In the early days of 3D printing, there was much talk of how it would transform the construction industry: how this futuristic new tool would enable skyscrapers to be erected without the need for teams of builders, scaffolding and cranes. “Health and safety” would be a thing of the past, in a tech-utopia where robots did all the heavy lifting.
Yet for all its advocates’ optimism about its potential to construct entire buildings, 3D printing had mostly only been used to produce small-scale objects: architectural models by the likes of Norman Foster, couture shoes by Zaha Hadid, bouncing vases and trendy eyewear by Ron Arad and a hearing aid – albeit one perfectly sculpted to fit the patient’s ear – by Danish medical pioneer Widex. But printing an entire house? Dream on.
So when news broke last month that a Chinese construction firm had “printed” 10 houses in Shanghai in less than a day, there was a sense that the use of 3D printing in architecture had finally come of age. 3D printing technology, which creates solid objects from digital models by laying down successive layers of material to mimic onscreen forms, has been around since the 1980s, when the US engineer Chuck Hall first demonstrated the technology with his company 3D Systems. Still, nothing on the scale of the 10 Shanghai houses had been attempted before.
WinSun Decoration Design Engineering used a huge 3D printer – 32 metres long, 10 metres wide, nearly seven metres high – to print each of the 200 sq metre homes in Shanghai’s Qingpu district using a secret “ink” mixture. Ma Yihe, WinSun chief executive, says his technology combines high-grade cement with recycled mine tailings, byproducts that result from ore extraction. Each house cost less than £3,000 to make.
WinSun’s real breakthrough isn’t scale but speed. When 3D printing website 3Ders.org first published the news in English, it came a fortnight after Dutch architect DUS announced that it had started to print a house in Amsterdam. That project will take three years to print.
As Justin Carpenter, founder and director of UK-based manufacturer Active 3D Printers, says: “This kind of breakthrough was always going to happen in China first, because it’s cost-viable there – they have the momentum, the economies of scale to make it happen. That’s not the case in Europe or America.”
Despite WinSun’s achievement, 3D printing is a nascent technology and one in which European specialists are leading the field. In the past year, Foster & Partners, the second-biggest user of 3D printing in the world after Nike, announced plans to print a domed moon-base for the European Space Agency; Zaha Hadid has designed an “architectural” shoe for United Nude; and Madrid-based Factum Arte has transformed the drawings of 18th-century architect Piranesi into three-dimensional objects and placed them on show in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. In terms of space exploration, the luxury goods market and the art world, these developments are considerable.
The moon-base project would involve mobile printers scooping up moon dust for use as “ink” in the construction of base camps in off-world colonies. The efficiencies this would bring could reduce the cost of space travel significantly.
Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect, is a prolific user of 3D printing. “It gives us more time to adapt and develop designs,” says Mostafa El-Sayed, of Hadid’s studio’s computation and design group. Because clients in a range of sectors clamour after Hadid’s trademark flourishes, 3D printed objects can inspire any number of projects. “A skyscraper project we designed and printed 207 scale-model towers for ended up as a chess set,” says El-Sayed.
And Piranesi’s mesmerising 3D grotesques raise the tantalising prospect of other great works of two-dimensional art being transformed into physical objects. Imagine the prophetic inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, or Botticelli’s drawings of Dante’s seven circles of hell, rendered with an added dimension.
Yet not every architect is enthralled by 3D printing. Amanda Levete, whose work includes the Lord’s Media Centre in London, argues against the “unchecked evangelism” that often surrounds the technology. “The second you press that button to transmit your computer file to the machine that builds up your design, layer by microscopic layer of resin, you relinquish all control,” she wrote in the New Statesman last year. “There is none of the positive resistance that comes from the relationship between the hand and the intellect.”
Still, the wider picture suggests 3D printing is a technology whose time has finally come and European innovators are beginning to reap the rewards. A day after 3Ders.org published its WinSun story, Belgian 3D printing software firm Materialise filed for an initial public offering of American depositary shares perhaps inspired by Voxeljet AG, a German maker of commercial 3D printers whose share price doubled on its market debut last October.
It is likely, too, that the parts used to construct WinSun’s printer were imported from Europe. “We purchased parts for the printer overseas, and assembled the machine in a factory in Suzhou,” says Ma Yihe. Take the experience of Active 3D Printers’ Justin Carpenter: “We’re building a bespoke 3D printer for a client in Hong Kong, two metres by two metres by 1.5 metres, for printing pavilions,” he says. In the UK, says Carpenter, printed architecture will emerge within five years. “But on a small scale. Freestanding garages, and garden ‘rooms’ for example.”
Until recently, 3D printers were small. Active 3D Printing’s next commercial product has a build zone of just 400mm3. “Imagine a cubic version of an A3 sheet of paper,” he says. And the ‘ink’ 3D printers have used to build the layers of the model have typically been powders and resins, which are then bonded with wax or polymers. WinSun’s mega-printer and its blend of cement with recycled waste materials, technically, at least, represent a paradigm shift.
Or does it? For Xavier de Kestelier, co-head of Foster & Partners’ modelling group and one of Britain’s foremost experts in the field, “Building with bricks is just a manual version of 3D printing. Printers have just automated the process.”
De Kestelier bought Fosters’ first 3D printer in 2004, when it was still specialist technology, primarily, he says, “to model the curved surfaces of a yacht we were designing”. Within a few months he had begun to print all the digital models in Fosters’ server. Today, its model shop is London’s biggest 3D printing outfit with eight printers that “work day and night,” he says. However, de Kestelier wants to do more than make models. “We want to print actual architecture,” he says.
Enter the moon-base. It’s an intriguing project, seemingly far-fetched, but like many projects designed for space, already yielding useful ideas. “Building in space is all about efficiency. So we’ve determined precisely the right degree of thickness the shell of the dome we intend to build should be, and how much material we need to use,” says de Kestelier.
The ramifications are potentially huge. Most traditional construction elements are off-the-shelf products that are not designed for a specific fit. “What if a steel beam used to construct the framework of a building used just the right amount of steel needed? We could print a steel beam, for example, so that it is perfectly optimised for the job in hand.”
Another change brought by 3D printing could be more significant. “Printing a curved wall costs the same as printing a straight one,” says de Kestelier. “A curved wall with a varying width costs the same too. Geometry is pretty much free. Volume is a factor, but not complexity.”
He adds that 3D printing suits bespoke, high-end product design. “It’s perfect for the luxury house market: we might see 3D printing making an impact in the design of balcony balustrades, or staircases and light fittings.” In other words, the features that add value to high-end property.
So given the sheer ordinariness of WinSun’s Chinese housing – with its bare concrete walls and pitched roof, its looks more like a sturdy garden shed – why has it garnered so much attention? “It would have been just as easy to construct those houses using traditional techniques: pouring concrete into a plywood case for the walls, for example,” says de Kestelier. Yet, he adds, the project is interesting “because they’ve shown the technology can be taken up a scale. That’s really important.”
Still, printing skyscrapers, mooted in the wake of WinSun’s showcase, is still a long way off. “So far, no one has developed a super-material that would work for a whole building; one that offers structural integrity; provides insulation; is just as suitable inside as out. You can do that with models, but not full-scale buildings,” says de Kestelier.
The reality may be that fully printed architecture may never be achievable. Hybrid building techniques will emerge, with some parts of a building printed, and others installed manually. After all, says de Kestelier, “3D printing is just another way of making things.”
Rory Olcayto is acting editor of The Architects’ Journal