Bregenz/Vorarlberg – The author pursues the goal to rethink the world of construction new and to transfer it to the future with modern methods and technologies. Means for that purpose is the LifeCycle Tower (LCT)-construction system that´s already been developed at the end of 2010 as part of a multiannual, cooperative and interdisciplinary research project lasting over several years. It combines two problem solving approaches that significantly contribute to a CO2-neutral building sector: the utilisation of wood as a building material and the regional realisable modular construction system. Additionally, a comprehensive energy supply concept was developed that is reducing energy demand to a minimum and is at the same time in tune with the needs of the users. And Rhomberg is also changing the development and planning process with his disruptive approach: Turning and anchor point of the new building will be an interdisciplinary, digital, living platform. A kind of cybernetic table for everything involving the topics “planning, erecting and operation” of buildings. So construction, how we know it, will be completely modified and turned on its head.

By Hubert Rhomberg (Chapter 26, „Factor X“)

Introduction: The LifeCycle Tower construction system was developed as the result of a two-stage cooperative and multi-disciplinary research project that spanned over several years. It combines two approaches which contribute significantly to a CO2-neutral building sector: the use of timber as a construction material and a regionally available prefabricated construction system. The practicality of the system has now been demonstrated with the LifeCycle Tower ONE as a prototype and with several client projects. Compared to conventional building methods, the modular building system and prefabrication contribute significantly to a reduction in life-cycle costs. Timber is not only an ideal construction material, but is also totally renewable, CO2-neutral and represents careful use of resources. In addition, we have developed a comprehensive energy supply concept, which reduces energy consumption to a minimum whilst also satisfying user requirements. Furthermore, we are currently transferring our system to a digital platform, which will turn the building process we are familiar with on its head.

The status quo: The construction arm of Rhomberg operates in an industry that consumes 40 percent of all resources and is responsible for about 40 percent of the waste generated worldwide and for 60 percent of all transport movements (UNEP 2009, p. 5). These statistics are a clear indicator that there is an urgent need for action in the construction sector. This is not made easier by the fact that the industry is mostly conservative in its approach, and innovations are only slowly and reluctantly accepted. Furthermore, almost all building projects are essentially producing prototypes, that is to say that each building is newly designed from scratch. In practice, it is usually not possible to simply replicate existing design details, which means that experience gained from similar projects is lost. And – in most cases – the question as to what will happen to the building at the end of its service life is not even asked, not to mention answered. It is no surprise then that current construction methods are costly, use a lot of resources and are not very sustainable. This is bad news – particularly when considering that the availability of resources will be dramatically reduced in the near future. Last but not least, another challenge for the construction industry is the amount of red tape and the many regulations (such as those for obtaining housing subsidies), which can hinder the implementation of more sustainable methods. In Austria, about 6,000 standards regulate the methods used to erect buildings; this increases the construction costs by up to 15 percent.

Another important aspect to consider is the trend towards urbanisation. While in 1800 about 25% of the population lived in cities, the proportion of city-dwellers in 2008 was 50% for the first time in the history of mankind (UNFPA 2014). Already today, over three-quarters of worldwide energy consumption is attributed to cities. It is expected that by 2050, over 75% of the world population will live in so-called megacities, i.e. cities with more than one million residents (UNFPA 2014). One consequence of this rapid growth in urbanisation is the scarcity of space, which in many cases can only be resolved by constructing multi-storey buildings. Up to now, urban construction methods have focused on traditional, conventionally produced prototypes that involve long construction periods and complex construction management. That means that currently, new buildings are mostly built in conventional solid construction (reinforced concrete skeleton construction).

„LifeCycle Tower“ timber hybrid construction system

In response to the aforementioned challenges, Rhomberg set itself the task of developing a construction method to build in urban settings that is suitable for digitalisation and satisfies the criteria for long-term sustainable construction and living. With support funding from the Austrian Federal Ministry for Transport, Innovation and Technology, we set up a research project to address these issues and – over a period of several years – we developed the LifeCycle Tower solution, which is based on the principles mentioned above, i.e. „building with timber“ and „system construction“.

We were further inspired in our efforts by Prof. Schmidt-Bleek, who demands „de-materialisation“ by a factor of 10 and – with his concept of „ecological backpack“ – has developed an indicator for determining how sustainable a product, or building, is (Schmidt-Bleek 2004). The ecological backpack is a measure of the amount of resources consumed in the manufacture, use and disposal of products. From that we concluded that we should replace those materials that have a very large backpack with other, more resource-efficient materials. The solution is timber, one of the oldest building materials there is. It is a renewable raw material that is available in many countries all over the globe. It is also a CO2 sink and therefore plays an important role in balancing the world’s climate; when used as a building material, it can reduce the total weight of a building by about 50 percent. Additional advantages are its high strength, good thermal insulation and the fact that it is one hundred percent recyclable. Furthermore, modern timber construction offers a wide range of possibilities in terms of construction and conceptual design.

When timber is to be used in cities, it is not only important to build large volumes, but also to be able to construct high-rise buildings. What was considered impossible until a few years ago has now become reality – a resource-efficient solution for timber-based multi-storey buildings up to 30 floors or 100 metres in height. With our subsidiary Cree GmbH (Creative Resource & Energy Efficiency), which was founded in 2010, we have developed a fully marketable and world-wide usable timber hybrid system for large buildings which can be individually designed and takes very little time to construct – the LifeCycle Tower (LCT).

Green building standards can be achieved in many ways

Many design solutions rely on sophisticated services installations to achieve significant energy savings and hence sustainability. However, in our opinion, that is not enough. If we really want to take a step towards a low-carbon construction industry, we have to consider the product from the cradle to the cradle, and we have to select materials accordingly early on during the design process. In the Cree system, we are conscious of the benefits of urban mining; we know the type and quantity of materials installed in the building and we know how these materials can be put to new use again at the end of the building’s life cycle. What is new – and hitherto unique – in our approach is that timber is used without being encapsulated in load-bearing elements, i.e. no cladding or lining is applied. Using this “unencapsulated” structure is another way of saving resources. In this construction, timber remains the surface material and can therefore be experienced by the users; timber also has a positive and healthy effect on the interior climate.

Up to now, construction in urban settings has used conventionally produced prototypes with complex construction processes. This entails high construction costs, long erection times and significant design and construction risks. With the Cree system, we opt for a systems approach and an industrialised prefabrication process which has been used for decades in other industries, e.g. the automotive industry.

The fully detailed timber hybrid construction elements are prefabricated based on drawings and can be used universally – in office buildings, hotels or housing, for restaurants or retail facilities. Modular system construction presents several other advantages:

  • Both changes of use and renovation are considerably simplified;
  • The facades can be configured to suit various requirements and desires, making it possible for each LCT to be custom-designed;
  • Since no load-bearing partition walls are required, there is greater flexibility in the sub-division of spaces;
  • The energy supply (heat, electricity) is highly efficient and can easily be adapted to the local situation; the focus is on the use of renewable energy sources (following standards such as Plus Energy, Passivhaus or Low Energy).

Efficient use of resources on a large scale

With the construction of the first projects in Vorarlberg and beyond, Cree has demonstrated that the system functions and is fully compliant with regulatory requirements, including fire protection – a key issue in timber construction.

LCT ONE, the eight-storey office building which was built in Dornbirn in 2012, is the prototype which is used by Cree GmbH and other tenants as company headquarters.

It also accommodates the LifeCycle Hub, which is in a way a museum for items of the future, presenting sustainable solutions for the construction industry. This was followed in 2012 and 2013 by the new water power competence centre of Vorarlberger Illwerke AG in Vandans, Montafon, which was built using the Cree system and provides over 10,000 m2 of gross floor area – one of the largest and most sustainable timber hybrid buildings in the world.

LCT technology was also used for extending the offices of plant manufacturer Wagnertec in Nüziders. Since then, the system has been used for the first time in a combined commercial and residential building in Memmingen (Bavaria). We will continue this success story and revolutionise the construction process with the LCT NEXT, which will shortly be constructed in Bregenz.

The Cree system demonstrates that the goals stipulated by the EU in 2011 in the resource efficiency program can be achieved, and that de-materialisation by a factor of 2 is already possible in the construction industry. This clever system can be used worldwide as a universal model and thereby make a big contribution to the transition to a low carbon economy. The distribution of the system will stimulate economic growth which is intelligent (innovative, and based on knowledge), sustainable (compatible with the environment and hence more sustainable in the long run) and integrative (new, regional „green jobs“ strengthen social and territorial cohesion).

In short, I am convinced that multi-storey timber construction provides the solution in the quest for a sustainable resource-conserving building method, particularly in an urban context. But that is only part of the story.

The LCT construction system devised by Cree GmbH is only the beginning of a completely new and much more sustainable method of erecting buildings. Throughout the world we are experiencing a cultural, ecological and economic process of change in which working and living can only be managed using innovative technologies and ecological concepts. When it comes to planning and designing change in the human environment, architecture and the construction industry face a challenge. To do this it is not sufficient to simply modernise existing processes and to digitalise the classic construction process – something that today, BIM (Building Information Modelling) is much too often understood to be. Instead, we must completely rethink construction („Bauen“ in German) as we know it today. The objective is to create a digital platform where all relevant information on building projects, regulatory requirements, building materials, building elements and stakeholders in the building process are compiled, so that this data is available, user-friendly and developed by all those involved in the process.

This will make it possible, for example, to design a digital twin of the planned building before it is erected – in other words „building before building“. All simulations regarding the load-bearing structure, thermal insulation, fire protection, building automation, etc. can be incorporated in the form of such a digital twin. However, this means that all electric components need an appropriate IP address to enable them to be selected, operated and maintained from a cloud. This is a prerequisite for establishing the digital twin in the first step and, in the second step, for making the building suitable for the Internet of Things (IoT), rendering it into a smart building. This means that all processes relating to prefabrication, logistics, assembly and also of course dismantling, in addition to preventive and predictive measures for the use phase of the building, can be defined and derived from the model. This is an easy way of saving on electric wiring and cables by wireless connectivity, and hence of conserving valuable resources. This evolution makes the traditional design process in support of the construction, sometimes also in project rooms, obsolete. The digitalisation of the building process and the associated development have an impact on all parties involved. For example, architects and specialist engineers will in future take on the role of experts in detailed design. Submissions and building applications in the conventional written form and 2D drawings will progressively be replaced by digital models, thus enabling municipalities to take a step towards the digital city.

Of course, such development has a corresponding impact on all current stakeholders, not only the architects and specialist engineers. Everybody is involved, the tradesmen, authorities, service providers, contractors and customers – and above all, the manufacturing industries. For example, in future the choice of tradesman will be determined by which supplier can make his products available in the required Building Information Modelling (BIM) quality early on in the design phase. Shifting work processes from the building site to industrial production facilities can only succeed by radically reducing the existing interfaces and using appropriate semi-finished and finished products. This shift requires tradesmen to group together so that they can cooperatively produce modular elements. From this moment onward, many components of the services installations and the fit-out will be pre-assembled in components of the load-bearing structure (e.g. floor deck or column) and the external walls, providing a simple plug connection for these installations once the building shell has been assembled. With the help of this design method and pre-assembly of elements, it will be possible to apply quality and safety management methods such as FMEA as used in industrial production and shipbuilding.

However, the digital evolution cannot take place until it is no longer necessary to design each building from scratch and, instead, the plans of previously built projects are actually available for download on a platform. Once this has been established the foundations will be laid for a „sharing community“ which will aim to make its plans available for use by everybody else, although its planned buildings will be adapted in accordance with the respective social, cultural and urban requirements. Everything is permitted, within the boundaries of compliance with certain rules and the use of specified building components. This is a prerequisite to generate the size of components (semi finished goods) needed by industry, to preserve resources and keep costs down while simultaneously improving quality. It follows that such an approach requires different tendering procedures such as design & build contracts, or even design/build/operate contracts, in order to generate the maximum cascaded use of the digital twin. Once this step has been accomplished, it will be possible to duplicate and simulate the functions of 3D building models through to 7D facility management information in the digital twin.

Learning from others

Other industries, especially the automotive industry, are clearly ahead of construction here; items such as the chassis, engine and body are standardised and modular, and can therefore be manufactured cheaply and – most importantly – resource efficiently. In the automotive industry, some components are used even in different brands. For example, technical components produced by VW are also used in Audi, Seat and Skoda cars. Nevertheless, it is possible to individualise the car and adapt it to specific requirements using different fit-out components, colours and a choice of finishing material – the so-called modular transverse matrix. Using a „car configurator“, the customer can configure his/her desired model and order it by pressing a button. In the near future, purchasing a house will follow a similar process – the client will configure the building at the computer, walk through it with 3D glasses in order to plan details and furnishings, and then order the house with a mouse-click (see Figure 8). We are not there yet however. But it’s only a question of time.

This time will come quicker than we think. The reason for this is also the logarithmic nature of human thinking: in order to anticipate the world in one year’s time, we have to look back into the past – not one year back, but ten. The steps necessary to engender progress are becoming increasingly shorter due to digitalisation and technical development. Therefore the time for „Bauen 4.0“ is now – the timber hybrid system construction method has established the prerequisites and ideal conditions for the next step. Some significant drivers around the world are sharing and open innovation in order to scale the revolution.

The focal point of the new method of building will be a lively, interdisciplinary digital platform. It could be described as a cybernetic table for all data relating to the design, construction and operation of buildings. A place to find all the information, contacts, products, forms and case studies from the world of systematic timber-hybrid construction. And also the option of erecting „digital twins“. This platform will be subject to continuous development, and therefore continuous improvement; every newly developed building element, every successfully completed project, every new producer, architect or designer will enrich the platform and fill it with knowledge, thereby enhancing the knowledge of all those involved in the cybernetic table. This also means that in the future, knowledge will no longer be owned by a select group, but rather collectively owned for the benefit of the construction process and all the parties involved.

This is also the reason why we do not want to use our Cree system in isolation. In fact, we hope that many similarly creative spirits and pioneers will join us. Therefore we offer building contractors and architects the opportunity to use the innovative LCT system with us, and to drive its development. In order to place this offer on an equal footing and to make it possible for users to concentrate on their core competences as architects or (structural) engineers, we support our partners with items such as controlling, benchmarking, the organisation of key account management and our configuration software, CREEator. In this way we want to make the principle of a „sharing community“ mentioned above a reality, and want to play our part in a „sharing economy“ – and share our success.

The platform will be subdivided into various project rooms. There will be areas dedicated to different political administrations, which will contain statutory regulations and approval guidelines. There will be virtual meeting rooms for architects and engineers where they can set up meetings and even start virtual companies. There will be product shops which will contain information on available construction elements – including all information on materials, costs, their ecological footprint and the contact details of their manufacturers. There will also be evaluation lists based on feedback from customer assessments, for example for the best projects (which will also include information on the elements and manufacturers involved), for the best timber architects, the best structural engineers and the best fire safety experts. All this knowledge, all the experiences and all the contacts on the platform are available to all users –without limitation in time and space.

We will say goodbye to the conventional construction process and the design process that supports construction will no longer exist. It will simply become superfluous. Instead, the architects will face a more demanding task in terms of urban design and social and cultural values. Today, shipbuilding and design in the automotive industry already work that way – the design engineers of a yacht or a cruise ship no longer have any influence on their plans once they have submitted them to the shipyard. And why should they? At the shipyard the ship will simply proceed along the defined and hundred-fold tried-and-tested process. The functions of architects and structural engineers will change. New players will come to the table – from IT, from community management, and from other areas that are currently quite separated from the industry. They will see the opportunities in this systematic design process, and use them. We might call it the „Uber“ principle of the construction industry – the rules will be redefined. We want to, and will be, part of that. We owe this to our company, its employees, society at large and our specific trading location. But above all we owe it to the environment and future generations. All in the spirit of sustainability!

References

Ashton, K (2009) That ‚Internet of Things‘ Thing. RFID Journal.

Schmidt-Bleek, F (Ed.) (2004) The ecological backpack: An economy for a future with a future. [Original title: Der ökologische Rucksack: Wirtschaft für eine Zukunft mit Zukunft]. Stuttgart [et al], Germany. 

United Nations Environment Programme Sustainable Buildings & Climate Initiative (UNEP SBCI) (2009) Buildings and Climate Change, Summary for Decision-Makers. Available from:www.unep.org/sbci/pdfs/sbci-bccsummary.pdf [Accessed in May 2014].

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (2014). Available from: www.unfpa.org/pds/urbanization.htm [Accessed in May 2014].