Computational technologies make construction processes and buildings smarter and more sustainable, but that does not mean that robots and 3D printers will make the entire city of the future. According to dr. Sina Mostafavi, hybrid constructions are more likely. “Perhaps a car manufacturer will help us build the house of the future.”

Why would we still design building structures with solid beams mounted together, when a 3D printer or robot can make them as one open, porous construction? It costs less material and allows a richer design language. “Computer technology allows us to design and produce complex geometric structures that are lighter and perform better than a traditional construction,” says Mostafavi, who has a lot of experience in this area. “3D printers and robots can add or remove material exactly where needed.” A twenty to thirty percent weight saving also reduces the environmental impact, especially when it comes to a material such as concrete.

In his PhD research, Mostafavi wonders to what extent new digital techniques will change architecture. The answer: parametric software and computer-aided techniques are paving the way for a completely new design language. Porosity is an important aspect in this respect, but so is hybridity and assembly.
Buildings consist of a number of subsystems that are inevitably made up of different types of materials. The use of just one type of production technique is therefore not likely. Sometimes a computer-controlled design is best performed by a 3D printer or robot arm, the next time by a CNC-controlled milling machine or by 'hotwire cutting' – cutting a mold from foam using a hot wire. “Architecture is a hybrid phenomenon and that requires hybrid techniques,” says Mostafavi. “And the combination of techniques we use to realize a design inevitably leads to multi-materiality.”
According to him, the chance is small that one day a 3D concrete printer will make complete buildings on its own. Making architecture is different from fabricating a chair or a car, if only because the end result is usually larger than the production space. He therefore expects that there will always be assembly of prefabricated or mass-customized elements. Human hands will, however, increasingly receive help from robotic arms, which are equipped with virtual and augmented realities tools and interfaces. Because they are excellent at placing custom printed or milled elements in place.

Architecture robots

The robot arms that are now used, mostly come from the automotive industry. Mostafavi expects specialized architecture robots to make their appearance soon. The major work, such as concrete structures, will be reserved for the heavy ones. Small, autonomous machines or drones can do the more refined work, as well as work on softer materials such as cork or silicone.
Are architects still needed in a world that is increasingly being designed and created with computer-aided techniques? “Yes, because the architect is the author of the entire production chain,” says Mostafavi. “The role of architects in the future will extend much further than in the present time, where they mainly act as makers of drawings.”
Does this mean that the contractor becomes redundant? Neither, he expects. “But all partners in the building process can expect a redefinition of their role. As design and manufacturing techniques become more integrated, they will have to work more closely together.”
Collaborative projects between architects and car manufacturers – for example Audi – are no longer an exception. Producers of interior elements, such as lamps and chairs, are also increasingly seeking collaboration with architects. Mostafavi: “The future is interdisciplinary. Together we have to find our way in the new design and production world that is opening up to us.”

Published: June 2021