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gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich plants the 'future tree' in a swiss courtyard

this structure — known as the ‘future tree’ — combines state-of-the-art design techniques, material science, and robotic fabrication to create an eye-catching architectural object. demonstrating the latest research of gramazio kohler research at ETH zurich, the ‘future tree’ consists of a funnel-shaped, lightweight timber frame structure built by a robot, and a bespoke concrete column created using an ultra-thin 3D printed formwork. the entire design and fabrication were developed as inseparable and fully digital processes.

eth zurich future tree
side view of the pavilion
image and video © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

 

 

completed by gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich, the structure is located in esslingen, switzerland and stretches over the courtyard of basler & hofmann — a swiss AEC consultancy company that is also the project’s client and partner. ‘the future tree’s stem is a reinforced concrete column, made using an ultra-thin formwork, 3D-printed by a robot, and filled with a custom developed fast-hardening concrete,’ explains the design team. ‘this novel fabrication process, known as ‘eggshell’, allows for the fabrication of non-standard, structurally optimized concrete structures, whilst being able to integrate standard reinforcement and minimize formwork waste. the eggshell process makes use of fused deposition modelling (FDM) 3D printing in order to achieve a wide design and fabrication space.’

eth zurich future tree
the future tree on a sunny day
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

 

 

measuring 2.1 meters in height (6′11′′), the formwork was built in one piece using a large scale printing setup consisting of a six-axis robotic arm combined with a vertical linear axis. ‘fabrication data for the 3D printing process were directly generated from the parametric design model, which allowed for rapid iterations of physical prototypes,’ the team says. ‘a common challenge in large scale 3D printing is shrinkage of the printing material when cooling. in the future tree column this issue was addressed by applying a diamond-shaped micro-pattern on the formwork. this helped to reduce stresses due to shrinkage while printing, as well as stiffening the formwork.’

eth zurich future tree
with sunny weather the reciprocal frame casts a pattern of shadows on the ground
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

 

 

the column is a first example of thin, 3D printed formworks used in a construction context. ‘typically, formworks for concrete are thick sheets of timber or steel, with a support structure to withstand the hydrostatic pressure exerted by the freshly cast concrete,’ continues gramazio kohler research. ‘however, in the eggshell process it is possible to use a formwork with a thickness of only 1.5 mm by employing a sophisticated casting method. this casting method, first developed within the project smart dynamic casting (SDC) at ETH zurich uses a combination of admixtures to carefully control the setting of the concrete. in this way pressure on the formwork is reduced to a minimum and an 8 kg formwork could be used to fabricate a column of 800 kg.’

eth zurich future tree
standing under the future tree at the basler & hofmann office building
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

 

 

the canopy is a reciprocal frame spanning over an area of 107 square meters (1,152 sqf) and made of 380 unique acetylated timber elements that are butt-jointed using screws. the structure rests on the concrete column and is additionally anchored to the building on two sides. ‘thanks to the specific arrangement of its elements, a reciprocal frame can achieve a much larger span than the size of the elements would otherwise allow,’ says the team. ‘here, motivated by the frame’s structural behavior, the honeycomb pattern gradually transforms between a hexagonal and a triangular in order to achieve varying levels of flexural rigidity in different areas of the frame. the increasingly triangular configuration in the cantilevering corner makes this area stiffer and locally minimizes structural deformations.’

eth zurich future tree
close-up of the column crown at the interface with the wooden structure
image © basler & hofmann AG

 

 

in order to study many instances of the design, the entire geometry and evaluation of the structure was programmed (described with an algorithm), including an automated data exchange between the architect’s modelling software (rhino) and the engineer’s structural analysis application (sofistik, autodesk RSA). ‘the computational model also facilitated a concurrent design approach, allowing to solve and coordinate different levels of details (LODs) and disciplines at the same time,’ explains gramazio kohler research. ‘for example, geometry of the screws connecting the timber elements was developed in parallel to the overall design, so that both structural integrity, architectural design but also fabrication feasibility could be continuously assured.’

gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich plants the 'future tree' in a swiss courtyard
crown of the future tree
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

 

 

since its inception in 2005, the research group at ETH zurich led by fabio gramazio and matthias kohler has been at the forefront of digital fabrication in architecture. see more projects by the research group on designboom here.

gramazio-kohler-research-ETH-zurich-FutureTree-switzerland-designboom-1800b

the future tree is surrounded by the office on one side and garden on the other side
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich plants the 'future tree' in a swiss courtyard
timber beam blending into rib of concrete column
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich plants the 'future tree' in a swiss courtyard
the diamond texture of the column helped to stabilize the print during printing and casting
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich plants the 'future tree' in a swiss courtyard
3D printing the thin formwork with a six-axis robotic arm and vertical linear axis
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich plants the 'future tree' in a swiss courtyard
casting process of the thin formwork
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich plants the 'future tree' in a swiss courtyard
removal of the thin formwork using a heatgun
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich plants the 'future tree' in a swiss courtyard
final concrete column in laboratory
image © gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich

gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich plants the 'future tree' in a swiss courtyard
every timber element is cut to size and placed by a robot
image © ERNE AG holzbau

gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich plants the 'future tree' in a swiss courtyard
the central piece of the timber structure is assembled by a robot on a rotating platform
image © ERNE AG holzbau

 

 

project info:

 

name: future tree
location: esslingen, zürich, switzerland
architect: gramazio kohler research / ETH zürich
client: basler & hofmann
design and prototyping period: january 2018 – july 2019
(pre)fabrication period: july – october 2019

 

team: gramazio kohler research, ETH zurich
collaborators: dr. aleksandra anna apolinarska, dr. ena lloret-fritschi, joris burger, nizar taha, fabio scotto
in cooperation with: physical chemistry of building materials group (ETH zurich, prof. dr. robert j. flatt, dr. thibault demoulin, bruno pinto aranda)
selected experts: basler & hofmann AG, ERNE AG holzbau, SJB kempter fitze AG, concrete structures & bridge design (ETH zurich, prof. walter kaufmann, dr. jaimé mata-falcon)
selected contractors: ERNE AG holzbau (fabrication timber structure)

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