Working with colleagues at the University of Cambridge and University of Dundee, Automating Concrete Construction (ACORN) will develop a holistic approach to the manufacture, assembly, reuse, and deconstruction of concrete buildings, leading to a healthier, safer, built environment.

Funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund ‘Transforming Construction’, the three-year project will capitalise on the computational and robotics expertise of the research team, to create an end-to-end digital process to automate the manufacture of concrete buildings, capitalising on the recent proliferation of affordable robotics and bringing them into an industry ripe for a step-change in sustainability and productivity.

The construction sector is responsible for nearly half of the UK’s carbon emissions and concrete alone for 5 per cent of global CO2 emissions. The widespread use of flat panel formwork for concrete leads to materially inefficient prismatic shapes for the beams, columns, and floor-slabs in our buildings. This practice, which has been around since Roman times, is a key driver behind the high embodied carbon emissions associated with concrete structures. As much as half of the concrete in a building could be saved, if only we approached our use of the material in a different way.

The ACORN team are working towards creating a culture that takes a holistic approach to the manufacture, assembly, reuse and deconstruction of concrete buildings, a culture that is built on the concept of using enough material, and no more. The team believe that by using innovative digital tools and techniques to optimise the shape and reinforcement at the design phase, and using robotics to create bespoke formwork and reinforcement during construction, a new generation of buildings will begin to dominate – buildings that use material only where it is needed, and that are manufactured in safe, quality-controlled and highly productive off-site facilities.

Principal Investigator and Senior Lecturer in the University of Bath’s Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Dr Paul Shepherd, said: “ACORN is tackling the UK government’s construction 2025 targets head-on. By automating construction, moving it off-site, and developing a culture of using just enough material, and no more, the project will lower costs, reduce delivery times and dramatically reduce carbon emissions.”

Professor of Structural Engineering, Tim Ibell, commented: “We waste material during the design of concrete structures, largely to ensure that easier construction is possible. But what if we designed concrete structures by choosing to put material only where we needed it, and then coupled this digital design approach to an automated construction procedure which was capable of producing extraordinary non-prismatic structural forms which were efficient, low-carbon and architecturally beautiful? This project seeks to achieve exactly this, representing a real transformation in concrete construction.”

Dr John Orr, Lecturer in Concrete Structures at the University of Cambridge, added: “Something as simple as allowing beams, columns and floor-slabs to have the shape they need to take load, rather than the shape they need to be easily formed, allows a complete rethink of the way material is used in our buildings. We can begin to ask exciting questions like what shape they should be, what material should we make them from, how can we take into account whole-life value and how should we organise our design processes to take advantage? ACORN will answer all of these questions.”

Professor Sir Mark Walport, UKRI Chief Executive, said: “Technologies being developed in the UK provide a significant opportunity to transform the way we build, such as the use of augmented reality to improve design or robotics to aid complex building assembly. Through projects such as these, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund allows us to catalyse innovation across the UK's vital construction industry improving productivity, sustainability and safety.”

In order to ensure the ideas of ACORN are actually taken-up by industry, the twelve project partners will play a key role by sharing their practical knowledge of the latest industry trends and providing real case-studies on which to benchmark our research.

ACORN is supported by partners AECOM Ltd (UK); AKT II; Arup Group Ltd; Building Research Establishment Ltd; Buro Happold; Byrne Bros; Cambridge CSIC; Foster and Partners; Laing O'Rourke Ltd; McKinsey and Company UK; OPS Structural Engineering and Tonkin Liu.

Dr Paul Shepherd stressed the importance of their involvement, saying: “With such a high-profile group of forward-thinking companies behind us, I am truly optimistic about what we can achieve, and would very much welcome conversations with other stakeholders who would like to get involved.”