Smart Living Lab's new head is a pioneer in the reuse of load-bearing

Corentin Fivet © 2023 Alain Herzog

Corentin Fivet © 2023 Alain Herzog

Corentin Fivet, an EPFL professor since 2016, has developed pioneering methods for reusing concrete slabs, walls, and beams made of wood or steel. He’ll take over as the head of the Smart Living Lab this spring, as the R&D center celebrates its 10th anniversary.

When Corentin Fivet left MIT to take a tenure-track assistant professor position at EPFL Fribourg, his field of research was still young. “Reviewing the literature was easy since hardly anything had been published,” he says. Back then, the practice of reusing load-bearing structures wasn’t as widely accepted as it is today. And the Smart Living Lab itself was also just getting off the ground. A joint initiative of three Swiss universities – EPFL, the School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg (HEIA-FR) and the University of Fribourg – the Smart Living Lab started with a handful of research groups studying new methods for the built environment. Over time, more research groups joined them in the large blueFactory building. This 10th anniversary is symbolic,” says Fivet. “We now have around a dozen research groups that have chalked up numerous achievements – including some that have received international recognition. My appointment as the center’s academic director marks the start of the next phase.” Fivet heads the Structural Xploration Lab (SXL), part of EPFL’s School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), and his team’s research is also starting to make waves.

There are a lot of benefits to reusing load-bearing structures. It can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and energy and raw-material consumption.

Corentin Fivet, head of Structural Xploration Lab and future head of the Smart Living Lab

Bright prospects for architecture employing reused materials

When it comes to construction materials in general, reusing them is nothing new. “It’s been happening forever, because new materials are expensive and old ones can be robust,” says Fivet. What is new, however, is the reuse of load-bearing structures. That’s still done only rarely, even though these structures are usually in excellent condition when buildings are demolished. “There are a lot of benefits to reusing load-bearing structures,” Fivet explains. “It can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and energy and raw-material consumption.” The research being done at his lab has anchored him as a leading global expert in this emerging field. But he’s keenly aware that it’ll take time before the practice is embraced by the construction industry, since it requires changing how buildings are designed from the start. “Our approach stands to be a key component of the circular economy,” says Fivet. “And implementing it on a large scale will mean encouraging architects to rethink their processes, all the way back to their very first sketches, in order to incorporate existing structures – whose properties they’ll often have little information on. We’ll also need to develop new calculation methods and new techniques for both construction and demolition.”

Fivet is able to forge these ties between architecture and civil engineering thanks to a hybrid degree program he completed at UCLouvain in Belgium. “My architecture know-how lets me pinpoint which questions to ask, while my engineering know-how helps me come up with the right answers,” he says. “Today, this cross-disciplinary approach is the cornerstone of our research at SXL, where civil engineers work hand in hand with architects. Their combined efforts give rise to disruptive methods that are solid from a technical standpoint.” Examples include two of SXL’s most visible achievements over the past few years: a prototype footbridge made from concrete blocks that were cut and drilled on site and assembled using prestressed cables, and a slab made from reused concrete. Those projects demonstrate the technical and financial feasibility of recovering materials from the destruction of reinforced-concrete buildings.

Building of the footbridge © 2021 EPFL

Offering more continuing education

Fivet is already a member of the Smart Living Lab’s Executive Committee, and he watched the R&D center expand under its current academic director, Marilyne Andersen. “She initiated the discussions that led to the Lab being created in 2014,” he says. “And many of the projects she spearheaded have had a major impact, like NeighbourHub – a solar-powered house that won several awards at the 2017 Solar Decathlon collegiate competition in Denver, Colorado. Today NeighbourHub sits in Fribourg’s blueFactory district where it serves as a hub of community life.Other cross-disciplinary initiatives rolled out under Andersen’s leadership include Building2050, the research group that supported the design process for the new Smart Living Lab building, and, more recently, SWICE, a Swiss federal R&D program. SWICE aims to identify and quantify the potential energy savings and improved quality of life that can result from novel urban scenarios. It’s coordinated by EPFL and has received significant funding from the Swiss Federal Office of Energy.” Another major initiative is ARC-HEST, a Master’s student exchange program with South Korea.

Fivet will take over as the Smart Living Lab’s academic director on 1 April 2024, working alongside Martin Gonzenbach, who will remain its director of operations. Fivet intends to carry forward with the Smart Living Lab’s ambition: to serve as a catalyst for sustainability and well-being in the built environment. One of his first goals will be to expand the range of continuing education that the center offers to architects, civil engineers, construction-site supervisors and property managers. “Many of these people want to adapt their habits and practices, but they aren’t up to date with the latest developments and may not know how to apply the new approaches in their work.” The new continuing education programs will be designed to foster synergies and spur debate on current topics among professionals. Fivet is also looking forward to exploring new forms of collaboration among the research groups from the three partner universities. “With these experts working so close together, we have a unique opportunity to leverage their complementary skill-sets in basic and applied research,” he says. EPFL plans to introduce new chairs at its Fribourg campus in the coming years in order to further broaden the scope of research into modern-day challenges in the built environment.

Author: Cécilia Carron

Source: Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering | ENAC

This content is distributed under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 license. You may freely reproduce the text, videos and images it contains, provided that you indicate the author’s name and place no restrictions on the subsequent use of the content. If you would like to reproduce an illustration that does not contain the CC BY-SA notice, you must obtain approval from the author.