3D Printing in Architecture

Printing is the new synonym for ‘building’. A couple of decades ago, the very idea of robo-printing a house would have been considered science fiction. In just a few short years the 3D printing industry has grown by leaps and bounds and we’re currently seeing everything from 3D-printed food to prosthetic limbs, furniture, and now even full-scale buildings.

Building Printing or 3D Printing, also called Contour Crafting, is the new revolution in the construction industry. It allows you to directly translate a digital file into a physical product. It is an additive manufacturing technique — that means the process goes straight from the raw material to the final product, eliminating waste. You can now build a house that is 20 feet tall, 33 feet wide and 132 feet long in less than 24 hours at an unfathomably low cost, using a high level of detail, ornament and variation. This process decreases production time by 50-70 per cent, saves 30-60 per cent of construction waste and 50-80 per cent of labour costs. A further look at the data available shows that this technique has significant environmental advantages attached to it, primarily due to less total material use and less total energy required for all construction activities, less transportation of materials, equipment and labour, and lower energy and material waste during construction.

 The European Space Agency with Foster+Partners, has done significant research in developing this technique as a potential way of building habitats for men away from the earth — on the Moon or other planets — where environmental conditions are less conducive to human labour-intensive building practices.

China just 3D printed a sprawling 12,000 square feet luxury mansion in an industrial park, the largest 3D printed building until now, at an unbelievably low cost of just $1,61,000. Developed by a Chinese company, WinSun, the villa was 3D printed in layers, all complete inside out, using recycled stone and construction waste. The larger than life 3D printer stands 20 feet high and spans a massive 4,000 feet. Combining recycled materials and quick-dry cement, the giant printer squeezes out layer upon layer of pasty material in strong diagonal shapes, which are then allowed to harden. The pieces are reinforced with steel as required for structural strength, and then filled with insulation like any other wall when building a house, to meet the building codes. The printer produces the massive pieces at its facility, and then the technicians put the structure together on-site. The electrical and plumbing services are built in  the printing process itself. Before this,  WinSun has 3D printed 10 affordable homes from recycled materials at just $5000, followed by a five-storey apartment building — in a single day.

 In ongoing research and experimentation all over the world, various construction materials have been successfully tried — clay, plaster, and concrete. In Amsterdam, a team of architects started the construction of a 3D Print Canal House, using bio-based renewable material. In the USA, United Earth Builders, a collective of earthbag and natural builders that are dedicated to building affordable and accessible housing, has developed a method of 3D printing houses with earth bags. The Earth Home Builder is outfitted with specialised earth home building technology and can fill earth bag tubes of many sizes at a rate of up to 400 feet per hour. A crew by hand can only manage to fill about 30 feet per hour.

Not just as building technique, it is being seen as a way to make 3D printed buildings called ‘SMART’. Placing small sensors within the print material could enable us to print a building that could relay data about weather, light and temperature. This information could be used to alter and update resources used by the building in real time. That day is not far away when we will see soaring skyscrapers and bridges produced by 3D- printing technology, and perhaps more.

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