Does It Matter Who Wins The Race To Create The First 3D Printed Building?

The short answer is no, not really. The real question should be what impact it will have on the construction industry in the future. There are a number of teams out there currently vying for the right to claim they were the first to create the first 3D printed building. The approach from each of these frontrunners is slightly different and the designs for the proposed buildings vary from fairly traditional to the extremely bizarre.

Image Credit: Universe Architecture

Image Credit: Universe Architecture

Janjaap Ruijssenaars of Universe Architecture plans to build a Möbius-strip shaped building that M.C. Escher would probably be right at home in. Using Enrico Dini’s D-Shape 3D printer the building would be printed in 20 x 30 FT hollow segments made of sand and an inorganic binder. The segments would be filled with fiber reinforced concrete and then fitted together. The project, dubbed Landscape House, would cost around $6.4 million and would take about 18 months to complete. The project is scheduled to be constructed in 2014.

The folks at Softkill Design are proposing printing a house using laser sintered bioplastic. The Protohouse 2.0 would be a 13 x 26 FT structure that would be printed offsite in 7 different pieces and then assembled onsite and would be fitted together through interlocking pieces that wouldn’t require any or screws or welding. The building pieces would take three weeks to print and could be assembled onsite in a day. The design of the structure was created using an algorithm based on a bone growth formula and the creepy looking Protohouse 1.0 resembled a giant lizard’s skull made out of spider webbing.

DUS Architects of Amsterdam are planning to construct a Dutch canal house using their KamerMaker 3D printer. The 20-foot tall KamerMaker, which means “room builder,” would be located onsite and craft the building components from polypropylene. Production on the project has already begun and each component is first printed on a 1:20 scale before the full size version is printed. DUS Architects are also planning on using bioplastics to print some of the rooms.

Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor at the University of Southern California, has been working for years to perfect a large-scale fabrication method known as Contour Crafting. Contour Crafting uses a giant gantry size printer that extrudes a dense, high-performance concrete to build hollow walls layer by layer and is capable of creating curved walls. The printer could craft all walls, exterior and interior, as well as printing the roof. The walls are said to have the strength of 10,000 psi and the printer could build a 2,500 SF house in about 20 hours. Khoshnevis claims that eventually the printers would also be able to do all the electrical, plumbing, and finishing work such as painting.

Before the end of next year we will probably see the first 3D printed building completed and the title of being the world’s first will have been claimed. Because there are a number of teams out there currently working to construct a building using 3D printed technology it’s of little importance as to who accomplishes the feat first. The more important question should be what impact, if any, this will have on the future of the construction industry. There are a number of obstacles to overcome in order for 3D printed buildings to become a viable building option.

In order for 3D printed buildings to be competitive, thee cost and time to construct them will have to be comparable to current building methods. 3D printed buildings will also have to be sustainable and environmentally friendly. There’s also the question of durability, scalability and lifecycle of the building not to mention getting building codes changed to allow permits to be issued for construction. Right off the bat you’re looking at a huge reduction in labor costs by printing a building rather than constructing one. Bioplasitics were mentioned as a possible building material for two of the projects so that covers the sustainability aspect and the elimination of all those fuel burning construction equipment and vehicles onsite would definitely make it more eco-friendly. Given the claims made by some of the pioneers of 3D building printing and the rapid advancements being made with the technology it appears that all of these things will eventually be attainable.

Image Credit: Softkill Designs

Image Credit: Softkill Designs

The other question to ask is what it will do to the construction workforce. One of the benefits mentioned of constructing buildings with 3D printers is the possible elimination of thousands of construction worker injuries that occur each year. The problem is that it will eliminate those injuries by eliminating jobs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it could lead to the creation of a number of safer jobs in the construction industry.

There will still need to be people to build and operate the printers, maintenance people will be required to repair the printers when they break, etc. There have been a number of other industries throughout time that have seen advancements in technology such as manufacturing, food processing, auto making and farming that although eliminating some jobs have made jobs in these industries much safer.

The biggest thing 3D printed buildings has going for it is the endless possibilities it opens up for the design and look of a building. Architects would only be limited by their own imagination when it comes to building design using 3D printing technology. Even if 3D printing of whole buildings doesn’t catch on for another decade or two, we will probably see the technology used by architects to create building facades and other architectural features on buildings.

3D printing will eventually have an impact on some part of everyone’s daily life in some way in the next few years whether it’s having custom lamps printed at your local furniture store or printing a replacement pair of frames for your eyeglasses because your dog chewed off one of the arms. The same technology will eventually find its way into the construction industry. Whether this means seeing whole shopping centers and neighborhoods printed in a couple of weeks or merely being able to get new siding printed right on your house or having custom made building components printed to your client’s own specifications only time will tell.

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