Your new home may be printed
How 3-D printers are changing architecture and making it more sustainable.
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In 2018, the construction company Apis Cor 3-D printed a yurt-like house using an industrial machine that spun for 24-hours, building up layers of cement and sand to create a durable structure. In a separate project, the Italian company WASP 3-D printed a prototype structure to provide housing for impoverished communities. Such projects may seem like far-fetched experiments, but the possibility of suburban neighborhoods and refugee camps filled with 3-D printed housing is inching closer to reality.
Apis Cor’s circular home won NASA’s 3-D printed habitat competition, which aimed “to create sustainable shelters suitable for the Moon, Mars or beyond using resources available onsite at these locations.”
The Boston company’s award-winning structure differed from previous 3-D printed builds. The process didn’t print individual parts of the house, like bricks, but the entire structure layer by layer -- one of the first builds to do so. The design is sure to inspire imitators, opening up numerous possibilities for printed architecture.
Alvin Huang, Founder and Principal of Synthesis Design + Architecture, says 3-D printing has shifted from “rapid prototype to rapid manufacturing.” 3-D printers were once just used to make architectural models; now they’re being utilized to build houses.
Huang, who’s also an Associate Professor at the USC School of Architecture, explains that 3-D printing originated as a military tool that allowed aircraft carriers to manufacture specialized parts on demand, eliminating shipping times and costs.
The potential for 3-D printing to provide unlimited, on-demand construction explains why NASA is interested in making the process part of a moon colonization mission. Shipping construction supplies to the moon is cost prohibitive, but a 3-D printer that uses materials from the moon is a practical and environmental route to creating shelter.
The 3-D printing process also has plenty of construction applications on earth. Huang points to the build of Foster + Partners’s design for the Mexico City airport and Zaha Hadid Architect’s design for the Beijing airport. The futuristic roofs of these buildings curve seamlessly with organic shapes that don’t repeat. 3-D printers are used to print each connecting joint to specification, allowing the opportunity to customize each curve.
More traditional roof designs use molds and typically repeat. Both designs use “freestanding organic curvature roof structures, where every single joint is a little bit different than the one next to it,” says Huang. “3-D printing allows you to not have to custom manufacture a mold for [each joint].” It’s now possible to manufacture parts for a complicated and creative design at scale.
What does 3-D printing mean for the future of architecture? A 3-D printer and access to materials to print, often found from the dirt and environment around a build site, could create unlimited housing for isolated and at-risk communities. WASP’s industrial 3-D printer, Crane WASP, makes it possible for the module to be customized specifically to the terrain, and uses mud as the printed material. Their goal is to provide the necessary tools to create self-sufficient communities.
Architects working with 3-D printers still need to do more development before the process becomes a viable, everyday option. For example, improving internet and cloud connections for 3-D printers will enable up-to-the-minute customization and propel creative and sustainable housing options.
3-D printing also makes it possible to custom build fixtures, removing the need for expensive one-off molds, reducing the carbon-footprint caused by shipping materials, and cutting down on excess waste.
Connected 3-D printers may also make remote printing possible. With an attached camera, a designer overseeing the process can make adjustments needed for the build. Remote printing can decrease or even eliminate the number of technicians and architects required on site, further cutting costs and the carbon footprint of the project.
Advances made to the hardware side are critical, says Huang. But the way people utilize this technology is even more important and will change how we build houses, office buildings and even moon bases.
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