Learning from the past to design a better future
Throughout history, master builders have discovered expressive forms through the constraints of economy, efficiency and elegance, not in spite of them. We have much to learn from their architectural and structural principles, their design and analysis methods, and their construction logics. Inspired by master builders and learning from the past, the BRG aims to provide appropriate assessment strategies for architectural heritage, develop novel structural design approaches for highly efficient and expressive structural form, and propose and implement new and economical construction paradigms.
Read our paper "Redefining Structural Art: strategies, necessities and opportunities" to learn more about what drives BRG research.
Analysis of masonry structures
Much of our architectural, cultural and structural heritage consists of unreinforced masonry. These historic structures fail mostly due to instabilities caused by large deformations and displacements. The standard structural analysis tools used in engineering practice today are not well suited to deal with these types of structural problems, not in the least because of the unknowable material properties of historic masonry constructions. The BRG develops a robust computational basis for a fully three-dimensional method for limit analysis of vaulted masonry structures with complex geometry. In addition to computational methods, the BRG also studies masonry structures by means of scaled models. Collapse mechanisms can be simulated using an actuated testing table, an optical registration system, and 3D-printed scale models. Learn more.
Graphical analysis and design methods
The BRG develops structural design, form finding and analysis methods, such as three-dimensional graphic statics, that rely on geometrical rather than analytical or numerical representations of the relation between “form and forces” in a structural system. Such explicit approaches provide continuous, bi-directional control over both spatial and structural characteristics in a common visual language that is equally accessible to architects and engineers and therefore extremely useful during early shape and equilibrium explorations. Learn more.
Computational form finding and optimisation
The BRG has developed a computational framework that contains several flexible data structures, novel and efficient solving algorithms, and numerous nonlinear optimization and solving procedures. This allows us to develop new (hybrid) solving strategies for equilibrium problems, often significantly improving solving times and robustness compared to existing approaches. Ultimately the computational methods developed have led to novel structural typologies and structural design approaches for highly efficient, expressive forms. They have enabled the extension of our expertise in compression-only problems to other structural systems, such as thin concrete shells, “bending-active” membrane structures, fabric formwork systems, and general spatial systems of forces with applications in bridge design and large-span roofs. Learn more.
Design of discrete assemblies
Discrete-element assemblies are structures formed by individual units. These range from structures consisting of relatively small units, such as historical masonry structures, to contemporary large-scale assemblies composed of prefabricated, multi-material building parts or entire building units. Favouring no-tension connections, this research extends and develops novel digital design and engineering approaches that address structurally informed discretization (digital stereotomy), stability during and after assembly, and structural optimization of discrete-element assemblies. Learn more.
Fabrication and construction systems
The objective of this research is to develop and implement new, economical construction techniques for structural systems with complex geometries. We propose and instigate new paradigms for structurally informed, optimised building processes in architecture as well as innovative structural design strategies that utilise bespoke fabrication. We seek to define mechanisms to intelligently and efficiently include structural performance information explicitly into architectural geometry and digital fabrication algorithms. Imposing structurally informed constraints allows for more holistic design processes that do not detach formal design from limitations on cost, construction, longevity or structural properties of the chosen material systems.
Part of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) in Digital Fabrication, the BRG develops structurally informed, optimised building processes in structural design and innovative solutions in prefabrication. Learn more.
The BRG does not stop at developing new computational design strategies that generate expressive and efficient structural form but also develops novel solutions to realize these complex shapes. This puts the BRG in the unique position to participate in real construction projects that showcase the innovative structures developed while also feeding valuable insights back into academic research. Choosing projects in both high- and low-tech contexts further forces the adaptation of the developed methods and tools to varied social, cultural, and geographical conditions. Check out the Projects page to see some of our latest research being applied in exciting demonstrators or real constructions.
Innovation in Teaching
The BRG’s research on graphical methods is also applied in the teaching of architecture students at ETH Zurich. Structural design courses are team-taught together with the Chair of Structural Design Prof. Dr. Joseph Schwartz. This collaborative teaching effort, which began in 2015, is funded by an Innovedum grant and seeks to continue the legacy of former ETH educators including Karl Culmann, Karl Wilhelm Ritter, and Pierre Lardy. Particularly through the use of the interactive and dynamic learning and teaching platform eQUILIBRIUM, students gain an understanding of the relationship between the shape of a structure and the forces in it.
The goal of all BRG-produced tools and platforms including eQUILIBRIUM, RhinoVAULT and COMPAS is to “whiten the black box,” making the methods and their implementations explicit and intuitive to the user throughout the early stages of the design process.
Prof. Philippe Block founded the Block Research Group (BRG) at the Institute of Technology in Architecture at ETH Zurich in August 2009.
Since 2014, Philippe co-directs the research group with senior scientist Dr. Tom Van Mele. Tom leads the computational and technical developments, supervises the postdoc team, and advises and supports the PhD candidates on a day-to-day basis. In 2015, Dr. Noelle Paulson joined the direction of the BRG as Administrative Coordinator, adding professionality and organisation to the group's working. In 2018, until his sudden passing in summer 2019, Dr. Matthias Rippmann strengthened the direction to coordinate collaborative research projects, supervise the development of demonstrators and establish and deepen multidisciplinary partnerships with industry and external research groups.
The BRG is a dynamic research group, with current and past researchers coming from all over the world and from diverse backgrounds. To date, six researchers have obtained a doctorate (Matthias Rippmann, Masoud Akbarzadeh, Diederik Veenendaal, Juney Lee, David López López, Mariana Popescu) of which two receiving the ETH Medal (Matthias Rippmann, Juney Lee).
Key milestones for the BRG have included:
- the launch of the teaching platform eQUILIBRIUM (2011),
- the release of the form-finding tool RhinoVAULT (2013),
- the development of the low-carbon, lightweight funicular floor concept (2014- ),
- the opening of the Beyond Bending exhibition featuring the Armadillo Vault at the Venice Architecture Biennale (2016),
- the release of the open-source computational framework COMPAS (2018),
- the realisation of KnitCandela (2018), and
- the construction of the NEST HiLo research & innovation unit (2019-2020).