3D printing promises to transform architecture forever – and create forms that blow today’s buildings out of the water

Knoxville, USA, Apr 2 (The Conversation) Architecture is a very rare field in which new materials emerge.

Concrete, masonry, and wood have been the mainstays of many structures throughout history.

The adoption of steel frames changed architecture forever in the 1880s. Steel allowed architects to design taller buildings that had larger windows. The result was the skyscrapers we see today.

Since the industrial revolution construction materials have been restricted to a limited number of mass-produced parts. This standardised collection of parts has been a guide for the design and construction in buildings for over 150 year.

With the advancements in large-scale additive manufacturing, this could change. There has never been a breakthrough that could transform the way buildings are designed and built as dramatically since the adoptions of the steel frames.

Additive manufacturing at large scale, such as desktop 3D printing allows you to build objects layer by layer. The print material, whether clay, concrete, or plastic, is extruded as a fluid and hardens to its final form.

As the director of the Institute for Smart Structures, University of Tennessee I have had the opportunity to participate in a number of projects that use this technology.

Although there are still some obstacles to widespread adoption of this technology, I see a future where buildings will be built entirely out of recycled materials or materials sourced on site, using forms inspired by nature’s geometries.

The Trillium Pavilion is one of these promising prototypes. It is an open-air structure that was printed using recycled ABS polymer. It is a common plastic used for a wide variety of consumer products.

The structure’s thin and double-curved surfaces were inspired from the petals of its named flower. The students designed and printed the project at Loci Robotics. It was then constructed at Cherokee Farm in Knoxville.

Another example of large-scale additive production is Tecla. This prototype dwelling measuring 450 square feet (41.8 m2) was designed by Mario Cucinella Architectures. It was printed in Massa Lombarda (a small Italian town).

Tecla was made from clay taken from the local river. This unique combination of cheap material and radial geometry resulted in an energy-efficient alternative housing.

In the US, Lake Flato, an architecture firm, teamed up with ICON, a construction technology company, to print exterior walls concrete for a home called “House Zero” in Austin.

This home measures 2,000 square feet (185.8 square metres) and demonstrates 3D-printed concrete’s speed and efficiency. The structure has a striking contrast between its curvilinear walls, and its exposed timber frame.

The planning process for large-scale additive production involves three knowledge areas, digital design, digital fabrication, and material science.

To start, architects create computer models for all components that will be printed. This software allows the designers to analyze how the components will perform under structural forces and adjust the components accordingly. These tools can be used to help designers reduce weight and automate design processes such as smoothing complicated geometric intersections before printing.

Slicer software is a piece of software that converts the computer model to a set instructions for the printer.

You might assume 3D printers work at a relatively small scale – think cellphone cases and toothbrush holders.

3D printing technology has allowed hardware to scale up significantly. Sometimes the printing is done via what’s called a gantry-based system – a rectangular framework of sliding rails similar to a desktop 3D printer. Robotic arms are becoming more popular due to their ability print in any orientation.

You can also choose to print at a different location. You can print furniture and small parts in factories. However, houses must be printed locally.

For large-scale additive production, a wide range of materials are possible. Concrete is a popular choice because of its durability and familiarity. Clay is an intriguing alternative because it can be harvested on-site – which is what the designers of Tecla did.

Plastics and polymers may have the greatest applications. These materials have a lot of versatility and can be tailored to suit a wide variety of aesthetic and structural requirements. They can also come from organically and/or recycled materials.

Inspiration from nature Because additive manufacturing builds layer by layer, using only the material and energy required to make a particular component, it’s a far more efficient building process than “subtractive methods,” which involve cutting away excess material – think milling a wood beam out of a tree.

3D-printing is an option for all materials, including concrete and plastics. There’s no need to add formwork or molds.

Most construction materials today can be mass-produced on production lines that are designed for the same parts. Although this reduces cost, it leaves little opportunity for customization.

Large-scale additive production is possible without the use of tools, forms or dies. Each part can be made unique with no additional cost or time penalty.

A further advantage of large-scale additive production is the ability to produce complex parts with internal voids. This could allow walls to be printed with conduit and ductwork already in position.

In addition, research is taking place to explore the possibilities of multi-material 3D printing, a technique that could allow windows, insulation, structural reinforcement – even wiring – to be fully integrated into a single printed component.

I find it fascinating that additive manufacturing, which is a process of building layers with a slow hardening material, mimics natural processes like shell formation.

This opens up new possibilities for designers, who can implement geometries difficult to create using other construction methods. However, they are very common in nature.

Lightweight lattices made of tubes could be created using structural frames that are inspired by the fine structure found in bird bones. They would have varying sizes to reflect the forces they encounter. Façades that evoke the shapes of plant leaves might be designed to simultaneously shade the building and produce solar power.

The learning curve

Its novelty is perhaps the most difficult to overcome. It is a complex infrastructure that revolves around traditional methods of construction such as steel, concrete, and wood. These include supply chains, building codes, and even building codes. Additionally, digital fabrication hardware costs are high and there is limited instruction in the skills necessary to design with these new materials.

3D printing in architecture will only be successful if it finds its niche. It will take a special application of large-scale additive production to make it popular, much like word processing did for desktop computers.

Maybe it will be its ability print extremely efficient structural frames. I also already see its promise for creating unique sculptural façades that can be recycled and reprinted at the end of their useful life.

Whatever the case, it is likely that some combination factors will ensure that future buildings are 3D-printed in some way. FZH

(This story is not edited by Devdiscourse staff.