Computational Design: Buildings Designed and Built By Robots

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014
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Computational methods which balance the reciprocities of form, material, structural and environment, and integrate technological advancement in manufacturing are delivering brand new performative material and construction systems, which could change the design and construction worlds.

Leading the charge is the Institute for Computational Design (ICD) at The University of Stuttgart, Germany.

The ICD has delivered two research buildings which demonstrate the power of computational design and robotic manufacturing.

The Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall is the first building whose primary structure consists of robotically fabricated beech plywood plates. It was conceived as part of the “Robotics in Timber Construction” research project.

Robotics in Timber Construction began with a simple question: How can you create a resilient timber structure with as little material as possible?

The development of the Exhibition Hall’s complex plate structure is made possible through advanced computational design and simulation methods. These allow the generation, simulation and optimisation of biomimetic construction principles.

Biomimetics, or biomimicry, is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. In the case of the exhibition hall, the researchers have considered the modular system of a sea urchin’s skeleton and the plate skeleton of a sand dollar.

The computational design tool offers the possibility to include material characteristics and fabrication parameters in the design process. Rather than drawing each plate manually, the plate’s design space is incorporated into a simulation and optimisation process for automated form-finding, which includes parameters and constraints of robotic fabrication.


The 2,700 square foot hall has a beech wood shell made up of 243 unique geometric plates that latch together via more than 7,600 finger joints. Similar to the functional integration in many biological systems, the plate system forms the building’s structure and envelope at the same time. The structural loads that occur around the plate’s edges are transferred efficiently by the robotically fabricated finger joints. This new kind of timber construction allows the building to be made of plywood plates that are only 50 millimetres thick.

The joints are invisible from outside, but once inside, you see them hooking into each other like puzzle pieces. These joints are responsible for the bulk of the hall’s structural stability


The industrial robot’s kinematic flexibility is an essential requirement for the production of such complex and individual geometries. Consequently, the fact that – much like the sand dollar’s plate skeleton – all plywood plates are geometrically unique, poses no additional difficulties. Pre-fabrication of the plate shell elements required only three weeks.

After robotic fabrication of the primary structure and digital prefabrication of all other building layers such as insulation, waterproofing and cladding, the building was set up on site in only four weeks.


The development, fabrication and construction of the Landesgartenschau Exhibition Hall demonstrates that robotic fabrication in conjunction with computational design, simulation and surveying methods enable architects, structural engineers and timber manufacturers to work in interdisciplinary as well as material- and fabrication-oriented ways. This leads not only to resource efficient timber construction but also to novel and expressive architecture.

The aim of the ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion was the development of a winding technique for modular, double layered fibre composite structures, which reduces the required formwork to a minimum while maintaining a large degree of geometric freedom.


This investigation of natural lightweight structures was conducted in an interdisciplinary cooperation of architects and engineers from Stuttgart University and biologists from Tubingen University. During the investigation, the elytron – a protective shell for beetles’ wings and abdomen – proved to be a suitable role model for highly material efficient construction and high resolution 3D models of various beetle elytra were extracted.

Through the development of computational design and simulation tools, both the robotic fabrication characteristics and the abstracted biomimetic principles could be simultaneously integrated into the design process.

Glass and carbon fibre reinforced polymers were chosen as building material due to their high performance qualities (high strength to weight ratio) and the potential to generate differentiated material properties through fibre placement variation.

For the fabrication of the geometrically unique double curved modules, a robotic coreless winding method was developed. The technique uses two collaborating-axis industrial robots to wind fibres between two custom-made steel frame effectors held by the robots.


The specific sequence of fiber winding allows control of the layout of every individual fibre, leading to a material driven design process. These reciprocities between material, form, structure and fabrication are defined through the winding syntax which therefore becomes an integral part of the computational design tool.

In total, 36 individual elements were fabricated, whose geometries are based on structural principles abstracted from the beetle elytra. Each of them has an individual fibre layout which results in a material efficient load-bearing system. The biggest element has a 2.6-metre diameter and weighs only 24.1 kilograms. The research pavilion covers a total area of 50 square metres and a volume of 122 cubic metres with a weight of just 593 kilograms.

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