How 3D Printing Will Change Our World (Part II)

Rapid Craft, designed by .

Today, technology lives in the realm of small plastic tchotchkes. But economists, theorists, and consumers alike predict that 3D printers will democratize the act of creation and, in so doing, revolutionize our worldWhich poses an interesting quandary: what will happen when we can print houses?

Last week, I discussed the incredible capabilities of 3D Printing in the not-so distant future: to quickly create homes for victims of disaster/poverty; to allow the architect the freedom to create curvy, organic structures once only dreamed of. But, if we look a little further afield, the possibilities are even more staggering.

In the next few paragraphs, I’ll introduce you to Neri Oxman, an architect and MIT professor using 3D Printing technology to create almost-living structures that may just be the future of sustainable design. Oxman’s work shows how 3D Printing will turn our concept of what architecture – and the architect – is, completely on its head.

Glass Skyscraper Project Mies Van Der Rohe 1922. Photo via The Lying Truth.

The Anti-Modernist

Neri Oxman has an arch-enemy, or, in her words, an “antithesis.” Mies Van Der Rohe’s glass skyscraper.

Why? While Van der Rohe was inspired by industrial materials, isolating each one to “honestly” express its function (steel beams for structure, glass for environmental regulation), Ms. Oxman is inspired by the multi-functionality of materials that exist in nature.

Take, for example, a palm tree. Its trunk, made of one material, contains a natural density gradient (thick on the outside, porous on the inside) that makes it strong and flexible at the same time. If you’re Ms. Oxman, you use this material composition as inspiration. You create a concrete with the varied density properties of a tree trunk.

With just one cost-saving material, you could theoretically create a structure that is simultaneously dense and sturdy in parts (for load-bearing walls), lightweight and porous in others (for non-load bearing walls), and even near-translucent in others (to allow the inflow of natural lighting).

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Living-Synthetic Design

But Oxman’s goals go far beyond flexible concrete. She’s already designed objects made from composite materials that, like living things, actually respond to their environment. Take Carpal Skin, for example: a pair of skin-tight gloves, made for the Carpal Tunnel sufferer, that responds to the individual pain profile of the wearer. How? The gloves are designed with a varied dispersement of softness & stiffness, arranged like the spots of pigmentation on a cheetah.

Or “Beast,” Oxman’s answer to Le Corbusier’s famous chaise longue: a sensually curvy chair made of one synthetic material, which shifts and hugs you according to the dispersion of your body weight, “kind of like a really excellent lover,” as one magazine put it.

Oxman represents a reversal: rather than designing a structure, and subsequently analyzing its structural strength or environmental optimization (via engineers, specialists, etc.), she suggests beginning from the analysis of material properties and then generating a single, multi-functional form.

So what does this have to do with 3D Printing Technology? Or the future of architecture for that matter?


Beast, a chair designed by Neri Oxman, that responds to the individual’s body weight.

Designing Behavior

The physical results of Ms. Oxman’s work, which often manifest themselves in fantastic shapes and complicated structures, could only come to being through 3D Printing technology, which is an additive (formative) rather than a subtractive process. 3D Printing does not wastefully chip away at existing material, it forms impossible materials in “impossible geometries.”

When you combine Oxman’s biomimetic approach with large-scale 3D Printing technology you begin to see a future where homes themselves respond naturally to the environment around them, whose energy-efficiency and sustainability are a natural consequence of their form. Printed homes designed to respond, breathe, live.

As Oxman says: ““Forget about the way [the design] looks. Think about how it behaves.”

Neri Oxman cites Buckminster Fuller, who championed a “hands-off,” natural form of design, as one of her heroes.

The Architect as Digital Tinkerer

So what does 3D Printing mean for the future of the architect?

In the short-run, the freedom to experiment. As Shiro Studio’s Andrea Morgante, the architect who designed the world’s largest printed structure, shared with me, the most immediate advantage of 3D printing is how quickly and accurately 3D Printers produce a model, meaning that “going back to the drawing board” (or the CAD file, in this case), is no great labor. And as the technology improves, it won’t just be the model that’s easily created, but the house itself.

The increased ease and decreased cost of construction could mean that the design itself will determine the value of the home, which the customer could purchase online and download.

But, on the other hand, since 3D Printing technology, and its cousin 3D scanning, are democratizing tools (as well as inherently difficult to copyright), it stands to reason that customers could then assume the role of designer themselves, copying, “tweaking,” and customizing existing designs. If they can easily wield the software to modify an openly shared design, where’s the incentive to purchase an original one?

In the long-run, then, the Architect will have to evolve. Into something far more interesting.

Neri Oxman. Photo © Tim Allen for Interview.

Hybrid Creatures

If Neri Oxman is anything to go by, the architect, and the architecture, of the future is a hybrid creature – influenced by science as much as art, the environment as much as the human inhabitant, form as much as material.

The 3D Printer, like the Gutenberg Printing Press, is not just a technology, but a paradigm shift. In many ways, it’s difficult to understand it as of yet – we are in the eye of the hurricane, if you will. In its wake, it will undoubtedly destroy much that we know, but it will also force us to evolve, to rethink and reshape our world in unimaginable ways.

As Ms. Oxman so eloquently explains it, 3D Printing will beget a future that allows “the possibility of dreaming, and the possibility that one might really turn into physical material form any poetry that resides in the mind.”

Cite: Quirk, Vanessa. "How 3D Printing Will Change Our World (Part II)" 19 Jul 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 16 Sep 2014. <>


  1. Thumb up Thumb down +7

    What a woman !!!

  2. Thumb up Thumb down -3

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +19

    somehow, everytime i look a video of neri oxman , i think , what a beautiful woman, how interesting the topic of the presentation. but at the end, always there’s a bitter feeling… i just don’t buy it… i dont perceive a deep theory behind this…. because nature does it right , we must do the same?, i know 3d printing is a trendy cool thing, but the concepts explained by oxman are week , the theory seems simple in a bad way. if you look others researchers , including people from mit, eth, sttutgart, etc, you can seriously see a strong theoretical background that i always missed in neri’s papers, presentations , or any publication about her work. i would really like to see a deep discussion between oxman and other researchers, because , for instance, when i saw last live feed at mit , where oxman did a presentation(it was in april , dont remember the name, maybe I/O body? ), it was almost inconsistent. i love the theme , the investigation path , but i repeat, it always leave me with a really bitter taste, a emptyness, somethings dont match. i agree that 3d printing brings to architects, or designers in general a new broad range of posibilities, its like the ultimate technologycal democracy, but i dont see clearly the “why?”, when i read oxman’s work….

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +20

    This article is guilty of the same logical flaws that made the futurist predictions of the 1910-1930’s so egregiously inaccurate. They imagined the city of the future to be filled with blimps and humanoid robots, but instead we got the iPhone and the internet. You cannot simply scale up a contemporary technology and arrive at a realistic vision of the future.
    3D printing technology has been around since the 80’s, but the size of these machines (and their creations) has remained fairly consistent. The reason we will never see a “house” come out of a 3D printer is because it just isn’t feasible. It is (and will continue to be) MUCH faster to use rapid prototyping technologies to manufacture the individual parts of a home and assemble them like an erector set (like the architects at SHOP [] are famous for doing).
    Contrary to what students are taught in their freshman year architecture courses; every wall contains numerous “skins” that regulate temperature & moisture, “veins” that carry water & waste, and “bones” that hold everything up. With the added complexity of windows, doors, millwork, and finishes; you really need humans to play an active role in the production & assembly of these parts.
    3D printers are great for small scale prototypes and creations, but they are primarily a DESIGN tool, not a construction tool.

    Lastly, I challenge this notion of “democratized design”. Nobody would champion the “democratization of health care” because nearly everyone recognizes that they haven’t the slightest idea how to diagnose and treat their own ailments. Similarly, the average person is pretty clueless (whether they realize it or not) when it comes to design, sustainability, and construction. Do everyone a favor and leave the design work to the professionals. Your children will thank you.


    • Thumb up Thumb down +4

      Hi BC –

      You raise many interesting points here. First of all, it’s true that most 3D printers are small – the immediate use of this technology has much more of a consumerist application (I want new sneakers, I’ll “buy” the design online and print them here, rather than having to go to the store). For this application, it makes sense that they’re small – the average consumer will want to be keep them easily in their homes.

      However, there are engineers who have been working on large-scale 3D Printers for the purpose of making houses. In Part One, I mentioned Behrokh Khoshnevis, director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT) at the University of Southern California. There are also similar engineers at Loughborough University in the UK and of course at MIT. You are absolutely correct that, as the technology exists right now, it makes far more sense to use it to make assembled parts or models (indeed Khoshnevis admits that even when his 3D printer is printing houses, it will still make more sense to have humans assemble the windows); however, I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of reason that this technology could one day progress to houses themselves. Whether it actually will or not, of course, I can’t say.

      Thirdly, and looking back I suppose I didn’t make this point very clear, I don’t believe that the “democratization” of design will kill design or designers. Of course the potential ability to “download” standard designs will be appealing to some laymen (how many non-architects are perfectly content with standardized, traditional homes?). But that’s not to say that designers will cease to be relevant. On the contrary – I think that the technology will allow innovative designers to evolve and improve their craft. As you say, in the end, the printer is a design tool, not a construction tool – the printer just permits you to physically construct what would otherwise have stayed firmly in the mind.


  5. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Nobody wants to live or work in a tree trunk. There is no super material that can be printed to control heat/moisture and be structural and be transparent and be opaque. They can do little more than print something skin to a pavilion.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Regarding optimising the structure of concrete with varying density: you don’t have to look at a palmtree, because the Romans already knew that when they built the dome of the Pantheon 2,000 years ago – the mixture of the concrete gets lighter towards the top. And they did that without the help of 3D digital printers…

    I believe 3D printers will only change way architecture is designed, and not constructed. Despite the industrial revolution and the modernist’s effort to industrialise construction, buildings are still being erected in much the same way they’ve always been built: namely by the human hand, even taking into account mechanisation and advances in material science.

  7. Thumb up Thumb down +5

    This will be the “easy” button for Architects. No longer will they need to be able to design constructable buildings (which most can’t do anyway these days), just hit print and away you go. The death of skilled labor!

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Hi,Thanks for you Comments.Lines from Verses for Self-Fulfilment’ are really nice.I think the story says a lot more than just ஊக்கம். Lets see what they talk about duirng the next lunch session and discuss more!!Cheers,Saravanan.

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +12

    How unbelievably irritating. Is Neri was a middle aged man, no way would there be a photo of him. Nor would the entire conversation generate around what he looked like.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    What is more interesting about Ms Oxman? Her models or her face?
    (Btw she is not as beutifull as most of you believe)

    P.S. I am wondering why this “I am a model” photo is part of the post.

  10. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    For those insecure responses, if you cannot say anything nice, do not say anything at all.

  11. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    I have to question whether she understands Mies’ glass skyscraper or a tree trunk. The point of the glass skyscraper wasn’t structural clarity (he would arrive at this later), it was the potential of reflection through ambiguity. A palm tree trunk derives its strength and flexibility from its material consistency, not any gradient property.

  12. Thumb up Thumb down +5

    “In the next few paragraphs, I’ll introduce you to Neri Oxman,…”
    Introduce us?! This is the third article about the same person and the same research. The same video as in the May 29th article, the same image (“Rapid craft”) as in the March 14th material…Don’t you read Archdaily, Vanessa? This looks like a publicity stunt, which gets more and more personal with every new article. Why? Why do we need to see a photograph of a beautiful woman inserted in a text on a supposedly serious research topic? There’s a confused, contradictory message here – as if Ms Oxman is uncertain of the intellectual power of her ideas, so she borrows from the superficial power of her looks. But isn’t her ambition to show the world that there’s substance behind the package?! Not surprisingly the message gets the appropriate response – the equivalent of male whistling on the street.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +2

      Hi bLogHouse –

      When I said “introduce,” I was speaking to the general public, most of whom are probably not as attentive to our postings and thus have not been exposed to Neri Oxman. Moreover, I was presenting her in a different light; this was not a straightforward discussion of her research (as the previous posts) but an editorial discussing the relevance of her work within the context of 3D Printing, and what that could mean for the future of architecture and design.

      As for my decision to include a picture of Ms. Oxman, I don’t believe that it’s irrelevant to include a picture of a person when I am discussing his/her work. You can see examples of posts where I have done just that at these links: ; ; and here Of course her beauty calls attention, but I don’t believe that’s an adequate reason to suggest that the photo confuses the message of her research.


  13. Thumb up Thumb down +9

    If Neri Oxman was a man, people would not comment on his looks, and him using his looks to his advantage. I’m tired or a woman being reduced to a sexual object when trying to contribute with her knowledge and ideas.

    Quoting an earlier post: “I’ve seen this chick present before, she is not a scientist and it is obvious the “designs” are designed to garner attention, she has an ego and wants fame, its so obvious.”

    This is a common way for men to oppress women, they ridicule them, and make them seem naive and flat. Patting us on the head like we’re little girls.
    I think that this particular man is threatened by her obvious intelligence, and try to push her down to feel a bit better himself. But we can see right through you..

    She is a fantastic architect, and although this technique maybe isn’t perfected, or fully tested yet, we need those who dare to break out of habitual thinking, and examine how far you can go with architecture, and help us push our field in to the future.

    She is a great inspiration to me, I hope that she doesn’t pay any attention to your jealous and pitiful comments, and keep on doing what she does. Woman or man, it’s what you say and do, that counts.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      OK, let’s read the title once again -”How 3D Printing Will Change Our World”…
      A man wouldn’t have given his consent for publishing an image of him posing like a photo-model in an article presenting his work in design computing in the first place. Why? Because it would be irrelevant. So, yes, if Oxman were a man, probably nobody would have commented on his looks.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +3

      Hi Sophia,

      There’s a lot of ridiculous comments from the guys. But I have to say that Ms. Oxman is bound to come up to critique since she is putting herself at the forefront of technology and design as a revolutionary avant-garde utopist. Just like Steve Jobs did, she is proposing something that is better that what everyone else is using, envisioning the future. Just like him she will face much resistance, some of whom will try to deter her by pointing out her affinity for the arts, womanly fashion and seemingly naive theoretical optimism.

      In the end I think it comes down to the internet anonymity and arrogance. I’ll be reading up on her research, it seems very interesting.

  14. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    so much to say…..

    she is all over the place. while the thoughts are interesting, one thing that struck me was that she seems just one in a long list of designers that have sought to find a “universal language” for design purely based on the set of circumstances. How is this not “form follows function” – with the available technology as your tools??? she forgets what makes humans unique among creation, forgets the uniqueness of the individual spirit. You could take a set of circumstances, layer individual perception over those circumstances, and the results would be unique and varied. We aren’t ants who inevitably build the same instinctual mound warped by circumstance. Taking human expression out of design and reducing it to formulaic solutions based on problem solving – Isn’t that the route of an engineer? The route of Meis?? I think that glass tower image effected her more than she has thought. Personal expression is part of us, part of what makes us the most marvelous of the creations. Sure we need to master the materials of earth and have them meet the needs of our circumstance, but we have the ability to transcend solution and touch the soul.
    This was a thought provoking lecture on material science possibilities, etc. Of course without any materials actually being discussed or any actual architecture demonstrated, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a loose and underdeveloped thoughts on already known ideas. Where is the concrete that is stronger on the outside of a column and more flexible towards the middle??? I want to see it? “Design” being a solution driven method of form creation, cliché and uninspired I think, we’ve been there a long time. Of course we need to meet the needs of the inputs with all the tools at hand, but the output should be far greater than solving the problem.
    She needs to start designing buildings demonstrating her thoughts to legitimize any of this. not art installations or gloves. My guess is that won’t happen because the materials and the science aren’t there yet. When they are, it will gradually be worked into the mainstream by practicing architects. Having buildings and materials become “smarter” is inevitable, evolving naturally, it is already happening. So these ideas don’t really seem new ideas at all to me. She is “predicting” what many see as common knowledge of the direction that material science and technology are inevitably taking us as architects and designers. I would suggest not just telling us about it – we already know – instead TAKE US THERE. Take us to some place new. Seeing is believing.

  15. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    I have to take issue with Ms Quirk’s statement ” Today, 3D Printing technology lives in the realm of small plastic tchotchkes”

    We have been 3d printing for Architecture since 1999 and have produced thousands of models for clients including HOK, Gensler, Fentress, Yale, Michael Graves and hundreds of others. Morphosis, and Fosters have very active 3d printing labs that have contributed to innovations in the field and create maquettes that are integral to their design processes.

    It is great that the media is picking up on 3d printing spurred in a large part by low cost derivatives of Adrian Boyer’s open source RepRap project. It is wonderful to have so many more brains and money applied to this field.

    It is inevitable that more automated methods of macro-scale fabrication will take hold and some of these may indeed be influenced by 3d printing. Cement based materials, both premixed and powdered lend themselves well to scaled up 3d printing and practical applications, particularly in freeform landscape work where the placement of forms is time consuming.
    However the “democratization” of design will slow innovation if it looks like our current American democratic dialog. Contractors and builders on one side of the aisle yelling at Architects and Designers on the other! Hopefully we can find a more constructive way to innovate that values design while promoting and not penalizing risk taking in fabrication.


    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Thank you for your thoughtful response Charles. Of course there is much work being done in the realm of 3D Printing beyond “plastic tchotchkes” – this article and its predecessor speak to that. However, I do think that 3D Printing – as it currently exists in the mindset of the American people (to the extent that it does at all) – is seen mostly as a tool for the consumer. Like you, I’m hoping that this article will extend the conversation in the media about the further applications and implications of 3D printing – for design, architecture, and beyond.

      As for the copyright/legal implications – only time will tell. I recommend an interesting article by ars technica that asks if 3D printing will be the next “Napster”:



      • Thumb up Thumb down 0


        Indeed the IP issues have been on many people’s radar for some time. Michael Weinberg at Public Knowledge (an advocacy group in Washington that was a direct response to music sharing) has been writing, speaking, and generally trying to attract lawmakers attention to this issue.

        I don’t think that 3d printing will become the next Napster although sites like Thingivers or Shapeways may. 3d Printing will evolve like many other areas where technology leaps have had impacts on creative endeavors. Direct parallels can be made to digital photography, desktop publishing, and digital music creation. In all of these industries, entrenched interests fought very hard to maintain the status quo but ultimately realized they had to swim with the current. These industries have also experienced rapid growth (combined with teeth gnashing and large sums paid to lobbyists and lawyers) when everyone wants to try the technology be it digital garage recording, digital photography etc,. When most people realize that they do not have superior talent in that medium, there is a spike in legal and illegal “clip art” and “sampling” use. Soon thereafter, things settle down to a new normal where most people respect the rights of others.

        That is not to say we are not in for some short term upheaval. I was at a conference and asked a fellow prototyper who works at Whirlpool if they were not thrilled about the prospect of not having to supply simple parts in the future. He replied that spares was one of their most profitable lines of business…

  16. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Hi Vanessa – For a look at some of the pieces from Neri Oxman’s current exhibit at the Centre Pompidou and the latest video where she talks about 3D printing, art and design, check out the Objet Blog:

  17. Thumb up Thumb down -2

    Neri Oxman is not an architect. If she is an architect (as this article claims), what state is she licensed in?

  18. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    I recently came across similar ideas being espoused by Neri in some of the work by Jacque Fresco and the Venus project. Although the emancipation of humans from manual labor and the resource based economy is not exactly what is being looked at here. They also have showed scalable examples of machines building structures. I agree with some of the comments being made here, but what is interesting here are the ideas about process and integration. Both the natural and synthetic worlds do this. I don’t think the ideas being expressed are necessarily about replacing architects with repetitive spiritless robots. You have totally missed the point.

    “she forgets what makes humans unique among creation, forgets the uniqueness of the individual spirit”. I am sorry but this is a naive statement and largely irrelevant. Architecture is rife with inefficiencies (in the design process and construction), narcissistic symbolism, irrelevant form making and blatant disregard for systems because they are not economical. And lets not forget sustainability, if any of you have been involved in a LEED platinum building you would realize how facile this system really is. In fact a number of ‘star’ architects openly disregard sustainability. This might suggest that they realize sustainability is a structural economic and political issue and does not suite are current world economic model.

    Architecture needs to advance beyond it’s current wasteful, economic growth paradigm of bricks and mortar. We need to liberate ourselves from architectural statements that ‘create reality’, slowly and imperceptibly shifting the zeitgeist of the age – this is a failure. Lets not confuse architecture with prosaic notions of art, self expression and ego. Lets consider it more effectively and intelligently. To anyone raising issues about her image or any other obnoxious sexist crap about fame, spare us of this egomaniac stuff….

  19. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    WoW ! That is really hot discussion about this article.. and here I can comment everything, but besides that I stay on the opinion that I believe that 3D printing will definitely change the world. Everyone use to look critically when something new starts, but after 2-4 years they change their mind and let that innovation flow through their life. I have been doing research for my studies about newest innovations in our life today and I have been stayed a little at 3D printing. I can say that if people now are creating guns, cookies(that they eat too), chocolate with 3D printing .. where it will take us in the future ?? Now I am buying 3D models, modify them and print. I create little army with little soldiers, victims, military etc. I can make alive interactive things! This sounds strange but it is truth,..More and more 3D printing are expanding in our lifes :)

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