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 hould 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.

Publications

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