  
Matthias Kohler will be leading the new NCCR «Digital Fabrication». (Photo: Matthias Kohler)

ETH News: Mr Kohler, what was the first thing that came to mind when you heard that your project would be supported?
Matthias Kohler: I was very pleased about our success. Our project partners and my team worked long and hard on the project proposal, and to now receive encouragement from the government is a great recognition.

Architecture is now a National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) – why do you think this is the case?
The research on digital fabrication in architecture is a relatively new area, but interest in it has grown substantially over the past few years. The fact that the political sphere and the government are now also supporting the issue at a national level opens up completely new research opportunities.

Why did you submit a project? What was your motivation?
The research area of how novel design and fabrication processes could develop in architecture in the 21st century is of great importance to me personally. Today, the gap between the use of digital technologies in planning and construction is substantial. We have carried out research into this on an on-going basis over the past eight years at our chair. We are now convinced that these issues are of overall national interest – and one also reaches natural limits within a single professorship or department. We have now found within the NCCR partners in and outside ETH who bring skills from their specific research fields and with whom we can jointly create something new.

What is the aim of the NCCR Digital Fabrication?
We want to explore what a new digital building culture that meets the technological possibilities of the information age might look like. We have defined three areas of focus: the first area concerns the design and building processes. Nowadays, architects work almost exclusively on computers, but it is still unclear whether and how this affects the design and construction process itself. Here we are looking for new instruments to bring the design, planning and construction phases closer together in order to directly interrelate them.

What are the other areas of focus?
The second research area is almost obvious: anyone who wants to change the fundamental building culture needs new materials and construction processes. The third focus revolves around customised production. What happens if industrially manufactured parts can be individually manufactured? What happens if digitally controlled machines operate directly on a construction site? These three topics will be closely intertwined and examined on an interdisciplinary basis within this NCCR.

When is the field test due?
We are constantly undergoing field tests, because our research on novel digital fabrication processes automatically takes place under real conditions. An important milestone in the project will be the construction of a full scale demonstrator after the first four years. New architecture and construction technologies can be tested at ‘Nest’, Empa’s new building laboratory. We will build a residential unit there, thus demonstrating the synthesis of our NCCR approach. Over recent years at ETH, we have seen clearly that we learn most effectively by ‘making’ – real physical implementation at full scale.

Where do you see the NCCR’s greatest opportunities?
I am convinced that we can make a difference with this project. Building culture has stalled in the digital age. I see a new building culture as an innovative interplay between everyone involved in the design and construction process. However, this also includes a progressive change of our built environment and the living environment of the next generation.

What are the risks in the project?
It is a large collaboration with several research institutes. At ETH alone, scientists from the departments of architecture, IT, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and process engineering, and civil, environmental and geomatic engineering are involved. All these disciplines have a different understanding of research. One of the key challenges will be to synthesise these approaches and arrive at innovative methods and results together.

What steps do you have planned next?
We will first of all put together a team to coordinate the research focus. After a planning phase of almost two years, we are looking forward to getting started as soon as possible!

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