Once again, the incredibly brilliant minds at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH Zurich) have announced innovative processes and materials for a better built environment. Phys.org has the story:

Researchers from ETH Zurich have built a prototype of an ultra-thin, curved concrete roof using innovative digital design and fabrication methods. The tested novel formwork system will be used in an actual construction project for the first time next year.

A prototype for an ultra-thin, sinuous concrete roof using innovative design and fabrication methods has been designed and built by researchers from the ETH Zürich. The shell is part of a roof-top apartment unit called HiLo that is planned to be built next year on the NEST, the living lab building of Empa and Eawag in Dübendorf. The penthouse will provide living and work space for guest faculty of Empa. Researchers led by Philippe Block, Professor of Architecture and Structures, and Arno Schlüter, Professor of Architecture and Building Systems, want to put the new lightweight construction to the test and combine it with intelligent and adaptive building systems.

The self-supporting, doubly curved shell roof has multiple layers: the heating and cooling coils and the insulation are installed over the inner concrete layer. A second, exterior layer of the concrete sandwich structure encloses the roof, onto which thin-film photovoltaic cells are installed. Eventually, thanks to the technology and an adaptive solar façade, the residential unit is expected to generate more energy than it consumes.

Here is a video of the new ultra-thin concrete roof:

Previously, ETH Zurich was featured here on AECforensics.com for their innovative combination of robots and 3D printing. That project also involved some really advanced applications of specialized concrete.

[via ConstructionJunkie]

Lloyd Alter, writing for Treehugger:

According to Jacob Atalla of KB Home, “The best way to predict the future is to make it.” So he and others in the building industry often build model concept homes to test out ideas. Michele Lerner of the Washington Post talks to a few people in the industry to get a sense of what’s coming next.

“When we imagine the home of the future and look at innovations, it’s important to answer two questions,” said Matt Power, editor in chief of Green Builder media in South Portland, Maine. “Just like you ask yourself about relationships, you should ask, ‘Does this make your life better?’ And if the answer is yes, then ask yourself from an ethical point of view, ‘Does this reduce my impact on the Earth?’ ”

Alas, when you look at what they are actually proposing, it doesn’t have a lot to do with reducing impact on the earth. They pay lip service to energy consumption, but it is all about adding stuff.

As always, Alter has exposed the raw nerve of the building industry that ultimately holds progress up for the entirety of civilization: complacency.

Cramming more gadgets and features into the home only results in planned obsolescence, and yet more crap to eventually make its way to a landfill.

We can, and should do better as an industry.


Concrete is a really amazing building product that provides strength and protection, particularly when reinforced with steel, or when combined with various admixtures. Unfortunately, concrete is extremely costly to produce in terms of its environmental impact.

By some accounts, concrete production results in the release of a ton of carbon, for every ton of concrete. For that reason, researchers are constantly looking at ways to improve concrete’s sustainability while still benefitting from its contribution to more resilient structures and assemblies.

To that end, researchers at the University of British Colombia have developed a novel new cementitious concrete-like product that has some amazing properties. ArchDaily’s Patrick Lynch has more:

Called EDCC (eco-friendly ductile cementitious composite), the material is engineered at the molecular level to react similarly to steel – with high strength, ductility and malleability. When sprayed onto the surface of traditionally poured interior concrete walls, it reinforces against seismic intensities as high as the magnitude 9.0-9.1 earthquake that hit Tohoku, Japan in 2011.

“We sprayed a number of walls with a 10 millimetre-thick layer of EDCC, which is sufficient to reinforce most interior walls against seismic shocks,” says Salman Soleimani-Dashtaki, a PhD candidate in the department of civil engineering at UBC. “Then we subjected them to Tohoku-level quakes and other types and intensities of earthquakes—and we couldn’t break them.”

Combining cement, polymer-based fibers, fly ash and other industrial additives, EDCC is also surprisingly environmentally-sustainable – nearly 70 percent of the cement required in traditional formulas is replaced with fly ash, a prevalent industrial waste product.

Here’s a video:

Drywall is a funny name for gypsum-based wallboard. Gypsum itself contains a good deal of water as it is typically formed from the evaporation of saline water. When heated, some of the water is evaporated, but the typical Flue-Gas Desulfurization (FGD) gypsum that makes up about 50% of the gypsum products used in the US still contains quite a bit of water.

In fact, the presence of water allows for one of gypsum wallboard’s most important applications in the built environment — fire protection. As gypsum is heated, that water is released as steam, retarding the spread of fire.


Papyrus is distinctive as typefaces go, and as a result, highly recognizable. For typeface designers, that seems like the ultimate accomplishment. Unless, as in the case of Papyrus and Comic Sans before it, the typeface becomes so prevalent that it loses its luster.

I will go one step farther, and state for the record, that I believe Helvetica has suffered the same fate. It is a great font, but it is too common.  (more…)

Television, unless it is available to stream via Hulu, Netflix or HBO Go, isn’t something I watch much of. CBS apparently aired an impressive program highlighting the impact of the skilled labor shortage on the construction industry, and the resulting impact on the rest of our economy and infrastructure.

Here’s an excerpt:

America’s economy has a growing labor crisis — a shortage of skilled construction workers. These men and women — carpenters, plumbers, electricians and masons — put a roof over your head. They’re getting harder and harder to find, at a time when — with two devastating mainland storms in the past month — they’ve never been more needed.

“Over the last four years, we’ve seen rising rates of open jobs,” said Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Homebuilders. “In other words, there’s a help wanted sign put out by the builder or the remodeler, and they simply can’t fill it.”

Where does the shortage come from? In short, the “Great Recession” had a lot to do with it:

The 2008 recession hit on homeowners, and homebuilders, hard. More than 1.5 million residential construction workers left the industry. Some changed careers; others simply retired. Many immigrant workers went home and never came back because of tougher immigration laws.

Of those 1.5 million workers that left the industry, reportedly on about half have returned.

Here’s video:

Socrates is alleged to have asked the possibly rhetorical question, “Is the unexamined life worth living?” One might ask the same question of data — Is unexamined data worth storing?

Procore, purveyors of fine construction software, recently touched on the topic of the value of data analysis on their Jobsite blog. Duane Craig identifies “5 ways your data gives you value:”

  1. “Data captures detail. Data can tell you the who, what, when, and wheres of a construction project and bring anything else important to your attention.”
  2. “Using data to draw comparisons applies to nearly every business function and every aspect of a construction project.”
  3. “An important way to get value from your data is by distinguishing what is important from what isn’t. Weigh the value of different pieces of data. This is an ongoing process because sometimes what is unimportant today, becomes very important tomorrow.”
  4. “Your data holds the answers to many pressing business and project problems. These are all problems that require decisions to resolve them. Data supplies the necessary raw material for making better decisions that work well and quickly.”
  5. “The data that you collect, compare, assess, and use to make better decisions ultimately helps you understand. It helps you to understand the business world you operate in, as well as the project world where you spend so much time.”


RICS, the UK Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, is ramping up their focus on Building Information Modeling (BIM) and its impact on the building industry. I found this recent article interesting:

The adoption of BIM and the subsequent BIM revolution, continues to have a major impact on every element of the construction industry – changing work flows and business relationships, restructuring how organisations interact and how data flows between companies. This rapid flow of data will increase the delivery speeds for projects and the use of a single system could result in cost and time savings as data transfer, conversion and potential data losses reduce.

In future, the information collected in the BIM process could be used in legal cases. The raw survey data and design completed on a project before it becomes included in the full BIM process and model has the potential to be used as a legal benchmark to prove project claims. This clarity on the origin and alteration of project data could drastically simplify future dispute resolution. Having all data in one fully visible project model will allow all parties to check data and ensure that everything is correct and to specification.

That last paragraph hints at the future possibility of leveraging data stored in the BIM file(s) to evaluate claims. Well, the future is here, and some of us are already doing that. Metadata contained within native BIM files, for example, could establish a chain of custody that shows how various parties made changes to the model. That’s just one potential application of the data contained within BIM files.

There are two primary reasons that we don’t see more use of BIM in a forensic setting:

  1. The attorneys handling most major claims aren’t familiar enough with the potential value that BIM metadata can bring to the discovery process.
  2. There aren’t too many forensic experts with any relevant experience with BIM who can thus advise their clients on what can and cannot likely be gained from iBIM analysis on a claim.

Massive earth moving equipment ranks among some of the heaviest and most costly machinery in the world, outside of experimental particle physics, of course…

Not surprisingly, the mostly diesel-powered mammoth vehicles typically employed for major infrastructure projects require a great deal of that diesel fuel to get the job done. Considering that in many such projects, vehicles and crews are run around the clock, the environmental impact of the operations are huge. But the situation may shift fairly dramatically.

According to Jonathan Gitlin, writing for Ars Technica, a Komatsu quarry truck has been outfitted by Kuhn Schweiz and Lithium Storage to use a 700 kWh battery to replace the diesel plant. And the results are astonishing:

The e-Dumper has been in the works for a couple of years now, during which time its battery capacity has grown from the original 600kWh to what is now the equivalent of seven top-of-the-line Teslas. The cells in question are nickel-manganese-cobalt, 1,440 of them in total, weighing almost 10,000lbs (4.5 tonnes). And once the team has found space in the chassis for all of that energy storage, the idea is for the e-Dumper to spend the next decade trundling between a Swiss cement quarry and the Ciments Vigier works near Biel.

Here’s the really cool part: each round trip actually generates electricity. Because the e-Dumper goes up the mountain empty and descends carrying 71 tons (65 tonnes) of rock, it captures 40kWh on the way to the cement works via regenerative braking. But climbing back up to the quarry only requires 30kWh, so every trip will feed an extra 10kWh into the local electricity grid. Not bad when you then consider that the e-Dumper will be doing that trip 20 times a day.

Of course the true environmental impact of massive machines like the e-Dumper (sounds like the name of a potty-training app for kids…) isn’t limited to the use of fossil fuels. But at least this seems like a step in the right direction.