“Imagine a future where not just houses, but entire streets are printed in one go. That's the potential of this technology… Architecture isn't an obtuse profession requiring years of study and practice – it becomes something you do at the click of a mouse, auto-rendered with algorithms that provide a list of period styles in keeping with the neighbourhood.” – Victoria Woollaston and Ian Steadman, Wired
What kind of futuristic visions does the term “3D printing” conjure up? Perhaps you think of plastic prototypes, small-scale models, or lifesaving prosthetics. If you’re a film nerd, maybe you remember the characters in Coraline, Kylo Ren’s red lightsaber, or Iron Man’s armor plates. However, there is a lesser known application of 3D printing capable of impacting our lives in profound ways; that is, a future of printed buildings, houses, roads, and bridges is not so far off.
Surprisingly, 3D printing has been around since the 1980s. At its simplest, this process involves transforming a digital picture into a tangible object using many horizontal layers. The “ink” used by these printers ranges from “plastics to rubber, sandstone, metals and alloys — with more and more materials appearing on the market every year.” But the notion of using this technology to build homes and city infrastructure didn’t become feasible until the last decade.
Now, in Amsterdam, you can book a stay at the Urban Cabin, designed and 3D printed by the firm DUS Architects. This is a tiny canal house — only 25 cubic meters — that even has a small yard and a bathtub. You won’t find this listing on AirBnB… yet. It was printed using bio-plastic in just four weeks and assembled on site. Amazingly, the house is 100% recyclable; in fact, once it has outlived it’s useful life, the materials can be salvaged in other printed buildings.
The creators of the Urban Cabin highlight one of the benefits of this technology: “One great advantage of 3D printing over traditional building techniques (such as prefabricated concrete) is the possibilities of using a high level of detail, ornament and variation.” That is, compared to the tract homes of yesteryear, this process offers a high level of customization to satisfy each consumer’s preferences. These 3D printed structures are not just a techie’s wet dream come true. They’re each a work of art in their own right.
Another Dutch firm, Universe Architecture, is building an expo space known as the “Landscape House.” The design looks almost like an infinity symbol (or, in architectural terms, a Mobius strip). The structure will be printed using a huge machine known as the D-Shape Printer. One of the architects, Janjaap Ruijssenaars, explains that almost the entire structure will materialize from the printing process: “The curved walls at the ends, even the stairs inside; everything you see that is not transparent will be out of the printer.”
Suffice it to say, the race to 3D print entire cities is well under way. Dubai is planning to use 3D printing to build a quarter of all its structures by 2030. They kicked off the initiative by printing the “Office of the Future.” The outside of the building displays a futuristic aesthetic, while the interior looks quite high end. After the designs were finalized, it took only 17 days to print the structure at another location, and then a mere two days to erect the structure on the site itself. The speed at which these buildings can be constructed is another advantage of 3D printing, not to mention the 50% reduction in labor costs.
Dubai’s “Office of the Future” was created in partnership with a pioneering Chinese firm known as WinSun. The company first made headlines when they 3D printed 10 tiny houses in one day. Now, they’ve also printed a multi-level apartment building as well as a nearly 12,000 square foot opulent villa in Suzhou Industrial Park. This mansion of Beverly Hills-sized proportions cost only $161,000 to manufacture. In addition to the savings in labor costs, it also allegedly helps the builder save significantly when it comes to both construction waste and production times.
For all of their efforts, the company is not without controversy. One source asserts that WinSun carefully safeguards their printer against outside eyes, and it’s difficult to assess what proportion of the buildings actually result from 3D printing. In other words, the source claims, the company lacks transparency. Moreover, USC’s Behrokh Khoshnevis claims that the firm effectively copied his intellectual property without attributing proper credit.
We can’t comment on the truth of such allegations, but one thing is for sure — this nascent industry shows no signs of slowing down. MIT’s Mediated Matter lab employed thousands of silkworms to fuse biology with 3D printing. They recognized that “Silkworms ‘print’ their pupal casings by moving their heads in a figure-of-eight pattern… Essentially, the silkworm is acting as a multi-axis 3D multi-material printer.” The result of their experiment was known as “The Silk Pavilion,” described as a “dome that was equal parts Buckminster Fuller and Charlotte’s Web.” Like other 3D printed architectural applications, silkworm printing could be used to quickly build emergency shelters after natural disasters strike. Whether it’s a behemoth machine or hardworking insects, the speed, efficiency, and economic savings provided by 3D printing mean that further investments could mitigate some of the destructive effects of the next Hurricane Maria or Harvey.
In the midst of these villas, apartment buildings, and silk pavilions, SoftKill Design unveiled their mission to build Protohouse 2.0. Ultimately, it is intended to be the most user-friendly option, allowing consumers to “download and print” entire house plans themselves, or even just smaller features of a house — a new front door, for instance. The designers also plan to use a “fibrous structure akin to… bone. Unlike sand-based structures, which require thick sections to maintain structural integrity… these fibers can be as thin as 0.7 mm.” The result is a remarkably strong construction that still maintains an eye for aesthetics.
Of course, once all of these buildings are printed, we’ll need an equally innovative way to get from point A to point B. As such, Advanced Paving Technologies is working with UC Davis Pavement Research Center to create a 3D Asphalt Paving Machine. They are currently in the initial testing phases, and their efforts are being sustained by crowdfunding. Likewise, other companies are working to 3D print bridges. MX3D in the Netherlands is aiming to print a steel pedestrian bridge. The designer, Joris Laarman, calls digitally-mediated building “the new craft,” and believes that this bridge project will demonstrate the potential of 3D printing to create “large-scale, functional objects and sustainable materials while allowing unprecedented freedom of form.” In other words, this process merges art and science; it allows utility and style to exist harmoniously. Laarman adds, “The symbolism of the bridge is a beautiful metaphor to connect the technology of the future with the old city, in a way that brings out the best of both worlds.”
And, once our cities are printed, we’ll need some flora to brighten up the concrete (or plastic, or metal, or rubber… whichever substrate is used). Fortunately, we can now landscape by printing lush greenery. Yuichiro Takeuchi has pioneered the process of 3D printing large gardens for use in urban spaces. Seeds are printed into yarn that uses a hydroponic environment. The yarn is then formed into various shapes and erected onto its urban site. Takeuchi ultimately “hopes to fill cities like Tokyo with gardens, transforming the rooftops into green oasis.”
The advantages of 3D printing to architecture, infrastructure, and landscaping are numerous. It appears to be cheaper, faster, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly, while still allowing for variations in form and design. Of course, there are also potential drawbacks. For one, an increasingly automatized world puts more people out of work. Furthermore, Amanda Levete suggests that blind fervency in the race to 3D print our world could have unintended consequences. “It may come without economic cost at a small scale but in architecture, if we are not careful, this is at the expense of integrity.”
Still, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) thinks that 3D printing in these contexts is the future. Indeed, “while 3D printing itself is seen as a potent tool that can change numerous industries, Schmidt argued that the biggest impact can be felt in the construction industry (which makes up five percent of the economy).” Today — a canal house, tomorrow — a skyscraper? So the next time you’re in the market for a new home or office building, imagine: What if human hands didn’t build this roof over my head? What if this place was spit from the guts of a machine?
Note* Image credits are as follows: Public Domain Image of 3D printer | Urban Cabin, DUS Architects, © Ossip van Duivenbode | Landscape House, Universe Architecture | Silk Pavilion, MIT Mediated Matter Lab, Image by Steven Keating | 3D Printed Seed Yarn, Yuichiro Takeuchi