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Droneport Prototype - Venice Architecture Biennale 2016

The Block Research Group (BRG) at ETH Zurich was part of a team put together by the Norman Foster Foundation and supported by the LafargeHolcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction that built a full-scale earthen masonry shell at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition "La Biennale di Venezia", curated by Alejandro Aravena. The shell is a prototype for the "Droneport", a small airport for drones for the future Red Line project in Rwanda that seeks to create a drone network to deliver medical supplies and other necessities to places in Africa with limited access to roads.

The Red Line project

Red Line is a cargo drone route for medical and emergency use in Africa and other emerging economies, founded by Afrotech-EPFL director Jonathan Ledgard. To accomplish its mission, Red Line supports the development of cargo drones, droneport infrastructure, logistics, and regulations.

The lead architect on the concept for an affordable Red Line droneport is Lord Norman Foster. Together with the Norman Foster Foundation and Foster + Partners, he proposed a tile vault with a simple, fool-proof formwork system and approached ODB Engineering and the BRG for the development of a full-scale prototype for Rwanda. The objective is to make the design available as a "kit-of-parts" with a construction manual for the safe, efficient and repeatable construction of droneport modules by local workers using primarily local resources.

A Tile-vaulted structure

A tile vault is inexpensive to construct. It requires very little formwork and, if it has a well-designed shape, stresses are low, allowing the use of locally available materials such as non-fired soil bricks. This minimises the carbon emission of the entire building process and reduces the need to import large amounts of expensive materials such as steel or cement.

With its tools for compression-only form finding, the BRG developed a masonry shell that not only addresses the structural and construction requirements for a safe building in Rwanda, but also supports the architectural concept defined by Lord Foster. The structure is designed such that it is stressed uniformly by its own weight and has sufficient double curvature to be stable in compression under all other loading conditions. In addition, because of the geometry of the openings, concatenated modules create a continuous and smoothly undulating surface. The safety of the shell was assessed by ODB Engineering.

2016 Venice Architecture Biennale

A proof-of-concept droneport shell was realised at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale in less than six months, including only four weeks on site in Venice. The project team for the prototype was comprised of researchers of ETH Zurich, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Cambridge, and a team of builders lead by master mason Carlos Martin Jiménez. The construction of the prototype was sponsored by the LafargeHolcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction.

The prototype vault spans an area of 10 by 8 metres with only three layers of bricks, an inner layer of traditional clay tiles from Spain and two outer layers of "DuraBric", which is a naturally cured building block made of compressed earth and cement developed by the LafargeHolcim Research Centre in Lyon.

Virtual tour

Now that the Biennale closed its doors, explore the exhibtion virtually!

Credits droneport prototype


Design and Engineering

  • BRG - ETH Zurich - Prof. Dr. Philippe Block, Dr. Tom Van Mele, Dr. Tomás Méndez Echenagucia, Hannes Hofmann
  • ODB Engineering - Prof. Dr. John Ochsendorf, Prof. Dr. Matthew DeJong, Prof. Dr. Philippe Block, Dr. Giorgia Giardina


  • CReA - Carlos Martin Jiménez, Segundo Victor Simba, Luis Alfonso Tituania Male
  • ODB Engineering / MIT - Sixto Cordero, Luisel Zayas

Project Coordination




Appropriate construction

Appropriate construction

Compression-only shell structures have the advantage of requiring very low material strengths while still being able to efficiently span large spaces. This advantage allows the construction of robust structures in contexts where reinforced concrete or steel are not readily available, using local materials instead. This research examines the role of structural design in building low-cost, environmentally responsible and safe structures with locally produced elements and local labour.

Design research on new tile vaulting

Design research on new tile vaulting

This on-going research project explores the new design and efficient construction approaches for tile vaulting, made possible thanks to novel form-finding tools and structurally-informed fabrication and assembly processes.


Borne E. and Heathcote E. et al.The Droneport Project,L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui Perspectives2016 (November).Special issue .


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