When the kids at NOTLabs first got their hands on a MakerBot Replicator, the ingenious 3D printer that can make just about anything you want, they quickly got down to business – making LEGO and Kinex connectors, that is. As inconsequential as their decision may seem, it got us thinking: today, building blocks, but tomorrow? Buildings themselves.
The future isn’t as far as you may think. In the next two articles, I’ll introduce you to three visionaries who are already applying 3D printing technology to revolutionary effect: an engineer hoping to improve the human condition, a robotics expert with the goal of completing the Sagrada Familia (or at least putting a structure on the moon), and an architect at MIT using nature-inspired materials to turn the design world on its head.
If these three examples are anything to go by, 3D Printing will revolutionize the world as we know it. But it begs the question: at what price? Will it offer architects the freedom to design without the pesky limitations of built reality? Or, like the scribes made redundant by Gutenberg’s printing press, will 3D printing make the architect go extinct?
How (and Why) to Print A House
“If you look around, everything else we use is made automatically, like the pen you’re holding, the shoes, the cars. The reason we don’t have [automated homebuilding] is simply that we haven’t had the large-scale technology.” 
Behrokh Khoshnevis, director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT) at the University of Souther California, has made it his mission to perfect that technology, what he calls “Contour Crafting.”
Here’s how, essentially, it works: Imagine a giant printer, printing, say, a line. Now imagine that instead of ink, the printer’s cartridge holds concrete. Imagine that printer printing the line again, just a millimeter above the previous one, adding a layer, and then going back to do it again and again – until your 2D line has become a 3D structure: a wall.
The implications for the building industry are enormous. These 3D printers can build a square foot of wall in less than 20 seconds, and, according to Khoshnevis and his USC colleagues, will be able to erect a 2,000 square foot, two story house in 24 hours. Eventually, Contour Crafting could even produce strings of houses, each with a different design, each including all the conduits for electrical, plumbing and air-conditioning, at one time.
Furthermore, by taking out the need for extensive labor, (Khoshnevis imagines a scenario where workers play a supporting role: the architect’s digital blueprint is plugged into the printer, activating it to build without much human direction), printing could cost about a fifth of what traditional construction methods cost.
A Dignified Solution
Because of its time/money-saving capacity, Khoshnevis envisions a lofty application for his technology: bettering the human condition.
Imagine if this technology were applied in developing countries, especially where lumber is scarce. Slums could be eradicated. Instead of living in tents or cardboard boxes when natural disaster strikes, victims could be provided what Khoshnevis describes as “dignified housing” – and fast.
With poor communities particularly vulnerable to destructive natural disasters, and about one billion people already living in slums (and that number expected to double as over the next twenty years), 3D printed homes could be a dignified solution to an increasingly desperate global situation.
But beyond its world-changing potential, what does 3D printing offer the architect?
Nothing short of freedom from reality.
The Alchemy of Stone
Enrico Dini is a robotics expert, a “stone alchemist,” and a dreamer. He has spent more than a decade working on his D-Shape, a 3D printer, driven by CAD software, that has produced the tallest printed sculpture in existence and the closest thing to a printed house: a small dwelling known as a “trullo.”
Rather than using concrete, Dini’s invention uses sand and an inorganic binder as its raw materials – when mixed together, they form stone. This capability has famously called Foster+Partners’ attention, who have been in conversation with Dini about the feasibility of using D-Shape to build on the moon (using moon dust, no less).
But D-shape doesn’t just make ordinary stone slabs. It makes curvy, organic, complex works of art.
Building Your Digital Dreams
To prove his machine’s potential, Dini paired up with architect Andrea Morgante, of Shiro Studio. As Morgante explained to Blueprint Magazine, he developed a model that would have been extremely difficult and cost prohibitive with traditional construction techniques or methods. The result was Radiolaria: an impressive, Gaudi-esque sculpture.
Morgante’s sculpture reveals one of 3D printing’s most powerful advantages: it can create concave and convex designs (which ordinarily involve time consuming, expensive processes, such as manual casting and intricate scaffolding) just as quickly as straight lines and angles.
Sean Bailey, architect and artist at Paper Architecture, put it this way to Txchnologist: “‘Whereas traditional fabrication techniques require additional resources as complexity increases, 3D printers are not bound to this logic.’ With a 3D printer, it takes the same amount of time and money to turn a glob of concrete into a cube as it does to turn it into an octopus.”
Much like BIM has empowered architects like Frank Gehry to incorporate more organic, curvy forms into their designs (forms that were previously considered impossible), 3D printers could similarly open up a world of possibilities for architecture, making what was once avant-garde attainable, maybe even mainstream.
As Morgante so eloquently articulated, these printers: “can build your digital dreams.”
To be Continued…
3D printing could not only offer relief to millions of urban dwellers, but empower the architect by liberating him/her from the traditional restrictions of reality (and I haven’t even showed you how far it can go). Next week, I’ll introduce you to a third visionary, perhaps the most radical yet.
I’ll also return to the potential downside of 3D Printing: as the technology advances and becomes more accessible, allowing ordinary citizens to easily scan designs and build them on their own, what will happen to the concept of intellectual property? Will architects be able to adapted to this changed world? Or will they cease to be relevant at all…
UPDATE: Read Part II here.