designers are using 3D printing to blow
architecture wide open, as Dezeen's editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs
reports in this extract from Print Shift, our one-off
publication dedicated to the developing technology.
The race to build the first 3D-printed house has
begun. Teams of architects in London and Amsterdam are
competing to produce the first habitable printed structure, using
technology that could transform the way buildings are made. Though
they all have the same objective, the teams are investigating very
different materials and fabrication methods.
The starting pistol was fired by Dutch studio Universe
Architecture, who, in January of this year, unveiled designs
a looping two-storey house that resembles a Möbius strip and
will be printed on site, in concrete.
Shortly after, UK architects Softkill
Design announced plans for Protohouse 2.0, a single-storey
dwelling with a fibrous structure resembling bone growth. It
will be made of plastic and printed in a factory, in sections that
are then snapped together on site.
Architects, also based in Amsterdam, went public with
a project to print, room by room, a canal house in the city,
using a homemade portable printer located inside an upended
shipping container. In addition, a research team at MIT in the US
is working on plans to print
a small pavilion fashioned by a robotic arm imitating the
manner in which a silkworm builds its cocoon.
All these approaches are completely untried at this scale. And
there's a certain amount of scepticism regarding the viability of
scaling up a technology that, until now, has only been used to make
relatively small objects – objects that do not demand the
structural or environmental performance of a house. But architects
working in this area are convinced it won’t be long before additive
manufacturing transforms their discipline.
We might print not only buildings, but entire urban
"When we started our research, we were dealing in science
fiction," says Gilles Retsin of Softkill Design. "Everyone on the
architecture scene was saying, 'It’s only going to be possible in
50 or 60 years.' But when we were sitting at the table in front of
one of these 3D-printing companies, these guys were like, 'Yeah, no
problem – let's start up the research, let's push it.' So it's not
actually that far off any more."
Neri Oxman, architect and founder of the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab,
argues that digital fabrication is ushering in a third era of
construction technology. "Prior to the industrial revolution,
hand-production methods were abundant," she says. "Craft defined
everything. The craftsman had an almost phenomenological knowledge
of materials and intuited how to vary their properties according to
their structural and environmental characteristics."
But the coming of the industrial revolution saw the triumph of
the machine over the hand. "The machine was used to standardise
everything. And the things we built – our products, our buildings –
were defined by these industrial standards."
Now, however, digital technologies such as additive
manufacturing allow craft and industry to merge. "Craft meets the
machine in rapid fabrication," says Oxman. "We can generate craft
with the help of technology."
The question is, which technologies are best suited to
architecture? The results of the above architectural experiments
will go some way towards answering that.
Landscape House based on Möbius strip by Universe
Universe Architecture is collaborating on its Landscape House
with Italian robotics engineer Enrico Dini, inventor of an
extremely large-format 3D printer that uses sand and a chemical
binding agent to create a stone-like material. Dini's machine,
called D-Shape, is the largest 3D printer in the world.
Located in a warehouse near Pisa, it looks like a stage-lighting
rig and works like a laser-sintering machine, but with sand instead
of nylon powder, and chemicals instead of a laser.
A moving horizontal gantry first deposits a 5mm substrate layer
of sand mixed with magnesium oxide, then, via a row of nozzles,
squirts chlorine onto the areas of sand that are to become solid.
This resulting chemical reaction creates synthetic sandstone.
The gantry is then raised, another layer of sand is added and
the process is repeated. When the D-Shape has completed its
printing, the surplus sand is carefully removed to reveal the solid
D-Shape prints at a rate of 5cm per hour over a 30-square-metre
area, to a depth of up to two metres. Working flat-out, it can
produce 30 cubic metres of building structure per week. Dini is a
pioneer in the field and the only person to have already printed
prototype structures at an architectural scale. In 2009 he worked
with architect Andrea Morgante to print a three-metre-high pavilion
resembling a giant egg with large holes in its surface. Fabricated
in sections and then assembled, it was intended as a scale model of
a 10-metre structure that was never built; nonetheless, it can
stake a claim to being the first-ever printed architectural
Egg-shaped structure printed by Enrico Dini
Dini worked with designer Marco
Ferreri in 2010 to create the first dwelling to be printed in
one piece. The resulting "house" – a one-room structure resembling
a mountain hut – was printed for an exhibition at the Triennale in
Milan. The crude building had a doorway and two square windows; its
interior featured a work surface, sink and platform bed.
"It's a very historical piece," says Dini. "It was the first
attempt to print a building." Unfortunately, the brittle synthetic
stone cracked during transportation, leading Dini to decide that
fabricating buildings by section was a more viable use for his
Printing buildings in one go will be possible in the future,
says Dini, "but probably not with my technology." Instead, he now
sees a role for D-Shape in printing building elements like large
façade panels, large diameter columns and double-curvature
Machines such as D-Shape could eventually be adapted to work on
the move, Dini adds, allowing them to print on an urban scale. "We
might print not only buildings, but entire urban sections," he
For Universe Architecture's Landscape House, Dini has devised a
system that will see two D-Shape printers working side by side
inside temporary structures close to the site. The D-Shapes will
print a kit of parts that will be assembled to form the looping
structure. Each part will be hollow; the superstructure will be
filled with fibre-reinforced concrete to give it structural
There are huge potential time, labour and transportation savings
"Before our Landscape House design, you could easily use the
printer to print vertical columns," says Janjaap Ruijssenaars of
Universe Architecture, "but it was not possible to print something
that has a horizontal connection, like a beam. By putting
reinforced concrete within a hollow structure, you can have a
vertical load on top of a horizontal structure. And that opens the
door for all types of designs. It was Enrico Dini's idea."
Because of the fragility of the individual parts, they'll have
to be printed with support structures to prevent them from breaking
while they're manoeuvred into position; these will be removed after
the concrete filling has been poured in. The entire process will
take up to a year and cost around €5 million. Universe Architecture
doesn't yet have a client willing to put up that kind of money.
Some purists argue that this convoluted process is not "true"
3D-printing. "We actually don't consider that a 3D-printed
building," says Softkill Design's Gilles Retsin, "because they’re
3D-printing formwork, then pouring concrete into the form. So it's
not that the actual building is 3D-printed."
For its Protohouse 2.0, Softkill Design plans to print the
entire building using industrial laser-sintering machines normally
used to make prototypes for the automobile industry.
"The existing research always focuses on transporting a 3D
printer to the site because they're using sand or concrete," says
Retsin. "We're deliberately working in a factory and using
laser-sintered bioplastic [plastics derived from biomass rather
ProtoHouse by Softkill Design
The design itself also bucks convention: instead of columns and
floorplates, it has a fibrous structure akin to the trabecular
composition of bone. Unlike sand-based structures, which require
thick sections to maintain structural integrity, Retsin says these
fibres can be as thin as 0.7mm.
This opens up all sorts of new aesthetic possibilities.
Traditional steel or concrete structures have a high level of
redundancy – material that doesn't need to be there, but which is
too difficult or expensive to remove. But 3D printing allows
material to be placed only where it is required. "We created an
algorithm that mimics bone growth, so that we're depositing
material only where it's necessary and most structurally
efficient," says Softkill Design's Aaron Silver. "It's not a purely
structural object; we've also tried to 'design' with it, to create
our own forms."
The single-storey house has a porous exoskeleton rather than a
solid envelope. Weatherproofing would be applied inside, lining the
cave-like living spaces. Voids would be glazed in the traditional
The building will have a footprint of around 8 by 5 metres and
will be laser-sintered in a factory, in pieces. These pieces, each
up to 2.5 metres, will be transported by van to the site (although,
like Universe Architecture, Softkill Design doesn't have a specific
site or client yet) and joined simply by pushing together the
fibrous strands "like Velcro". Softkill Design believes the pieces
could all be printed in three weeks and assembled on site in a
"The big difference between 3D printing and manufacturing on
site is that you're almost entirely skipping the fabrication part,"
says Retsin. There are huge potential time, labour and
transportation savings to be made, compared to traditional
construction methods – however, the cost of 3D-printed materials is
still far higher than regular bricks and blocks.
Canal house by DUS Architects
"The price of 3D printing is still a big problem for large
volumes," says Retsin. "You pay for the amount of material used
rather than the volume. So we've developed a method that can
generate a large volume with extremely thin and porous structures.
It's only now with 3D printing that you can achieve a strong,
fibrous structure using less material than a normal structure. That
makes it cheaper."
canal house project, DUS Architects is using lower technology:
a scaled-up Ultimaker desktop machine that it calls the KamerMaker
("room maker") that can print components up to 3.5 metres high.
Working initially in polypropylene, the architects hope to
experiment with recycled plastics and bioplastics further into the
The project is not about exploring new architectural
possibilities but rather generating discussion about the future of
design and construction. Starting on site this summer, DUS intends
to figure out the construction methodology as it goes along and
hold workshops and open days in the structure as it is built. "3D
printing is not going to replace brick and concrete buildings. I
think it's more going to be the case that we'll start printing
brick and concrete," says architect Hedwig Heinsman of DUS. "This
is something to kick-start a debate about where architects will be
in the future."
Over in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Mediated Matter group at
MIT is researching a head-spinning array of innovative design and
construction processes that integrate, as their website states,
"computational form-finding strategies with biologically inspired
fabrication". Many of these involve looking at ways of developing
3D-printing technologies for architectural applications.
Buildings may be constructed by swarms of tiny robotsNeri
"The 3D-printing technology has been developing at a very rapid
pace," says Mediated Matter founder Neri Oxman, "but there are
still many limitations," such as the range of materials you can
use, the maximum size you can print at and the speed of the
Oxman and her team are researching ways of getting around such
drawbacks, for example experimenting with printers that can produce
"functionally graded" materials that exhibit a range of different
Existing 3D printers are only able to produce homogeneous
materials that have the same properties throughout. But graded
materials would be useful for printing architectural elements –
such as beams or façades that mimic bone, which is hard on the
outside but spongy on the inside. Or for printing human skin, which
has differently sized pores on different parts of the body,
allowing it to act as a filter on the face and a protective barrier
on the back.
Oxman has developed a process to assign different materials or
properties to individual voxels (volumetric pixels) produced on
existing printers, creating simple graded materials. But gradients
are hard to produce with the current generation of 3D printers,
which rely on armatures or gantries that can only move on three
axes – back and forward, side to side, and up and down – and which
must lay down material in layers, one atop the other. They also
require complex support structures to be printed at the same time
to prevent the printed objects collapsing under their own
"In traditional 3D printing, the gantry size poses an obvious
limitation for the designer who wishes to print in larger scales
and achieve structural and material complexity," explains Oxman.
She and her team are investigating ways of printing with additional
axes of movement, by replacing the gantry with a six-axis robotic
arm. "Once we place a 3D-printing head on a robotic arm, we free up
these limitations almost instantly," she says. This is because it
allows "free-form" printing at a larger scale and without the need
for support structures.
Electron microscope image of the surface of a silk moth cocoon.
Image by Dr. James C. Weaver, Wyss Institute, Harvard University
Oxman and her team have been looking to the natural world for
inspiration, studying the way in which silkworms build their
cocoons. Silkworms "print" their pupal casings by moving their
heads in a figure-of-eight pattern, depositing silk fibre and
sericin matrix around themselves as they go. They're able to vary
the gradient of the printed material, making the cocoon soft on the
inside and hard on the outside. As well as the silk fibre – which
can be up to a kilometre in length – the pupae also excretes
sericin, a sticky gum that bonds the fibres together to form the
cocoon. Essentially, the silkworm is acting as a multi-axis 3D
"We attached tiny magnets to a silkworm's head," says Oxman,
"and we motion-tracked its movement as it built its cocoon. We then
translated the data to a 3D printer connected to a robotic arm,
which would allow us to examine the biological structure in a
Oxman's team will perform its first large-scale experiment using
this research in April, when it aims to
print a pavilion-like structure, measuring 3.6 by 3.6 metres,
using a robot programmed to act like a silkworm.
Robotic arms can be used to print in traditional materials, such
as plastic, concrete or composites, or employed to weave or knit
three-dimensional fibre structures. Researchers are also exploring
how the high-performance fibres excreted by silkworms and spiders
could be produced artificially, and Oxman's team will print the
pavilion's structure using natural silk.
In the future, buildings may be constructed by swarms of tiny
robots that use a combination of printing and weaving techniques,
Oxman says. "I would argue that 3D printing is more than anything
an approach for organising material," she says, using the terms "4D
printing", "swarm construction" and "CNC weaving" to describe the
future of architectural technology. "Today’s material limitations
can be overcome by printing with responsive materials," she says.
"Gantry limitations can be overcome by printing with multiple
interactive robot-printers. And process limitations can be overcome
by moving from layering to weaving in 3D space, using a robotic
According to this vision, the construction site of the future
will owe more to tiny creatures like silkworms than to ever-larger
3D printers of the type we use today. "Transcending the scale
limitation by using larger gantries can only offer so much," says
Oxman. "But if we consider swarm construction, we are truly pushing
building technology into the 21st century."
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