Photo of Catherine De Wolf

Artificial intelligence & robotics

Catherine De Wolf

Using AI to help reduce emissions and waste of materials in the construction industry.

Year Honored

ETH Zurich


Catherine De Wolf, 34, is using AI to help reduce emissions and waste of materials in the construction industry. Her goal is to aid the transition away from a one-time-use building philosophy, where materials used in construction are discarded when a building is torn down, to a circular one, where old building materials are reused since they are cheaper than sourcing new ones.

Old buildings set for demolition often contain a large cache of pricey, semi-finished elements like windows, metal, and wood. But since nobody really knows exactly what any given building contains, it’s usually easier, and cheaper, to demolish them and send the waste to a landfill. Then new materials have to be produced for new construction, a process that generates extra emissions.

“What I thought was: What if we had some tools to scan buildings easily, having the dimensions digitized easily, the type of materials, the condition of the material,” says De Wolf, “and we put that into some kind of Tinder for reusable building materials?”

First, she and her team fed data from Google Street View, lidar scans, and building documents into an AI system they built that can predict what materials each building is likely to contain, and how to design future projects with those materials. Then she and her team tagged recovered materials with QR codes—a process she hopes will become standard when buildings are constructed in the first place. The QR codes link to a database that provides a history of the material and its important physical characteristics.

In one project, a team led by De Wolf, who is an assistant professor in architecture at ETH Zurich, helped match the iconic glass panels from the Centre Pompidou in Paris—which were being replaced in response to regulatory changes—with a firm that used them to build small office rooms. In a second project, she used her methods to create a geodesic dome built entirely from materials salvaged from an old car warehouse in Geneva. She envisions developing an app that will match reused materials with future projects.