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Is 3D Printing Technology the Future of Architecture?

3D printed architecture

In our latest blog post, we described the basics of 3D printing technology. This time the focus is on using it in the field of architecture. Technology that just recently seemed like a far future dream is advancing so rapidly that you might find yourself living in a 3D printed house.

The construction of buildings with the help of robotics with a minimal amount of human labor, until recently, seemed impossible. 3D printing technology has advanced enough that its application is possible even in the construction sector.

 Moreover, the process is cheaper, faster, safer, and more environmentally friendly than the classic method of building construction. Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis from the University of Southern California has developed Contour Printing technology that makes it possible to build large-scale objects in the manner of 3D printing by layering. This process speeds up the construction of buildings, which allows investors to place buildings on the market faster and reduce construction costs.

The number of injuries on the construction site will significantly be reduced due to the minimal need for physical human labor further releasing the pressure on the insurance and medical care system.

Application of the Contour Printing Process

The basic idea of the Contour Printing Technology process is to create buildings with 3D printing technology. The size of a classic 3D printer has been increased and adjusted to the scale of buildings. On the construction site, guides are placed in the ground, along which the construction of the printer slides in two directions.

The construction looks like a frame with two robotic arms. One arm contains a nozzle that extrudes liquid material in layers, most commonly concrete, and that can be moved horizontally and vertically using a numerically controlled mechanism that is directly controlled by a Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAD) software package. The second robotic arm is used to mount already prefabricated elements such as beams, plastic pipes, window frames, roof structures, and the like. The nozzle squeezes the material in the lines of the outer contour of the building layer by layer, thus forming the walls.

 As soon as one layer of material is applied, the entire system automatically moves up and continues the layer application process while the robotic arm mounts the prefabricated elements when the numerically controlled mechanism recognizes that it is time. The system enables the construction of various shapes of buildings, from simple rectangular, organic to complicated computer-generated shapes that would otherwise be almost impossible to build. 

Source: contourcrafting.com

Advantages

Facilities

Because the building is raised layer by layer, it is possible to leave space and with the help of an automated process to install facilities such as water supply, sewerage, electricity, and gas networks. This is done by attaching a new pipe to the already installed one every few layers by the robotic arm and so in any direction as needed until all the necessary facilities have been placed.

Reinforcement

Just like with the installation of facility pipes, the robotic arm uses an automated process to install steel reinforcements that are specially designed for columns, and especially for walls. All reinforcements are prefabricated and compatible with each other.

Price

The construction of buildings by current methods is almost 4 times more expensive than 3D printed architecture. The currently established construction process depends on weather conditions which, if unfavorable, delay construction and result in the payment of penalties. 3D printed architecture has a minimal amount of waste and damaged building material, minimizes human error, and prevents additional unforeseen costs.

Productivity & Flexibility

The print speed of the building is 3 minutes per square meter. This means that a family house of average size could be completed within 18 to 20 hours with a labor force of only four people. The process gives architects much more design flexibility and allows them to design complicated geometric shapes.

Social housing

The prices of apartments and single-family houses are constantly rising. Due to the high prices of single-family homes, large families may have to live their entire lives in an uncomfortably small apartment, and people in poverty in inhumane conditions in dwellings made up of various waste materials, sometimes detrimental to health. Due to its cheap and fast construction, 3D printed architecture can put an end to this. Living in a single-family house will become available to the general population, and social housing programs will be able to build more housing units in the short term for four times lower cost. Living in inhumane conditions will finally become past. Moreover, due to the speed of construction, 3D technology enables quick solutions to the housing issue during natural disasters which are becoming more and more frequent, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being left homeless.

Environmental impact

The construction sector emits 39% of the world’s total CO2 and consumes as much as one third of the world’s total energy consumption, making it the largest polluter on the planet. Polluted air suffocates about 90% of the world’s population, resulting in 7 million premature deaths a year, the amount of a country the size of Austria. The changes that 3D printing technology could bring would be of historical importance. A computer-controlled robotic system prints buildings so precisely that waste is almost non-existent. From the biggest polluter, the construction sector would become the most ecological branch of the economy, encouraging changes in other sectors as well.

In short, the transition from the classical way of building to 3D printed architecture would result in:

  • Reduction of material consumption

  • Reduction of energy consumption

  • Reducing the use of fossil fuels in the transport of materials

  • Higher usability of living space

  • Greater durability of the building due to the use of new materials

  • Greater structural stability of the building due to advanced reinforcement systems

Conclusion

3D printing technology has come a long way since the 1980s when it was too expensive and available to only a small number of scientists researching prototyping possibilities. It has developed to the extent that all manufacturing sectors use this technology at least in some parts of their business, and it is also available to the wide public in the form of smaller 3D printers that can be kept on the family home desk.

The technology is used in medicine to print parts of prostheses and organs made of authentic human tissue. Many fashion brands have presented printed clothing, footwear, and jewelry, space programs use it for making parts of rockets, satellites, and astronaut suits. More and more 3D printing technology is advancing in the building construction sector and architecture.

Although unfortunately still insufficiently applied and unexplored, once it enters serial use, 3D print technology will mark a historic milestone in the construction process that has more or less remained unchanged for centuries of human history.

This technology will also begin a new stage in creating a healthier and more sustainable ecosystem. Due to the almost zero level of waste, without the need to transport materials from remote parts of the world, it will rapidly reduce the total amount of CO2 emitted into the earth’s atmosphere and become a fully sustainable economic sector.

By drastically reducing the price and the speed of construction, it will enable people to own their own family home for the time being. A stronger fight against homelessness and inhuman living conditions will be made possible. We will be able to respond quickly to the damage created by the increasingly frequent natural disasters.

 As labor will become almost unnecessary on the construction site itself, there will certainly be retraining in many construction-related professions. We must not claim that many jobs will be unnecessary, but believe that there will be a need for new, yet unknown jobs. Work on the construction site will no longer be physically difficult, but more organization and management-oriented, so it will finally be possible for women to become equal to men in the construction sector in all fields. Injuries at work that cause human suffering but also financially burden the health care system and employers will become a thing of the past.

The technology of 3D printing in architecture is not yet sufficiently developed, but the growing number of researches at many world universities and the necessary need for change due to the unsustainability of the current system raises hope that its application in architecture will become commonplace. Work is still underway to unite the still separate areas of architecture, engineering, construction, and inspection. When this finally becomes possible, the path to a new future of housing and living will become fully open.

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Luka Meštrović
luka@theorionlabs.com