Robot-Fabricated Building Material Is 100 Times Lighter Than Brick

A new building material, woven by robots, has been used to construct a ground-breaking structure that is on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The Elytra Filament Pavilion is fabricated from strands of glass and carbon fibre, resulting in a durable structure that weighs 100 times less than brick.


The museum unveiled the Elytra Filament Pavilion to open its first ever Engineering Season, a series of exhibitions that celebrate the "‘unsung heroes’ of design."

From the shell of an idea to a construction game-changer…

Conceived by a multi-disciplinary team from the University of Stuttgart, the 3-year project was led by experimental German architect Achim Menges alongside architect Moritz Dörstelmann, structural engineer Jan Knippers and climate engineer Thomas Auer. Together, the group has pioneered the integration of biomimicry, robotic fabrication and new materials research in architecture.

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To create the structure, which was inspired by the forewing shells of flying beetles known as ‘elytra’, Menges and his team developed a fabrication process using two KUKA robots, which wind resin-saturated glass and carbon fibres around a hexagonal framework.

"Each has a specific individual fibre arrangement, fibre geometry and orientation that corresponds to the structural loads the canopy is experiencing, at the time it was made" says Menges. Once the fibres harden to the point that they are stronger than the steel framework, the framework can be collapsed and removed.


"The real novelty of this project is that we don’t use a mold to create the fibres," Menges adds. "We used the materiality of the fibre to inform the structural components."

The innovation doesn't stop there, the structure will be continuously added to over the course of the V&A’s Engineering Season. Sensors in the canopy fibres constantly collect data on how visitors use the pavilion and monitor the structure’s behaviour, informing how and where the pavilion grows.

What next for the Elytra material?

As the Elytra Pavilion evolves, so will the possibilities that stem from the robust yet lightweight material. The research team are already looking at the possibility of using similar techniques to build canopies for green urban spaces and "larger-scale lightweight building envelopes," such as stadium roofs.


"The really exciting aspect for me is that it's neither an engineering aesthetic nor is it merely designed," says Menges. "It’s really the synthesis of on the one hand being a very expressive piece of architecture, and on the other hand being an extremely materially efficient and lightweight system."

Just how lightweight is the Elytra material?

Claims that the structure is 100 times lighter than the brick equivalent are not exaggerated. The entire 2,000 square foot pavilion weighs just 2.5 tons. The same weight of bricks would build you a structure measuring just 20 square feet.


During a series of special events as part of the Engineering Season, visitors will have the opportunity to witness the pavilion’s construction live, as new components are fabricated on-site by a KUKA robot. The pavilion remains on display at the V&A until November 6th, 2016.