Would you live in a house that came out of a printer? Would you prefer concrete, or plastic? Biodegradable, or weather resistant? Canal house or futuristic spider’s nest?

These are the questions facing us as 3D printing colonises yet another field – architecture. And while it’s tempting to see architects working on printing the first building this way as a “race”, it’s the journey that’s the key, not the destination. On the way to the normalisation of 3D-printed architecture, there are going to be some fascinating experiments, some of which are happening right now.

Architecture has a habit of adapting its aesthetics to new technologies, whether consciously or unconsciously. Some of the most beautiful buildings of the Industrial Revolution – the cantilever Forth Bridge, for example – were designed by engineers, not architects, for example. Architecture quickly absorbed the idea of buildings that reflected their purpose.

The phrase “form follows function” was coined in 1896, just as it became clear that concrete, glass and steel would free architects to design buildings in completely new ways that had nothing to do with what came before. Look at skyscrapers – artists had conceived of supertall buildings for centuries, too, but unlike squat Towers of Babel the possibilities of glass, steel and concrete were far sleeker and far more delicate. What’s going to happen to the buildings we erect with 3D printers?

San Francisco-based 3D-printing startup, Apis Cor, recently showed it can 3D-print concrete walls for a small house in less than 24 hours. Using a 3D-printer to lay down concrete walls on a test site in Russia, the firm was able to “print” a 400 sqft house. The printer, which resembles a small crane, places layers of a concrete mixture the company claims can last for 175 years and after the walls have been laid, the printer is removed and insulation, windows, appliances and a roof is added.

The company claims these houses could be used to help quickly re-house people affected by natural disasters, or in areas of extreme housing crises.

In January 2013, WIRED reported on the Landscape House – a möbius strip-shaped building from Universal Architecture in Amsterdam – we thought it was going to be the first commercially-produced 3D-printed building in the world. Designed by architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars, it will be printed in one go with a huge 3D printer created by Italian roboticist Enrico Dini.

That printer – the D-Shape – creates a substance similar to sandstone by mixing sand (or any other similar aggregate material) with a binding agent and layering it. Layers can be as thin as 5mm, and its huge frame can handle objects as large as six metres in each dimension. Each one can handle as much as 2,500m2 of material per year, which is the equivalent of 12 small houses. They can also work in tandem if needed – imagine a future where not just houses, but entire streets are printed in one go. That’s the potential of this technology…if it works.

It’s the same technology that Esa, with Foster + Partners, is looking into as a way of building future moon bases, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Zaha Hadid has reportedly been interested in its potential. There’s even a documentary exploring Dini’s obsession with turning his dream of a printed house into a reality, called The Man Who Prints Houses.

According to Ruijssenaars, the Landscape House couldn’t be built with conventional technology – the printed frame would need to be one huge piece of rock, entirely seamless, with steel and glass extras installed on the sides. Its shape was meant to “celebrate landscape”, but it was also a demonstration of what might be considered the efficiencies of 3D printing rather than any kind of revolution.

A similar project, from another Dutch practice’s 3D printing team, was a classic canal house in Amsterdam by DUS Architects, printed by its pavilion that prints other pavilions. Called the Kamermaker, it was essentially a giant version of an Ultimaker desktop printer, DUS’ Hedwig Heinsman told WIRED. “We’re fascinated by the interplay between the physical public domain and the new virtual public domain, and we’ve noticed that people are very interested in 3D printing. It’s so valuable just to do things on the street.

The Kamermaker stands inside a 3.5m tall silver container on the canal, with the architects inviting the public to watch as they test, refine and test again each new iterative development of the printer. The plan was to build a traditional Dutch canal house, three or four storeys tall, in exactly the place you’d expect a canal house to be.

“We’re not historical architects who like to copy paste things,” Heinsman explained in 2013. “We deliberately chose this because from afar it looks like a regular canal house, but up close it’s so unique and new and it’s really psychedelic almost. We chose this typology is because architects are very fascinated by the mere technical opportunities that the machine offers, but we’re fascinated more by the open source democratic idea of these printers. It democratises architecture.”

Individual pieces are uploaded to Thingiverse for others to download to try for themselves, or to hack into something new. Each room in the building would be a chance to explore some new method of printing, using a new material and giving them a chance to study every angle. “In three years we should have a house, but also we’re interested in developing the techniques and pushing it further with this idea of having different scientific experts developing different types of rooms with us,” she said. “Like the storage room, which could be a recycling room we work on with a waste company. Another room would be the kitchen. Could we print a kitchen out of potato starch?” “Back in the day [the canal house] hosted different functions – it was a place for people to trade, to store things, it was a shop, you could live there – and we envision different rooms developed with different partners and different materials.

That’s what fascinates us about it, more than to have the ultimate pristine, fastest-printed house. Ideally it’s growing forever.”

The Landscape House and canal house both take advantage of the things that can only really be done with 3D printers, but they’re both not that radical as far as typologies go. Look instead to Softkill Design‘s Protohouse for an example of construction that truly would be impossible with bricks and mortar. Softkill’s four members – Nicholette Chan, Gilles Retsin, Aaron Silver and Sophia Tang – met while studying at the Architectural Association for their masters degrees in architecture and urbanism. “We stumbled upon the technology quite haphazardly.”

Tang told WIRED. “Our main focus was on structural optimisation, and how it can be useful in architecture [when] you only build what you need to make it perform structurally. What we discovered with the research was that the more highly optimised, the more fibrous the structure becomes. And the perfect manufacturing medium is 3D printing because you don’t need to make any complex moulds or anything to build it.”

From a year and a half’s work came the Protohouse 1.0, a rendered-and-printed scale model of a home constructed out of 30 interlocking pieces that looks like something out of science fiction. Tang said: “A lot of people describe it as a scary monster, this super-fibrous house. It came about because the program we wrote actually tells us that’s the most structurally efficient structure because you don’t need to build a whole solid material too.” The algorithm that Softkill use mimics the structure of bone to find the optimum balance between structural strength and shape.

Despite its appearance, the Protohouse 1.0 is actually extremely useful for illustrating some of the problems that architects are going to face when they print homes. The whole thing is printed at once – interior, exterior, holes for plumbing and electrical wiring, carpets, chairs, even the hinges and loks for the windows and doors – from a type of plastic resin, and that resin has to fulfil lots of functions.

A big challenge with 3D-printing homes, Tang admits, is the question of how “a regular person” feels about living in such a strange environment, in terms of texture as well as aesthetics. “A lot of it is limited by the technology. We would love to print something from steel, or fabric, but that’s limited.”

By comparison, Soktskill’s Protohouse 2.0 was designed to be the house that they want to see people download and print for themselves. Even if someone doesn’t want the whole house, they’d be able (like with the canal house) download individual items and use them to upgrade their own home.

Don’t like your bathroom? Print another. Broken a door? Print another. Need a conservatory? Scan the wall it’s to be affixed to, download a plan, adjust it to your needs and print it out. That’s the kind of future that 3D printing could bring to the home.

Architecture isn’t an obtuse profession requiring years of study and practice – it becomes something you do at the click of a mouse, auto-rendered with algorithms that provide a list of period styles in keeping with the neighbourhood.

For something that’ll really stand out, though, consider using silkworms to print your next gazebo. That’s the route being explored by Mediated Matter, a team from MIT’s Media Lab exploring biologically-inspired fabrication tools.

Its pavilion was built using a free-moving robotic arm that laid a kilometre-long thread on a frame. It uses an algorithm that maximises its tensile and structural strength like a silkworm, and a great advantage of doing it this way is that a robotic arm frees up new shapes you can’t get with additive printing. The 26-panel structure dubbed the Silk Pavilion was its largest construction.

The best bit, though, is when they unleash 6,500 silkworms onto it. They were placed on the frame and left to go about their merry business of creating threads to fill in each panel. Like Softkill’s decision to learn from the structure of bone, learning from the choices a silkworm makes can offer completely new ways of thinking about structural strength.

Mediated Matter found that silkworms naturally migrate to darker areas, creating stronger panels further from the Sun. “Desired light effects informed variations in material organisation across the surface area of the structure,” they wrote. “A season-specific sun path diagram mapping solar trajectories in space dictated the location, size and density of apertures within the structure in order to lock-in rays of natural light entering the pavilion from South and East elevations.”

The silkworms left a hole in the frame in line with the Sun, which acts as a kind of sun clock. As they went, the Mediated Matter team scanned and analysed each decision the silkworms made using 3D motion capture technology – that information feeds an algorithm that can be used to build future thready structures as thorough and strong as a silkworm’s, with the same flexibility in free space.

The Silk Pavilion isn’t of practical use, however, so it’s more an experiment (an artistic one) at the moment. Again, though, with 3D printing it’s all about whether it makes sense to replace an existing form of construction with a completely new one, or whether it’d be better to mix and match.

Think of the race to build the first 3D-printed house as less like companies competing over a street cars, and instead think of it more like Formula 1 – bits of it will end up in your family saloon car years down the line, in ways you might not expect.


Source: wired

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