Behaviour-based Design, Fabrication and Construction of Segmented Shells:
A Computational Synthesis

Within the field of lightweight design in architecture, thin vaulted shell structures allow for large spans and lightweight structural building enclosures that integrate load-bearing function and building envelope. Thin shells are considered material-efficient and elegant as the form is the expression of the internal forces. They are, however, notoriously difficult to design and build and, consequently, have fallen from favour after a period of experimentation in the 20th century: the complex double-curved surface geometry cannot be easily modelled using established architectural design methods and eluded the serial production logic of the 20th century; constructing thin shells therefore usually required large amounts of onsite labour as they usually have to be built twice – first as 1:1 formwork, then as loadbearing structure.

The development of digital design, simulation and fabrication methods over the last 25 years and a changing industrial production paradigm in the early 21st century now provide the opportunity to revisit the challenges posed to the design and realisation of thin shell structures. Particularly, the segmentation of thin shells seems to be ideally suited to take advantage of the new technological context: pre-fabrication and increasing automation enabled by Computer-Numerical Control (CNC) and robotics allow not only for geometric variability, but also for quality control and just-in-time delivery on-site, where the segments can be assembled over minimal false-work. Likewise, computational design, simulation and analysis methods seem particularly suited to address the challenges of joint development and segment arrangement posed by interrupting the stiffness continuity of the shell surface.

A fundamental aspect in lightweight design and, in particular, in the design of segmented shells is the ability to anticipate performative potentials and the possibilities of materialisation during the early design stages – aspects that are located at the opposite end of the planning spectrum. As conventional architectural designs usually cannot be reengineered for light weight, the established linear architectural design and delivery process does not allow for the required inter-disciplinary integration and feedback between design, engineering, fabrication and construction that is necessary for the design of segmented shells. Therefore, novel computational approaches are needed that allow feedback between design and materialisation.

The aim of the proposed research is to bridge the gap between design and materialisation of segmented shells by describing, developing and prototypically testing novel approaches for architectural design that concurrently integrate interdisciplinary design requirements within one methodological framework. The main hypothesis is that agent-based modelling and simulation, and behavioural robotics, both grounded on the same concept of behaviours as simple building blocks for the design of complex adaptive systems, allow the required feedback by representing both design and materialisation within the same behavioural paradigm.

Developing digital methods for early stage architectural design that allow the anticipation of inter-disciplinary design requirements in the context of the design and fabrication of segmented shells is considered highly relevant and is expected to contribute to the fields of architectural design and thin shell design: (1) bringing segmented shell design within the scope of architectural design will make lightweight design and the associated resource-effectiveness accessible for architecture; (2) the shift from post-rationalisation to pre-informed design and design exploration are relevant beyond the scope of segmented shells; finally, (3) conceptualising robotic fabrication within the context of behavioural systems will allow for adaptive fabrication processes, which will become increasingly relevant as robotic fabrication is expanding from the workshop to the construction site.

ICD Institute for Computational Design and Construction – Prof. Achim Menges

Scientific Development


  • German Research Foundation
  • EFRE / BW

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