The NEST HiLo unit has opened

Light construction, efficient operation

Boasting an intricate, doubly curved concrete roof, lightweight funicular floors, and self-learning building technology, the latest addition to Empa and Eawag's NEST research building in Duebendorf, Switzerland officially opened today. The innovative unit illustrates nearly a decade of formative ETH Zurich research in architecture and sustainable technologies.
The HiLo unit sits on the top platform of the NEST research and innovation building on the Empa campus in Dubendorf, Switzerland. Photo: Roman Keller
HiLo, the latest NEST unit, combines medieval building principles with futuristic construction methods: the two-storey building module with its striking, doubly curved concrete roof and novel, lightweight funicular floor system was inspired by construction methods of the past, and planned and built using state-of-the-art computational design and fabrication techniques. In the new unit, a team of scientists led by Philippe Block, Professor of Architecture and Structures, and Arno Schlueter, Professor of Architecture and Building Systems together with industrial partners explored how lightweight structures and efficient construction methods can be combined with intelligent and adaptive building systems to reduce both embodied and operational emissions in the construction and building industry.
Resource-efficient concrete structures

The unit’s striking roof derives its load-bearing capacity from its highly curved geometry combined with a concrete sandwich structure, made of two thin layers of reinforced concrete connected by a grid of concrete ribs and steel anchors. To save large amounts of formwork material, the roof was built using a flexible formwork consisting of a  tensioned cablenet covered with a thin membrane onto which the concrete was sprayed.

For the mezzanine floors of the two-storey unit, the researchers primarily aimed to use as little material as possible in the structure itself. By using a rib-stiffened funicular shell instead of a flat plate, HiLo's lightweight funicular system uses over 70 percent less material than conventional floor slabs in reinforced concrete. Furthermore, digital production methods allowed the integration of ventilation, cooling, and low temperature heating systems into the floor structure for an even greater reduction in materials and volume.

Learning building technology

The HiLo unit is also equipped with an adaptive solar façade developed by Schlueter's group. It consists of 30 photovoltaic modules that can be aligned with the sun. The flexible modules can also be used to control how sunlight enters the room in order to passively heat it or reduce cooling requirements.

The adaptive solar façade is one of a series of innovative building technology components designed for efficient indoor climate regulation. During operation, the researchers consistently optimised the interplay of the individual technologies using machine learning and considering the users, in order to investigate how comfortable indoor conditions can be achieved with as little energy and emissions as possible.

Research and industry learn from each other

HiLo stands for "high performance – low emissions". The unit allows researchers to test how the construction and operation of buildings can be designed to be as energy- and resource-efficient as possible, while at the same time ensuring an attractive architectural space and a high level of comfort.

HiLo is the eighth module in the experimental NEST building on the campus of the two research institutions Empa and Eawag in Duebendorf, Switzerland (just outside of Zurich). In the modular research and innovation building, scientists and industry partners can test and advance new building and energy technologies in temporary building modules or units and under “real-life” conditions.

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Exterior view of the NEST unit HiLo from the southwest at sunset. Photo: Roman Keller
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The main open space of the NEST unit HiLo with a view towards the east. Photo: Roman Keller
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The main open space of the NEST unit HiLo with a view to the west. Photo: Roman Keller
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View from the upper floor towards the east. Photo: Roman Keller
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HiLo offers work and meeting spaces. Photo: Roman Keller
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The office space on the east side with a view of the adaptive solar façade and the bottom surface of the lightweight floor construction. Photo: Roman Keller
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The office room on the west side with a view of the lightweight floor construction from below. Photo: Roman Keller
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View behind the wall: The HiLo unit is connected to a central energy hub of the NEST building. Photo: ETH Zurich / Architecture and Building Systems
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A tensioned cable net was used as the primary structure of the formwork of the doubly curved HiLo roof. Photo: ETH Zurich, Block Research Group / Juney Lee
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A thin textile was used for the shuttering layer of the flexible formwork. Photo: ETH Zurich, Block Research Group / Juney Lee
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The first layer of concrete is sprayed onto the textile formwork. Photo: ETH Zurich, Block Research Group / Juney Lee
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The finished doubly curved roof shell. Photo: Roman Keller
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Formwork for the rib-stiffened funicular floor system on the west side. Photo: ETH Zurich, Block Research Group / Juney Lee
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Assembly of the 3D-printed formwork components for the rib-stiffened funicular floor on the east side. Photo: ETH Zurich, Digital Building Technologies / Georgia Chousou
Further information
Peter Richner
Empa, Deputy CEO / Head of the Department of Engineering Sciences

Philippe Block
ETH Zurich, Block Research Group

Architecture and Building Systems A/S
Alessandra Gabaglio, Communications

Press contacts
Stephan Kaelin
Empa, Communications
Tel. +41 58 765 49 93

Vanessa Bleich
ETH Zurich, Corporate Communications
Tel. +41 44 632 41 41

Photos, videos and other press material

An extensive media kit is available here.

Please find here an overview of all involved project partners.

Virtual Tour through HiLo

Visit the virtual tour of the NEST unit HiLo here.

Virtual Opening Event
On October 6, 2021, HiLo will be formally opened during a virtual event: Program and registration here.

Project Team

Block Research Group, ETH Zurich
Chair of Architecture and Building Systems, ETH Zurich

ROK Architekten
Block Research Group, ETH Zurich

About NEST
NEST is the modular research and innovation building of the Swiss research institutes, Empa and Eawag. It was completed in 2016 and is located on the Empa campus in Dübendorf. More than 150 partners from research, industry and the public sector work closely together. At NEST, they validate new technologies and construction concepts under real-world conditions, further develop and demonstrate them in everyday use. As a result, innovative construction and energy technologies can enter the market much faster.

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