Accelerating innovation through research-industry collaboration
KvalhoTalks with Prof. Dr. Philippe Block | Professor at ETH Zürich | Director of NCCR
Welcome to KVALHO TALKS – a series of interviews and discussions with experts, innovators and entrepreneurs within the building industry. A place where forward-thinking individuals inspire + educate + share their views on what's happening within the AEC industry today and what comes next.

This time I sat together with Philippe Block, Professor of Architecture and Structures at the Institute of Technology in Architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland. We discussed applying research into practice, developing sustainable construction solutions and accelerating the adoption of innovation in practice – all of this with the goal of moving the building industry forward to build better.

Enjoy the interview with Prof. Dr. Philippe Block

You wear more than one hat. Could you please tell us more about your background and the current role(s) which you hold?
I am a structural engineer and architect, trained at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA. The hat I am wearing most of the time is being a professor at ETH Zurich at the Institute of Technology in Architecture, where I teach architecture students how to include structural considerations in their designs. In this role I also lead theBlock Research Group (BRG), in which we focus on computational methods of form finding in structural design and explore digital fabrication opportunities. We develop new methods to help architects and designers discover good structural forms that are elegant and exciting but at the same time efficient. Last summer I took over the directorship of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication. The NCCR Digital Fabrication has a team of over 60 researchers from various fields, which alongside architecture include structural engineering, material science, computer science, robotics, and automation control. The NCCR team works collaboratively on the development and integration of digital design and fabrication technologies and new construction processes for the future. I am also a Founding Partner of ODB Engineering, a consultancy firm that allows me to take on opportunities for developing new engineering solutions for projects in practice, which are not necessarily suitable to be undertaken by the research group.

Together with your team you are involved in several projects. How do you come up with new ideas for research and how do you spot trends?

I try to understand the needs of industry and develop future directions of research by sharing my work with a wide variety of audiences, constantly refining the message based on the feedback. I am very fortunate to be invited to give keynote lectures at various universities worldwide and talk at international engineering and architectural offices. Since our work takes place at the interface between architecture and (structural) engineering, I am in a position to share my ideas and developments with colleagues from diverse backgrounds. Therefore, having this chance to meet key thinkers within very different professional groups helps me gather direct feedback and have an open dialog. Their questions, comments and suggestions can spark new ideas and show the next directions and steps in our research.
Having direct dialog with industry also helps us to challenge ourselves, to break out of the ivory tower of academia, and to listen to what the market really needs, what is relevant and what resonates. It allows us to understand the real problems, where the hidden costs are, what makes something problematic and how we can really innovate.
Can you please explain what a project collaboration between academia and an industry partner looks like in practice?
We are currently working on a very exciting project – NEST HiLo – a research and innovation unit, which will be built starting in January 2019 on the NEST building of Empa and Eawag in Dübendorf, Switzerland. Finding a contractor who was not "afraid" to take on the challenge of building the uniquely formed, thin concrete shell roof for this project with us was not easy. We finally found a very good industry partner who was ready for the challenge. The Swiss general contractor Marti was an ideal fit, as they are very experienced and at the same time open to new technologies and construction methods. We have recently completed the full-scale prototype of the 20m x 10m x 7m concrete shell roof for this building. Working on this prototype was an intense but very rewarding learning process. We worked on it over several months to allow both: the research and construction teams to carefully analyse every step of the construction in order to demonstrate that it was possible to build what we had designed. What we learned from this process was that innovative ideas can be successfully implemented, but they require that you bring them to the market in stages, and that resistance can be overcome by providing support at every step.
How do you test your ideas in real applications?
We are very fortunate here in Switzerland to have a platform like the NEST building of Empa and Eawag.
I am very grateful to Dr. Peter Richner (the initiator of the NEST building) for giving us the opportunity to demonstrate that the novel systems we have developed – for example a bespoke 3D-printed floor, a waste-free, knitted formwork and a large-scale textile formwork for thin shell roofs – are ready to be applied in real buildings. Working on real projects also helps us to address all necessary requirements, to comply with all building regulations and norms, and to take into consideration acoustical performance and integrations with MEP systems. If we would only stick to how we do things in academia, our solutions would remain to some degree only theoretical.

You have also worked on international projects where you successfully applied your research. What was your experience in working with international teams?

We had a great opportunity to work together with the Norman Foster Foundation on the Droneport project, specifically on the design of a roof unit for a small airport for drones to deliver medical supplies to places in Africa with limited access to roads. A proof-of-concept construction system and prototype module for this project was realised at the 2016 Venice Architectural Biennale (and is still standing on the grounds as a permanent legacy installation). The idea was to develop a tile-vaulted structure needing very minimal formwork that can be constructed by the local communities. We also showed the Armadillo Vault at the 2016 Biennale, an extreme, unreinforced and mortar-less cut-stone vault. Such a project with this challenging geometry – elegantly demonstrating strength and stability through geometry – requires special building techniques and can only be successful if right from the beginning there is a strong collaboration and transparency between architects, engineers, fabricators and the construction team.
Do you think BIM can enhance the concept of early collaboration between the design and construction teams?
Yes and no. The principal of BIM – referring to an approach beyond the software – is great. It demands openness of communication, transparency of data, exchange of models, which hopefully gives an opportunity to complete projects on time and within an agreed budget etc. However, in reality BIM is often used mainly for clash detection and checking if everything comes together and less for enhancing collaborations, at least at the moment. So we need to do better than that.

How much time does it take to develop an innovative solution?

In general, it takes 5 to 10 years for a unique insight to mature to the level that it can be used in a real application. For example, the development of our compression-only floor system started in 2010, which sounds like many years ago. It began with an idea based on historical vaulted floor systems followed by a physical prototype. It allowed us to demonstrate that it works structurally – an important first success! Then we continued thinking how it could be produced economically in practice. Along the way, we also needed to address thermal and acoustic performance, etc. During the development of our floor system, experts in the field of building systems led by my colleague Prof. Dr. Arno Schlüter realised that there is also a way to incorporate a heating and cooling system into the structure – something we didn't think about before. And just recently, thanks to new innovations in digital fabrication, we found a way to generate these bespoke geometries nearly waste-free. So innovation development is all about questioning the given. Our research remains an academic exercise until we solve how to scale it up, how to produce it, build it economically and address all remaining questions in order to reduce the risks for acceptance by the industry partners at the end.

What is the role of the digitalisation in your research?
Digitalisation opens the door to true innovation to make a difference in the future.
The way we innovate is to start by defining computational models that can embrace the challenge of balancing all the different constraints to find more efficient, lighter structures and more expressive geometries. For design, engineering, logistics and bespoke prefabrication the computation is at the core. For this, we have developed COMPAS – an open-source, Python-based computational framework for collaboration and research in architecture, structural engineering and digital fabrication. One of the key ideas behind the freely available platform – which was developed by the BRG's co-director Dr. Tom Van Mele – is to prevent the loss of information that typically happens when multi-disciplinary teams are working on research using various tools and software. Open-source libraries allow users to learn from each other. This way we can really accelerate innovation and change.
What significant changes will happen in the industry in the next 10 -15 years?
There will be an explosion of new opportunities to build through digital fabrication, robotics etc. allowing mass customisation both for prefabrication and for onsite construction. Additionally, I believe that we will be confronted with the repercussions of the gigantic impact of the construction industry on waste production, CO2 emissions and the rapid depletion of (natural) resources.
We will have to come up with new and better ways of building. For example, there are predictions that in 35-40 years we won't have the sand we need for concrete anymore. This will be a hard reality. I recently learned in a lecture that between 2011 and 2013 more concrete was used in China compared to the entire 20th century in the USA or that half of the building estimated for 2050 still need to be built. These numbers also demonstrate how rapidly this issue is exploding. I think that digital fabrication and structurally informed architecture will provide the urgently needed solutions that will allow us to do better with shrinking resources.

What would you wish for as a next project with industry?

It would be great to work together with engineering, architecture or construction partners to introduce our innovative lightweight floor systems in a high-rise building. They are 70% lighter than the typical flat concrete slabs, which of course has enormous benefits to the size and weight of columns, bracing and foundation. Open-minded design and construction partners who are willing to go outside of their comfort zone are the people who really move the industry forward.
Industry needs to trust that at least some of us in academia also have good practical ideas, and we will be happy to share them.