The 3D printer is arguably one of the biggest innovations of recent years- it has certainly been getting a lot of media coverage lately. Products ranging from organs to guns have the potential to be created using these machines, and the newest development is a 3D printed housing estate in China. The company Winsun New Materials was able to assemble ten houses in Shanghai in under 24 hours, using a 22-foot-tall printer it has been developing for over a decade. Winsun are not the only group 3D printing buildings- in Amsterdam, a large canal house is gradually coming together. This project especially has attracted a lot of attention, including an exhibit in the city’s famed Rijksmuseum. Although an unorthodox method of construction, 3D printing buildings has the potential to take off as an industry, as it answers several of the problems architects currently face in their designs.
First, 3D printing is a very exact method- all elements of the design are planned out in a digital model before construction begins. There are multiple benefits that stem from this. One is that unusual structural or architectural elements of a design can be printed as easily as standard parts, eliminating the hassle, cost, and time of custom manufacturing. Also, since this process is additive (as opposed to subtractive, like carving the printed elements out of a larger block of material) there is very little waste. The waste that results will be from errors in printing, and when that happens, the plastic can be melted down and printed again.
The reusability of the plastic is a good bridge into the next benefit of 3D printing- the material is sustainable. The Amsterdam canal house project uses a plastic that is eighty percent vegetable oil, easily renewable and obtainable. Researchers are also currently developing high-quality biodegradable plastic, which would eliminate what has proven to be the worst trait of plastic- its inability to decompose.
Another way in which 3D printing is sustainable is that it allows the entire manufacturing process to take place on the construction site. Currently, a major issue with construction is that materials must constantly be being shipped to the construction site from distant manufacturers. With this new method of construction, a one-time shipment of printer and plastic can be made to the construction site, which would cut down CO2 emissions.
The largest problem with 3D printing buildings that I can see is the cost. Eco-friendly plastics are cutting-edge and presumably expensive, and if buildings are printed without such plastic, they lose a good deal of the sustainability which, right now, is the most important benefit of 3D printing houses. The 3D printers themselves are also expensive- Winsun spent over 3 million dollars on theirs. The Amsterdam team claim that 3D printing technology will help curb the worldwide housing shortage, but I have my doubts about this. At the moment, only wealthy homeowners would be able to afford this technology, and the majority of the world’s housing shortage is in very poor areas like slums. Without gigantic amounts outside funding, printed homes can not be constructed in these regions. Until 3D printing becomes cheaper, engineers and architects should be working on finding creative and cheap ways to use local materials to construct houses, which groups like Architecture for Humanity currently excel at.
Despite this one drawback, I think there is a promising future for 3D printed architecture. I recently read an opinion piece on a blog that claimed that 3D printing was a novelty that would soon fade out. Projects like Winsun’s houses and the Amsterdam development provide clear evidence that 3D printing could have highly practical and useful applications.
All pictures from the Wall Street Journal
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