digitales bauen GmbH Makes Challenging Architecture Buildable Using Industrial Techniques

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What has long been a recipe for success in the automotive industry is seen by many in the construction industry as the death-knell for architecture: modular construction does promise speed, savings and efficiency, yet at the same time, images of concrete slab constructions and 1970s satellite towns inevitably come to mind. An alternative is demonstrated by digitales bauen GmbH. The company is based in the German city of Karlsruhe and since January 1, 2020, it has been a subsidiary of Drees & Sommer SE, the planning and consulting company with headquarters in Stuttgart. Over the last 20 years, digitales bauen has systematically developed a method that allows even extremely demanding architectural designs to be translated into modules.

The basic idea of modular construction is not new: for many years now, buildings have been assembled according to the modular principle – but usually with a compromise on aesthetics and functionality. This resulted in shoebox architecture. For this reason, modular construction has so far been limited to a few building types such as production plants, simple office blocks or residential buildings of low complexity and standard sizes.

A Series of Individual Units

The term ‘modular construction’ usually conjures up an image of standardized mass products, a kind of Lego for adults, but made of concrete and steel. This has little to do with reality, as demonstrated by spectacular buildings such as the experimenta science center and museum in the German city of Heilbronn or the innovative FOUR district in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The architecture of these buildings is unique – and modular.

‘Good modular buildings should always meet the specific design requirements of the architect and the needs of the client’, explained Dr. Volkmar Hovestadt, Managing Director of digitales bauen – Part of Drees & Sommer. ‘For this purpose, we have developed a digital planning method that can translate every individual architectural draft and all technical building plans into modules.

The modules are summarized in catalogs, where they are systematically processed as a whole. The aim is that identical areas and designs, such as offices, sanitary areas, floor distributors or suspended corridor ceilings, are planned only once. The modules are planning standards, logistics standards and assembly standards in one. Ideally, they can be completely prefabricated using industrial techniques and assembled efficiently on the building site.’

Minimal instead of Monotonous

In many cases, small geometric corrections can significantly reduce the variety of designs without impairing the functionality or architectural effect. In the case of experimenta, for example, the experts optimized the façade design in such a way that the initial 200+ different façade elements were brought down to 50 in the end.

The special feature of this approach is that creative ideas and sophisticated individual elements do not fall victim to standard solutions from the modular construction kit. Using this method, planners are instead able to get a systematic grip on even complex buildings with difficult geometries. This is also the difference compared to builders that offer predefined system construction kits. While these kits are limited in terms of choice and functionality, the method used by digitales bauen aims to take each draft and then extract parts of the building as modules, including technical installations, to develop them like products and prefabricate them as far as possible. The modular packages are then delivered to the building site at precisely the right time and assembled using standardized processes. This cuts construction time significantly, while maintaining the same quality of space, design and technical building services.

Buildings from the Assembly Line

In order to apply these benefits across the entire construction and real estate industry, Drees & Sommer has held a 74.9 percent stake in digitales bauen since January 1, 2020, after ten years of close cooperation. Company founder and Managing Director Dr. Volkmar Hovestadt has a 25.1 percent shareholding. He manages the company together with Veit Thurm, Partner at Drees & Sommer SE.

The shared vision: to make inroads into the construction industry step by step, through a systematic, modular approach; and to establish a digital process chain.

‘Construction of the future is based on digital methods. Similar to the manufacturing industry, these methods also help to standardize recurring processes in the construction sector much more easily and to prefabricate parts of a building. In this way, we can combine the goal of creating individual and distinctive buildings with the logic of cost-effectiveness,’ explained Steffen Szeidl, Member of the Executive Board at Drees & Sommer.