Nations that set a good example for their citizens and other nations with respect to sustainable living should be admired and learned from. Too often, world superpowers set bad examples. To make up for their government’s reckless attitudes, states, provinces, regions, cities, and even individual citizens proactively take steps towards a greener future. In Switzerland, however, such progressive developments are coming from the top.

DFAB House: the prefab home in Switzerland designed and built by robots.

On top of the Empa and Eawag Next Evolution in Sustainable Building Technologies complex in Dübendorf sits the DFAB House. Completed in 2017, this 2,153 square-foot, three-story home was designed by a team of eight researchers at the ETH Zurich as part of the country’s National Centre of Competence in Research Digital Fabrication initiative. The purpose of the DFAB House was to show how 3D printing and robotics could be efficiently used to build sustainable housing.

DFAB House: the prefab home in Switzerland designed and built by robots.
DFAB House: the prefab home in Switzerland designed and built by robots.

With floor slabs formed using 3D-printed sand and timber frames assembled by robots, the DFAB House is a glowing example of smart design and construction. It was all assembled on-site by an adaptable robotic system created by the researchers. Fittingly enough, visiting academics will be the house’s main residents beginning this spring.

Above all else, it’s the home’s energy management system — which controls potable water, drainage, heating, and cooling — that make it so eco-friendly. Powered by photovoltaic modules on the roof, this system reuses all the home’s waste water and stores heat for later use, making it the world’s first fully functional house to be both digitally planned and robotically constructed. Of course, many humans were still required to help move the construction process along, as seen in the video just below, so the project can’t really be said to be completely built by robots.

Part of the reason for all the human involvement is that the construction industry is simply slow to change. Despite the technologies available to build everything efficiently, many builders are wary of taking such a risk. The same could be said for architects, in that each firm has a preference for a specific software on the market. There are some who will stick with AutoCAD because they do not trust Revit — not to mention the small number of firms who use Vectorworks. The whole process of producing a building can take many forms based on the software chosen, but once designs become concrete construction plans, the process falls back on test methods that produce predictable results on reasonable timelines. With the DFAB House, the researchers at ETH Zurich are hoping that more of the world’s great builders will start putting a little more faith in modern technology.

Inside DFAB House: the prefab home designed and built by robots.
Inside DFAB House: the prefab home designed and built by robots.

“The architectural potential of digital fabrication technologies is immense,” says Matthias Kohler, a professor of Architecture and Digital Fabrication at ETH. “Unfortunately, these technologies are still scarcely used on construction sites. With the DFAB House, we are able to test new technologies hand-in-hand with industry and thus accelerate the transfer from research to practice.”

The framework that makes up the DFAB House.

Nothing happens before its time. Though entrepreneurs and researchers are constantly inventing new technologies for the construction industry, builders will eventually appreciate the value they add to their projects. The transfer from hand drawing to CAD did not happen quickly, after all. It took several years, but eventually everyone accepted it as the way architecture would be done going forward. And we’re just about due for another game-changer like that.