Automating Concrete Construction (ACORN)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bath
Department Name: Architecture and Civil Engineering

Abstract

Our long-term vision is to dramatically improve whole life construction sector sustainability and productivity by creating a culture that takes a fresh, holistic approach to the manufacture, assembly, reuse, and deconstruction of concrete buildings, leading to a healthier, safer, built environment.
Currently, up to half of the concrete used in buildings is unnecessary, and is only there because it is shaped using planar formwork, used since Roman times. This leads to inefficient prismatic shapes for the beams, columns and floor-slabs, which is wasteful, architecturally constraining and a major driver of embodied emissions in construction. This need not be the case. Concrete is initially a liquid and can form structures of any shape, given the right mould. By moving the construction of concrete buildings off-site, to a highly automated, quality controlled environment, and using robotics to create optimised non-prismatic formwork, our buildings can become more sustainable and the construction industry more productive.
ACORN's approach builds on the well-established computational design expertise of the team, who have developed innovative digital tools and techniques to optimise the shape, layout, structure and façade of buildings during the design phase. It will extend this approach downstream in the building process, to encompass fabrication.
The novelty here lies in the creation of integrated end-to-end digital processes to automate the design and manufacture of non-prismatic building elements. It capitalises on the recent proliferation of affordable robotics, and brings them into an industry ripe for a step-change in sustainability and productivity.
Something as simple as allowing beams, columns and floor-slabs to have the shape they need to do their job, rather than the shape they need to be easily formed, allows a complete rethink of the way material is used in our buildings. We can begin to ask questions like what shape should they be, what material should we make them from, how can we reinforce the elements efficiently, how can we take into account whole-life value and how should we organise our design processes to take advantage? ACORN will answer all of these questions.

Planned Impact

Since the construction industry is responsible for nearly half of the UK's carbon emissions, and the main culprit is concrete, which accounts for more than 5% of global CO2 emissions, ACORN's focus on reducing the amount of concrete in our environment will benefit the UK as a whole. As well as leading to healthier buildings and the environment, it will contribute to the Government achieving its Construction 2025 targets.
Since a mere 1% reduction in construction costs would save society about $100 billion annually, a sum equal to the entire global cost of cancer drugs, and UK productivity having flat-lined since 2007 (now 17% below the G7 average), ACORN's focus on automation and digital end-to-end processes will benefit the UK economy through reducing fabrication costs and construction time.
Society faces a looming workforce shortage, with 1 in 5 workers expected to retire by 2023. Current approaches to concrete construction are labour intensive, slow, and costly. Moving the construction of concrete buildings off-site to a highly automated, quality-controlled environment, will allow upskilling of the labour force and help eradicate site-related safety risks to workers.
Architects, Engineers and Building Contractors will benefit directly from the research. The software developed as part of the project will be written with them as end-users in mind. It will allow Architects to experiment with this new form of construction, exploring the effects of material savings on the appearance of their designs. Data from the user surveys of the Demonstration Building will also give them insights into how the public view this radically different aesthetic. Engineers will, for the first time, have access to integrated digital optimisation and fabrication tools that embed whole-life costing considerations. They will also benefit from the data generated from ACORN's structural testing programmes and, thanks to the integrated sensors, gain insights into the real loads such structures have to carry during their lifetime. The research will also give Contractors the tools they need to increase quality control, productivity and fabrication time whilst de-risking the construction site. The project has twelve Partners, spanning the full spectrum of Architects, Engineers and Contractors, both large and small, whose experience and expertise will ensure the outputs of the project are fit for purpose for the industry. It is a key aim of the project to use the partners to increase this sphere of influence, quickly and internationally, so that the culture change needed to embrace ACORN's vision can be delivered.
 
Description This award has developed a method of designing and manufacturing a thin-shell concrete flooring system, which can reduce concrete use in a building by 75%, thereby reducing embodied carbon by 60%.
Exploitation Route We have had significant interest from industry about commercialising our developed system, but it needs another phase of research to answer some outstanding questions before the risk-benefit profile would be suitable for commercial investment.
We have applied for "follow-on" funding to be able to take this necessary next-step.
Sectors Construction

URL https://automated.construction/
 
Description Transforming Systems through Partnership
Amount £79,808 (GBP)
Funding ID TSP1404 
Organisation Royal Academy of Engineering 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2020 
End 01/2022
 
Title ACORN Tools for Rhino-Grasshopper 
Description Parametric design, analysis and optimisation tools to generate optimal geometries for shell-floors and beams, and to control robotic manufacturing systems to fabricate them. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2022 
Impact Too early for notable impacts, but our industry partners have been involved in its developmenty and are testing it on live projects. 
 
Description Featured on Architects Journal website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Featured in an article published on Architects Journal website
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/research-team-redesigns-shape-of-floors-to-cut-concrete-use...
 
Description Featured on Dezeen 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Article published on leading international architecture web-magazine Dezeen
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://dezeen.com/2022/03/04/concrete-vaulted-floor-suggests-path-to-cutting-carbon-emissions/
 
Description Featured on RIBA-Journal Website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Article on RIBA Journal website following an interview with the PI about the success of the project's Demonstration Building
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.ribaj.com/products/acorn-research-robot-built-thin-concrete-arches-embodied-carbon
 
Description Lecture to ASCE 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Lecture to the American Society of Civil Engineers, New York.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Lecture to Lafarge Holcim 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Lecture to Lafarge Holcim at their R&D HQ in Lyon. Resulted in a collaboration that led to Lafarge funding a PhD project at Cambridge.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Lecture to Loughborough University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk as part of the Digital concrete conference. Has led to further discussion with the Loughborough Team.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Lecture to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Internal lecture to SOM staff. Impact seen in their use of non prismatic formwork for a demonstration building in Chicago.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Presentatino to IStructE Chester & North Wales 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presented to regional branch of the Institution of Structural Engineers
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description Presentation at Digital Construction Week (Excel Centre) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Paul Shepherd presented his active research projects as a speaker at Digital Construction Week.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.digitalconstructionweek.com/
 
Description Presentation to American Society of Civil Engineering Sustainability Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation in New York to ASCE Sustainability Group, made up of professionals from the New York region. Presentation on ACORN outputs and Q&A session.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Presentation to BuroHappold (Bath Office) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Tim Ibell presented the research project in a CPD-style talk to Consulting Engineers in Practice
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to BuroHappold (London Office) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Tim Ibell presented the research project in a CPD-style talk to Consulting Engineers in Practice
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to COP26 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Sustainability in the Built Environment - panel discussion with IStructE, in which ACORN outputs were presented
Sustainability in Structural Engineering - CPD event, focused on ACORN
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.istructe.org/resources/blog/cop26-and-structural-engineering/
 
Description Presentation to Ecole des Ponts ParisTech (France) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Paul Shepherd presented his active research projects in-depth, during a talk to Staff, Postgraduates and Undergraduates at Ecole des Ponts ParisTech, France.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to HinkleyPointC as part of Quality Week 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Live-streamed presentation to all members of the Hinkley Point C construction project, including those based in France. Also published a companion article in their internal newsletter.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description Presentation to ICE Bristol CLub 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Online presentation to local branch of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), which led to a follow-on invite to talk to the IStructE
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description Presentation to ICE Climate Emergency Conference (Coventry) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Tim Ibell presented the research project to delegates of the Institution of Civil Engineers' Climate Emergency Conference at Coventry University in March 2020.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.ice.org.uk/eventarchive/tackling-the-climate-emergency-coventry
 
Description Presentation to Integral Engineering (Bath Office) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Tim Ibell presented the research project in a CPD-style talk to Consulting Engineers in Practice
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to Liverpool University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Tim Ibell presented the research project in a talk to Liverpool University Staff, Undergrads and Postgrads.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to Robert Bird Group (London Office) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Paul Shepherd presented his active research projects in-depth, during a CPD-style Lunchtime Talk to an office of Practicing Consultant Engineers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to Skanska (London Office) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Tim Ibell presented the research project in a CPD-style talk to Consulting Engineers in Practice
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to TonyGee & Partners (London Office) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Paul Shepherd presented his active research projects in-depth, during a CPD-style Lunchtime Talk to an office of Practicing Consultant Engineers. The talk was also live-streamed to the company's Dubai Office.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Presentation to TonyGee & Partners (Stroud Office) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Paul Shepherd presented his active research projects in-depth, during a CPD-style Lunchtime Talk to an office of Practicing Consultant Engineers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to i3P Delivery Leadership Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Paul Shepherd introduced the i3P's Delivery Leadership Group (key industry stakeholders) to the ACORN Research Project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Press Release about construction of Demonstration Building 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact University issued press release on website and through media channels, which gained a huge response and directed 1000s of people to the project website.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
URL https://www.bath.ac.uk/announcements/changing-the-shape-of-floors-could-cut-concrete-usage-by-75-per...
 
Description Project included in Stronger Stories Catalogue 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact ACORN Project included as one of UKRI's Transforming Construction "Stronger Stories"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://tc-catalogue.strongerstories.org/stories/automated-concrete-construction-acorn/
 
Description RobotTalk podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact ACORN PI interviewed as part of Podcast episode focused on Manufacturing, with ACORN highlighted as an example of a new innovation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://ukrobotics.libsyn.com/episode-twelve-manufacturing-robotics-onto-the-factory-floor
 
Description Talk to Laing O'Rourke 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Internal lecture to Laing O'Rourke - engineering excellence group to discuss use of adaptable formwork.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Webinar hosted by Trimble, on the topic of embodied carbon 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Webinar hosted by Trimble "why embodied carbon matters and why structural engineers play a crucial role in achieving reductions". Panel discussion covering many outputs from research grants, and how they relate to professional practice.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.oneclicklca.com/live-webinar-embodied-carbon-of-structures-bim-and-manufacturer-specific...