Research & Development

3-D Printing Builds Up Architecture

In May 2014, a private company in China, WinSun, printed 10 full-size houses using 3-D printers in the space of a day. The process utilized quick-drying cement and construction water to build the walls layer-by-layer.

The company used a system of four 10-m-by-6.6-m-high printers with multi-directional sprays to create the houses. It was in the company’s opinion that by utilizing 3-D printers, construction workers could be saved from exposure to hazardous work environments.

WinSun’s 3-D-printed houses wasn’t the only news involving 3-D printers in architecture. In fact, in March 2014, The Associated Press released news on the 3-D printing of an Amsterdam canal house. For hundreds years, wealthy merchants built tall, narrow brick houses that now define Amsterdam’s skyline. Today, Dutch architects have updated this process for the 21st century: fabricating pieces of a canal house out of plastic with a giant 3-D printer and slotting them together like oversized Lego blocks. While the house will be built and re-built several times over the course of three years as 3-D printing technology develops, according the article, the project’s goal was to discover and share the potential uses of 3-D printing in construction by creating new materials, trying out designs and testing building techniques to see what will work.

The news doesn’t stop there, however, as 3-D printing technology has made its way into architectural and design firms in the U.S. And while not used in a lab setting yet, 3-D printers are highly sought for the design phases in large buildings like skyscrapers.

From 2,722 feet high, the question of how the world’s tallest skyscraper came to be may not come to mind. But 5+design, an international architectural firm, believes that advances like 3-D printing undoubtedly allow the trade to produce modern marvels never previously seen.

The firm uses 3-D printing in the design and presentation phase in their projects as they are primarily design architects. And since project design starts earlier now than it used to in computer-aided design (CAD) software, buildings are designed in 3-D early on. Once architects have those CAD files, it’s simple to utilize 3-D printing to make 3-D versions of their projects, as the 3-D printing technique starts with a CAD file and from the geometries of the file is built layer-by-layer from a fine powder extruded from a printhead.

5+design purchased its first 3-D printer, a Stratasys Object 30 that prints with acrylic polymer in layers built up in 30-um increments, in 2012 and uses it frequently to make models for initial massing studies. With the technique in initial massing studies, according to Michael Ellis, a partner at 5+design, it allows the firm to create two or three different versions of the project quite quickly, in minutes. The firm also uses their printer to do more finished façades or studies of projects where there’s a certain amount of detail. While not completely smooth, since the models are built from layered plastic, they show a lot of detail, especially with openings, mullions or 3-D curves, says Ellis.

Of course 3-D printers serve as another tool in an architect’s toolbox, as architects still rely CAD, BIM and even renderings still. The devices help reduce time and manual labor of constructing models by hand. They also allow for the variance of materials and help communicate what a design is truly all about, down to the fine details.

“The great thing about 3-D printing use in designing a skyscraper is that you can produce quickly the basic shape before you get into the fenestration, the color of the glass and such,” says Ellis. “What you end up with is essentially a perfect representation of what the building will look like.”

3-D printers, according Ellis, are great tools for designing skyscrapers as they can aid the firm in going through a number of shapes. They also provide firms the ability to show clients what those shapes look like in 3-D in a way that is harder to show with renderings. Subtle manipulations of the surface of a skyscraper can have a huge impact in terms of how they look in different positions and angles, and 3-D printing offers that to clients over renderings. Clients can walk around the model and observe it from different angles, making note of the geometries and shapes and how aesthetically pleasing the building will look to the general public. In the architectural field, clients are known to also change their mind often on designs, and 3-D modeling and printing help bring those changes to life.

What’s in the future for 3-D printing and architecture? The answer is the potential to utilize the technique in the actual building processes itself. While many firms aren’t there yet, this will easily evolve in the future.

“In my mind you might look and see how these 3-D printers are used in medicine to build actual jaw bones and devices,” says Ellis. “I think there’s a huge opportunity ultimately in architecture to use the same 3-D printers to create structural components that are more fluid and organic.”

Ultimately, 3-D printers will go beyond being a tool in an architect’s toolbox and the building materials and acceptance from clients grows.