Why you should care
Because 3-D printing has the potential to make home construction cheaper, more sustainable and way more fun.
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From replacing human organs and helping astronauts build spare parts in space to personalizing sex toys — 3-D printing is everywhere. And now it’s colonizing architecture, offering a cooler, cheaper and more eco-friendly alternative to conventional construction.
The home-printing race kicked off in March 2014, when Dutch firm Dus Architects announced they had started work on a 3-D-printed canal house in Amsterdam. Their mobile printer, “KamerMaker” (room maker) can build pieces up to 11.5 feet tall, pouring layer after layer of melted plastic in a process that resembles piping whipped cream. Once the components are dry, they are assembled on site to build the main frame of the house.
3-D printing allows us to make architecture personal again.
With an anticipated completion date in 2017, Dus expected its 3-D-printed house to be the world’s first. But last month, Shanghai-based WinSun beat them to it, printing 10 homes in a single day. “We didn’t even know this technology was available yet,” says Dus’ Tosja Backer. “But it goes to show how fast this field is evolving.”
Meanwhile, the media hype around 3-D construction is attracting other players. In Italy, Enrico Dini is perfecting D-Shape, the largest concrete printer in the world; in London, studio Softkill is designing a futuristic home made of fibrous plastic; and in New York, famed architect Norman Foster is exploring the possibility of 3-D printing bases on the moon.The Chinese buildings are not as stylish as the Dutch house, but WinSun’s priority is to minimize cost, not maximize beauty. Using four giant 3-D printers — each measuring 32 feet wide by 21 feet high — the company has successfully built prefabricated homes for just $4,800 each. The final cost of the Dutch canal house is unknown since its architects plan to keep experimenting with techniques and materials as they go.
But beyond the novelty factor, why would anyone bother to 3-D print a house when bricks and cement work just fine?
Forward-thinking architects say it opens a world of creative possibilities. “3-D printing allows us to make architecture personal again. What if you could make every room fit you perfectly? Or tweak your design without any extra cost and then share it with others? It’s fascinating!” says Backer from Dus Architects, whose project is open-source, meaning anyone can download the blueprints.
Why would anyone bother to 3-D print a house when bricks and cement seem to work just fine?
In addition to aesthetic considerations, 3-D printing could also be good for the environment by minimizing the need to transport materials — reducing the carbon footprint — and facilitating the use of eco-friendly ones, like WinSun’s concrete, made mostly of construction waste, or Dus’ plastic, composed of 80-percent vegetable oil.
”To obtain natural stone, we have to employ miners, dig up blocks of it and saw them into pieces. This badly damages the environment,” explains Ma Yihe, chief executive of WinSun. “But with the 3-D printing, we recycle mine tailings into usable materials.”
Last but not least, 3-D printing homes might turn out to be significantly cheaper because the process is faster, requires less human labor and slashes transportation costs. This alone could be its greatest selling point in developing nations with growing urbanization needs like China, where the percentage of residents living in cities is expected to jump from 51.3 to 60 percent by 2020.
A 3-D printer — no matter what sort of raw material it’s working with — is an energy hog.
Still, 3-D architecture remains highly experimental, which means it has a long way to go to win over skeptics. The Dutch and Chinese firms insist the technique is better for the planet — and no one’s arguing over the merits of recycling materials and printing with biodegradable plastic — but so far their claims have yet to be proven.
There’s no data on how printed homes compare to conventional ones in terms of energy use, but research by Loughborough University found that 3-D printers consume about 50 to 100 times more electrical energy than traditional injection methods when melting plastic. And a study by MIT’s Environmentally Benign Manufacturing group came up with similar results when fusing metal.
“The reality today is that the technology is not there yet. A 3-D printer — no matter what sort of raw material it’s working with — is an energy hog,” says Melba Kurman, professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell University and co-author of Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.
But even if 3-D-printed homes aren’t yet the no-fault solution to cutting our carbon footprint, materials are evolving quickly as the Chinese develop faster-drying cements and the Dutch look into plastics that could melt at lower temperatures.
Health and safety is another area of concern. Old-fashioned construction materials have been exhaustively examined to ensure they are water and fire repellant, but the cement and plastic currently being used in 3-D printing remain untested. And even conventional concrete isn’t very strong on its own, which suggests 3-D might need to be paired with traditional building methods like frameworks of reinforcing rebars.
Specific building codes for 3-D printed houses don’t exist yet, and regulators in China and Holland seem to be standing by to see how the technology evolves before issuing rules. But if 3-D homebuilding goes from novelty to norm, it will quickly find itself encumbered by legal restrictions. In China, for example, the 3-D printing technique doesn’t satisfy the existing requirements for building multi-story structures. Still, WinSun executives hope the company’s technology will eventually be used to build skyscrapers.
As a budding trend, 3-D-printed houses raise a number of questions, but combining cutting-edge technology, architectural ingenuity and cost savings could go a long way towards closing the gap between what we imagine and what we can build.