Intelligent City Builds Prefab, Passive, Mass Timber Housing With Robots

They not only have the technology, but also the typology.

intelligent City section

Intelligent City

Intelligent City describes itself as "leaders in innovative urban housing solutions." The company recently had a splashy opening of their factory with its robots that can slice and dice panels made of cross-laminated timber (CLT). Co-founder Oliver Lang is quoted in the press release:

"We are leading the housing industry through product- and platform-based approach to address affordability, livability and climate change issues. We are now the first in the world to use advanced robotics to automatically assemble mass timber building systems that have been tested to meet the latest building code and net-zero standards.”

Lang and Canadian designer Cindy Wilson have practiced architecture for over 25 years and founded Intelligent City in 2008, when mass timber was almost unknown. Since then they have developed processes and technologies that let it deliver carbon-neutral buildings quickly and economically. In an article for Wood Design and Building, Oliver David Krieg and Lang write:

"Intelligent City has been working for over a decade on this approach for deep technology and process integration. The company works with clients to design and construct sustainable, net-zero, multi-family urban green buildings, at lower costs for both owners, operators and tenants. Its system incorporates mass timber, design engineering, Passive House performance, automated manufacturing and parametric software. The company’s Platforms for Life (P4L) model is a scalable and adaptable proprietary technology platform created to deliver highly desirable urban housing with a new level of affordability, longevity, and environmental and social sustainability."

But besides the technology, they also have the typology: a building design type that works at the right density—what I have called the Goldilocks Density—that makes great cities. They write:

"At Intelligent City, we developed a parametric mass timber building platform for six- to 18-story mixed-use urban housing compliant with new mass timber high-rise regulation in Canada and the U.S. This market segment was selected because of its potential for a healthy urban density between low-rise sprawl and high-rise concrete. At this height, mass timber buildings excel not only because of their structural performance and fire safety, but because they enable an urban typology that is dense enough for public infrastructure to be economically feasible, and low enough to promote resilient communities and connectedness."

Lang tells Treehugger there is a big gap in the market for what has been called the missing middle. He says: "What are the building blocks of a 15-minute city? How do we overcome this zoning segregation that has been going on since the industrial revolution, and the onset of the car that has created so many problems, that has taken away the social connectiveness."

Project Roof

Intelligent City

Lang describes how a client came to him in 2002 and asked what he thought medium-scale density should look like. Lang notes he was a student in Berlin and Barcelona and the courtyard typology was everywhere. He looked at how you can do simple designs that cool themselves through natural ventilation and have natural stack effects, but it all had different grids and dimensions than those that were common in the industry.

But the developers weren't interested, so Lang thought: "OK if that doesn't exist in the market, then we have to build a company that does precisely that." But it took years of testing, approvals, and regulation changes until mass timber was accepted and to get the technology to work with the typology.

Section through building

Intelligent City

There are many advantages to the courtyard design. You can have natural cross-ventilation, bedrooms can be located away from the street, there are no complicated corridor ventilation issues and it's particularly useful when there are airborne viruses floating around.

There are advantages to mass timber. People love its biophilic characteristics and it is made from a renewable resource: "It is high-tech and natural at the same time, providing a path to carbon neutral buildings."

It is also easy to work with: "Although wood is one of the oldest building materials, it lends itself well to modern automation and prefabrication, which are both crucial aspects in this new product-based paradigm. Aside from its obvious sustainability and health benefits, wood is lightweight and can be machined easily and processed in a factory environment." 

And, of course, there are advantages to building with the Passive House standard; it requires almost no energy for heating and cooling, reducing operating costs by up to 80%.

Clean ceiling with no exposed services
Clean ceiling with no exposed service.

Intelligent City

Intelligent City uses its robots to build up a hollow core floor cassette system with mechanical and electrical services inside, allowing for a clean wood ceiling without exposed services. as well as being stronger and quieter. The heat recovery ventilation ductwork is right in the slab. Lang says this allows more integration and makes it "plug and play."

He notes: "The problem with mass timber is that you are really just replacing concrete with timber, but you don't get the advantage of design integration to this degree." They also developed a wall panel out of CLT that "literally just clicks together."

Cladding closup
Click-Together Cladding.

Intelligent City

When one does a Google search on "parametric design," the result is usually a lot of swoopy curving stuff that would have been almost impossible to draw by hand. Think Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid. But it doesn't have to be curvy. As engineer Dorothee Citerne of Arup explained: "Parametric design lets you specify the key parameters of your project and make changes interactively, with the model updating automatically. It can be used for architectural showmanship but I believe good engineers will use it to make more efficient designs, explore more options, and optimize buildings."

This is how Intelligent City uses it. The company builds a "digital twin" of the building and then send the data to the robots that cut the wood. They note that it wasn't used much in traditional architectural practices, where the designer didn't have much control over construction processes. But when the designer has the robots, everything changes.

Robot in factory

Intelligent City

"When design, engineering, materiality and construction converge within a vertically integrated company, buildings become products. Like a laptop, phone or car, the resulting design and quality of a building becomes as important as its manufacturing process. For buildings, however, the product should not embody a singular solution, but each iteration can be unique in its expression through the integration of parametric design principles."

Passive House proselytizer Bronwyn Barry recently tweeted that "The future of construction has 3 P’s: Panelized, Prefab & #Passivhaus," I think she might have to add a fourth: parametric.

If the work of Intelligent City were any one of Passive House, Mass Timber, Courtyard Typology, or Goldilocks Density, I would be excited about it. Add in the vertical integration and the parametric platform that delivers "consistent, yet infinitely configurable, mass timber" from the computer to the shop floor to the building site, and you have a whole new world.

And now a word from the ABB robot people: