IDEMA Panel House

A repeatable model for desirable, quick-to-build, net zero housing.

Last updated: 11th February 2021

Date uploaded:

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Innovation Lead: Chris Coonick
Project number: 104793
UKRI funding: £211,123


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Summary

Inspired by the Rubik's Cube and flatpack furniture, Mills Power Architecture had a vision of using precision manufacturing, robotics, sensor technology and onsite factory processes to create easy to assemble homes. To realise this idea, they worked together with a team of diverse partners and researched the techniques and technology needed to develop a new era of efficient, affordable click-and-build houses. The result? The Intelligent Design for Manufacture and Assembly Panel House (IDEMA).

Innovation type: Energy, Kit of parts, Manufacturing, Offsite, Process
Organisation type: ACE (Architect / Consultant Engineer), Innovative SME

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Project pioneers

Mills Power Architecture is an innovative architecture practice who works creatively with clients in the private and public sectors on residential, public and social infrastructure projects. Its mission is to improve lives through architecture, by creating sustainable environments that fulfil people's needs and inspire them.

The problem

Two of the most immediate and pressing issues facing the construction industry are addressing the UK housing crisis, while the industry faces a skills shortage, and sustainability, with buildings accounting for around 20% of the UK's carbon emissions. Manufactured homes can be built more quickly - but if energy performance, waste, ease of manufacturing, transportation and assembly aren't considered then the productivity and sustainability benefits of offsite construction are vastly reduced. The current assembly of pre-manufactured buildings generally relies on traditional labour-intensive methods such as fixer points and nails. Floor joists sit directly on top of walls creating cavities, which can lead to thermal bridging and noise transmittance, which even when filled with insulation reduces the performance of buildings.

Vision

Adopting new methods of design and production for manufactured homes allows construction to move to production lines, autonomous digital platforms, smart robotics, and additive manufacturing (three-dimensional objects printed from a CAD model). Considering energy performance, waste, and ease of manufacturing, transportation and assembly at the design stage, means that these new production processes can deliver greater efficiencies in time, materials and building performance.  Creative design thinking which limits the number and complexity of components, also results in a streamlined manufacturing process, while still enabling a vast diversity of different structures to be created. This combined approach provides a new model for desirable, high quality, low cost, quick-to-build, net zero housing.

Key Insight

Mills Power Architecture took the opportunity presented by the Transforming Construction Challenge to take a fresh look at the design and production of 21st century homes. Intrigued by the design of the Rubik's Cube, where only four different types of component and six different colours can produce a vast amount of unique permutations, Mills Power Architecture wanted to see whether it could create a wide range of affordable net zero homes from only a few repeatable components. With a consortium of fellow visionaries, it set out to explore construction processes with robotics and additive manufacture, while using the latest developments in high-performance insulation materials.

First step

Mills Power Architecture, with i3D Robotics, kicked off the Intelligent Design for Manufacture and Assembly of built assets (IDEMA). It was to be a feasibility study into a new business model away from its current bespoke design service, and instead blend design input from self-build clients with repeatable components to create a building with exemplary environmental performance.

Barrier

While they are cheaper and faster to build, manufactured buildings are often considered to be less architecturally interesting due to traditional design processes resulting in uniform and repetitive structures. This limits the adoption of manufactured homes as a solution to housing and sustainability challenges. The proposed IDEMA Panel House is a blend of standardised components and customised needs, so a more attractive proposition to self-builders as it gives them autonomy to select the design and requirements that best match their needs to their budget.

Process innovation

The first step taken was to question the whole design and build process to assess how best to deliver homes faster, cheaper and net zero carbon. So the team developed a new concept for an IDEMA Panel House.  They looked at how a panellised construction system could deliver assembly-time, cost and emission savings. They looked at the standardisation and precision benefits of offsite factory-manufactured building elements, and the convenience and efficiency of nimble flat-pack transportation for rapid on-side click-and-build assembly.
The click-and-build concept was developed in collaboration with experts in materials, sensor networks, production technologies, vision systems and robotics. It recommended onsite assembly where panels are secured and clicked together using a new innovative class of joints and connectors, that can be tightened to improve structural integrity. This offers repeatability that can lead to reduced production costs, significant productivity gains and improved quality assurance. Mills Power Architecture also looked at the different panel components as a permutations group. Like an alphabet, the variety and richness of the system derives not from the elaborateness and variety of the individual panels themselves, but from the huge variety of ways in which the same few components can be put together, configured or arranged.  Modular components side step the temptation to shave space standards, so as part of this feasibility study, the team also set a quantified space standard for the dimensions and components of the IDEMA Panel House.

Digital Innovation

The IDEMA Panel House concept explored in the feasibility study drew on digital and data-driven autonomous manufacturing processes. The connection system has been designed so that panels can be made in a local or floating factory onsite, using programmed robots and techniques developed by i3D Robotics for both constructing the panel frames and depositing the insulation. This allows the building shell to be fully assembled within 10 days. This autonomous production line has also been designed so that the final product could be manufactured by vision-guided robotics. This uses new vision systems, cutting edge algorithms, smart robotics, and additive manufacturing to build up each panel in layers with framing elements and an extruded or sprayed insulating material. A simulation platform allowed the team to test vision sensors in different positions, at different angles and with different resolutions. This enabled them to run a simulation of the placement and viability of camera systems that closely matched the real world. Quality assurance of the manufacturing process can also be provided by laser line scanning and defect detection of the timber pre- and post-cutting, as well as object comparison with 3D CAD drawings, ensuring the object has been produced correctly in the manufacturing process. Finally, sensor network embedded within the IDEMA Panel House design has the potential to deliver whole-life asset performance monitoring, predictive maintenance and management.

Whole life innovation

The feasibility for the IDEMA Panel House started with the innovative design of an affordable, net zero, thermal efficient home that goes beyond even PassiveHaus and Level 6 UK Code for Sustainable homes standards without compromising internal living space. Incorporating a kit of parts approach, repeatable autonomous manufacturing processes, local manufacture and delivery and carbon negative materials has led to an estimated 15% improvement in construction productivity and a 30% reduction in costs.  Taking things a step further, integrating renewable energy generation and storage technologies through environmental remodelling means the IDEMA Panel House can meet its own energy requirements and generate enough surplus energy to charge a small electric car. This will provide occupiers with an estimated energy saving of 1,300 kWh/yr.

Collaborators

Developing the feasibility study for the IDEMA Panel House project required Mills Power Architecture to collaborate with a multi-disciplinary team. This included vision controlled robotics developers i3D Robotics, sensor network specialists L&B Services, and energy researchers DG Cities. Additional skills were brought on board through sub-contractors, including Price & Myers – to assess the structural integrity of the panels, and University of Greenwich – to assess state of the art thermal insulation materials. i3D Robotics also introduced Mills Power Architecture to the technical requirements of autonomous and additive pre-fabricated processes, allowing it to develop an effective design for manufactured building components. As a result i3D Robotics are now exploring ideas around material extrusion for insulation and autonomous framing for house building with the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). Doug King (Bath University & Environmental Consultant) advised on the energy requirements analysis from passive performance of fabric and how these can be addressed with renewable energy.

  • Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC)
  • Bath University
  • DG Cities
  • L&B Services
  • Price & Myers
  • University of Greenwich
  • i3D Robotics

Lead support

As well as the funding provided, the Transforming Construction Challenge enabled the IDEMA Panel House team to engage with the Construction Innovation Hub, to explore thermal testing of the innovative panel system and manufacturing approach, and the Active Building Centre, to discuss energy technology options to achieve its net zero goals. 

Long Term Vision

The IDEMA Panel House concept brings an alternative way of delivering zero carbon affordable homes. Considering energy performance, waste, and ease of manufacturing, transportation and assembly at the design stage, means that these new productions processes can deliver greater efficiencies in time, materials and building performance.  The feasibility study has shown that even smaller companies can manufacture the panels at the point of need from locally sourced timber. And the click-and-build assembly can also use non-specialist local labour.  This combined approach provides a new model for desirable, high quality, low cost, quick-to-build, net zero homes that could meet the need for affordable housing and employment in one go.

Human Stories

In affordable housing, a tension exists between people’s desire for bespoke, private living space and housing developers’ need to fit as many units as possible into a plot to make a site viable. The recommendations for the IDEMA Panel House show how the click-and-build approach can create a huge variety of ways in which the same few components can be put together, configured or arranged giving household great flexibility on design and layout. The team also set a new standard for the dimensions and components of the house to increase internal space.

Powerful Processes

The IDEMA Panel House has been designed so the components can be made in a local or floating factory on-site, using programmed robots and techniques developed by i3D Robotics both for constructing the panel frames and depositing insulation. This allows the building shell to be fully assembled within 10 days. This autonomous production line has also been designed so that the final product design could be manufactured by vision-guided robotics. This uses new vision systems, cutting edge algorithms, smart robotics, and additive manufacturing to build up each panel in layers with framing elements and an extruded or sprayed insulating material. Quality assurance of the manufacturing process is provided by laser line scanning and defect detection of the timber pre- and post-cutting, as well as object comparison with 3D CAD drawings, ensuring the object has been produced correctly in the manufacturing process.

Fascinating Facts

There is an urgent need for for desirable, high quality, low cost, quick-to-build, net zero housing. IDEMA Panel House's design and production process allows the building shell to be fully assembled within 10 days, with an estimated 15% improvement in construction productivity and a 30% reduction in costs.  These thermal efficient homes go beyond even PassiveHaus and Level 6 UK Code for Sustainable homes standards, while integrating renewable energy generation and storage technologies means the IDEMA Panel House can meet its own energy requirements and generate enough surplus energy to charge a small electric car. This reduce energy requirements by 1,300 kWh/yr.

Benefits

Active Energy
The IDEMA team investigated the design of smart and local energy networks, maximising the use of active energy components and reducing energy requirements by 1,300 kWh/yr. An assessment by energy researchers, DG Cities, found this was possible for a community of ten or more homes.

Emissions
The IDEMA Panel House started with the innovative design of an affordable, net zero, thermal efficient home that goes beyond even PassiveHaus and Level 6 UK Code for Sustainable homes standards without compromising internal living space. Incorporating low carbon materials and a new class of insulation for autonomous manufacture of the panels has led to an estimated 15% improvement in construction productivity and a 30% reduction in costs.  Through the use of sustainable timber frames, sheathing and insulation products the embodied carbon in each building is reduced. In addition, the lighter weight of construction will reduce the volume of foundations required. Mills Power Architecture's prototype Forest Room does not use concrete at all within the construction, preferring to use screw pile foundations instead. Panels are made predominantly from sustainably sourced timber based construction materials - timber is recognised as a sustainable and renewable material that stores carbon throughout its usable lifespan and sequesters carbon long-term if disposed of or recycled without combustion. Taking things a step further, integrating renewable energy generation and storage technologies means the IDEMA Panel House can meet its own energy requirements and generate enough surplus energy to charge a small electric car. This will reduce energy requirements by 1,300 kWh/yr.

Time
Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) are recommended to manufacture the IDEMA Panel House autonomously in a factory setting, using sustainable materials, for rapid assembly onsite, estimating that the building shell can be fully assembled within 10 days. The speed of assembly also mitigates the risk of weather delays.

Whole-life Value
The form and layout of the IDEMA Panel House is geared to urban conditions where affordable housing is most urgently needed: constrained and dense developments, presumption of shared party walls (and floors) between dwellings, a relatively deep house plan with long windowless sides, short fenestrated elevations front and back, and industrially produced external cladding systems. However, as a versatile system, the vast number of potential permutations and re-configurations means it can go beyond urban environments and be successfully applied to stand alone dwellings in rural settings. The system can also be extended and modified throughout its life, allowing the home to extend as lifestyle needs change.