Printing houses: how 3D printers are transforming construction

10 December 2013 (Last Updated December 10th, 2013 18:30)

Structural engineers and architects are beginning to see the potential of designing and constructing new buildings with the aid of 3D printers. It is a technology which could fundamentally change the way we think about construction. With this unlimited potential, is the first 3D printed house just a click away?

Printing houses: how 3D printers are transforming construction

Printed wood

The race is on - a global race involving some of the brightest and most visionary minds in architecture and construction. It is a race to transform the way we construct buildings and virtually eliminate the huge industry costs for materials and manpower. At the heart of this is the 3D printer.

What these visionary minds are racing to achieve is the construction of the first 3D printed building. It sounds like fantasy, but architects and engineers working on numerous projects across the world are much closer than one would think.

Earlier this year a 3D printed component, the first to be approved for construction use in the UK, was used in the decorative roof of six Bevis Marks - a new 16-floor office block in London.

It may be no surprise that architects are thinking ahead of the curve for 3D printers - studios have been using them to make small models since the 1990s. Long before the explosion in 3D printing seen today.

For house building, these small 3D printers have been cast aside and superseded with large-scale machines, which can manufacture complex objects - sometimes as big as 7ft - in materials including concrete, clay and even wood.

Yet architects and engineers do not want to restrict the use of 3D printing to just components.

3D printers can build concrete walls?

"Architects and engineers do not want to restrict the use of 3D printing to just components."

That's right, one company which has been able to achieve this is California-based Emerging Objects. It is pioneering methods to print concrete blocks, which can be either interlocked or bolted together to form walls and complete buildings.

One of their concepts is a shed made from 3D printed salt and cement materials.

Company founders Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello have been experimenting with printing different materials - including clay, Nylon and paper - for around four years. They have even patented their own polymer cement for 3D printing.

Their inspiration comes from civilisations which, for thousands of years, have used earth and soil as an inexpensive way to build houses. Inexpensive and proven methods such as mud bricks, rammed earth and cob have shaped their vision.

"We've followed the same kind of traditional building processes that developed over several millennia but we did it over the course of a few years," explains Rael, who is also a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley.

They have recently completed a wall structure using printed salt tiles and are looking at other ways to print with household items such as pepper and recycled paper.

The objects are made using powder-printing rather than the more common extruded material method. This technique removes the need for expensive formwork - moulds that concrete is poured into - which can take up to nearly 60% of costs of building concrete structures.

This type of printing has several advantages, according to Rael, reduction of formwork costs being one. Powder-printing also reduces waste, reduces the industry's carbon footprint and increases precision in an industry not often known for its precision engineering.

"We are creating a fundamental building component, we are creating a digital brick," says Rael. "A digital brick can be stacked, assembled and coursed and put together in a way that fits perfectly with its adjacent brick."

3D printed homes for the disadvantaged

The potential for 3D printing to reduce costs and speed up construction times could translate into better, more affordable housing for those in economically-deprived areas or disaster-prone parts of the world.

"For house building, these small 3D printers have been cast aside and superseded with large-scale machines."

That's the opinion of Behrokh Khoshnevis, director of the Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program at the University of Southern California and creator of a revolutionary manufacturing technique called 'contour crafting'.

He uses the analogy of mass produced trainers to emphasise the current costs of construction. "You wouldn't by a pair of hand made shoes, they are too expensive," Khoshnevis tells Design Build Network. "You buy factory-made shoes which are much cheaper."

In the past 15 years, Khoshnevis has worked on 'contour crafting' which, though not explicitly called 3D printing, uses exactly the same principles - but on a much larger scale. Instead of plastic, a machine extrudes multiple layers of concrete on top of each other until something resembling a wall begins to form.

For housebuilding, this machine would be attached to a large gantry that could travel in all dimensions - even creating complex adobe-like dome shapes. Khoshnevis says the machine could also perform auxiliary tasks such as wiring, tiling and painting and complete a house in around 20 hours.

This would address a key problem with housebuilding today, says Khoshnevis. "Normal construction is slow. Even pre-fabricated is not really faster, it just directs construction to a factory instead," he explains.

According to Khoshnevis, this technology is significantly cheaper and offers much more architectural flexibility compared to pre-fabricated and conventional housing. The only cheaper alternative is emergency housing, which generally offers little, or no, architectural flexibility.

The possibilities for automated construction with limited resources has been spotted by US space agency Nasa, which is looking at contour crafting as a possible answer for building structures on the Moon and Mars on future manned missions.

"Behrokh's work is one of the most creative and far reaching concepts I've seen," Nasa's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) programme manager Jason Derleth said in 2013.

If funding continues, the next stage for Khoshnevis is to build a full scale version of his machine which will demonstrate the full capabilities of his contour crafting concept.

Europe joins the race for the first 3D printed house

"Inspiration comes from civilisations which, for thousands of years, have used earth and soil as an inexpensive way to build houses."

In Europe, many architecture firms have also been gearing up to join in the 3D printed house race. The Netherlands, in particular, has been a hotbed of activity for this innovative technology.

DUS Architects and Universe Architecture, both based in Amsterdam, are embarking on ambitious projects to design, develop and print the first 3D printed house. But is who's first really important?

"We're not that interested in this whole discussion of who's the first," says Hedwig Heinsman, co-founder of Amsterdam-based DUS Architects. "We are much more interested in collaborating with different people who know a lot about this technique."

Heinsman, who says her work is a 'utopian project', is hoping to put together a 3D printed canal house in just three years.

They are using a printer called a 'KamerMaker' - literally room maker in Dutch - which has been built by DUS specifically for the project. It is a mobile printing facility within a shipping container and is already a popular attraction for visitors to Amsterdam.

The Canal House project is demonstrating how 3D printed building can fuse both architect and builder.

"It's very sort of craftsmen-like, model making-based way of designing," explains Heinsman. "You design on the small printer, print it and then once its really optimised, then you send it to the big printer."

"It won't be an alternative for all construction techniques but I think it will offer a lot more options," Heinsman predicts.

All the projects above show the potential for 3D printing in construction. There could even be a time when the whole process is automated and the need for skilled labour is done away with altogether. The first 3D printed house, whether it's in the US, Europe, or elsewhere could prove to be the spark for a housing revolution on a global scale. All with the click of a mouse.


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