“Use materials in the way they want to work”

Philippe Block in L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (AA)

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    Philippe Block is co-designer of the Striatus bridge, on display at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. The arched, unreinforced masonry footbridge (16x12m) composed of 3D-printed concrete blocks assembled without mortar is the first of its kind, combining traditional techniques of master builders with advanced computational design, engineering, and robotic manufacturing technologies. Photo: Ciara Becattini ©.

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    Philippe Block, Professor of Architecture & Structures, ETH Zurich; Member of the Academic Committee, Holcim Foundation; Member of the Board, Holcim Ltd. Pictured at NEST HiLo’s construction site at Empa - the lightweight, sandwich concrete shell planned by computational methods developed by the Block Research Group demonstrates the viability of lightweight, flexible formwork systems to form a complex concrete structure. Photo by Elisabeth Real.

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    NEST HiLo roof: Finalized concrete shell sprayed on the cable net and fabric formwork © Block Research Group, ETH Zurich / Photo by Stefan Liniger.

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    Interior of the finished structure

    Compared to conventional weaving, knitting minimizes the need for cutting patterns to create spatial surfaces, allows for the directional variation of material properties, and simplifies the integration of channels and openings.

Philippe Block appropriates the past and incorporates parametrics in manner far beyond aesthetics. He utilizes modern technology, software and digital fabrication tools, to re-explore historic construction techniques and generate new types of forms. In his interview with L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (AA magazine), he explains how circular construction economy strategies should build for longevity and adaptability – while at the same time reducing the volume and embodied carbon coefficient of the materials used.

Last updated: July 28, 2021 Zurich, Switzerland

Philippe Block – “Innovation in structures and materials offer important opportunities to address the pressing challenges of the environmental crisis. As a major negative contributor, the building industry must propose solutions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, resource depletion and waste. Embodied emissions remain the primary bottleneck, particularly for long-span and high-rise construction. These result from the sourcing, producing, forming, transporting, demolishing and disposing of building materials and components.

Two extreme strategies could be imagined to reduce the impact of building structures and materials on the environment. One could build for longevity, for future adaptability in use so that buildings do not grow obsolete.

Alternatively, one could build with the least impact, which means reducing the volume and the embodied carbon coefficient of the materials used.

Striatus_BRG-ZHA_naaro_8.jpgIdeally, both can be achieved by developing circular construction economy strategies. Significant improvements can be obtained by achieving strength through the structure’s geometry (rather than through material quantities) or by using materials in the way they want to work. The former refers to material efficiency that optimized shapes, such as doubly curved shells, offer to carry loads. The latter, conversely, refers to material effectiveness, since lighter is not necessarily better if it demands high-strength, heavily polluting materials. But, to achieve the efficiencies that the structural geometries offer, one needs to find, develop, and integrate fabrication and construction strategies in the design process to realize those non-standard forms in an economically viable way without producing excessive waste.

Education has an extremely important role to play as part of this paradigm shift. It is no longer useful to teach in the typical ways, which can result in students lacking a fundamental knowledge of engineering or designing without understanding material repercussions. We need new professionals who are more integrative, who understand collaborative design and construction processes in a holistic manner. I hope that the next generation of innovative designers is hands-on and responsible. We need to cultivate an entrepreneurial character in our students, helping them to become professionals who are curious and who want to move beyond existing codes and structures in innovative, sustainable ways. Finally, the concept of the single Master Builder or genius architect may have made sense in the past, but with today’s expectations, complementary and synergistic skills are needed as part of a team. If we can help give our students tools to grow into these shifting roles, I am confident they will rise to the task.”

Philippe Block is Professor of Architecture & Structure, Department of Architecture, ETH Zurich; Co-director of the Block Research Group; member of the Board of Directors of Holcim Ltd; and a member of the Academic Committee of the Holcim Foundation.

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