Photo by Matthew Millman, courtesy Emerging Objects

ARCHITECT contributor Blaine Brownell asks: would you consider purchasing a home that's been 3D-printed?

According to Brownell, in 2013, Oakland, Calif.–based architectural design practice Smith|Allen constructed what was called the “world’s first 3D-printed architecture.” The same year, Shanghai-based engineering company WinSun printed several houses in concrete. Meanwhile, additive manufacturing company MX3D’s proposed a bridge in Amsterdam, and Dutch firm Universal Architecture’s Möbius strip-shaped Landscape House made headlines.

Five years on, the interest in 3D printing has shifted from novelty to reality, as researchers formulate the various methods and materials used in such construction, and their benefits.

Since 2004, Behrokh Khoshnevis, the director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies at the University of Southern California, has pursued whole building–printing with his contour crafting process, capable of producing a 2,000-square-foot house in a single day. A typical U.S. detached house requires six to nine months to build. The method extrudes a special mix of concrete from large nozzles suspended from a gantry crane. In addition to expediting construction, his method can reduce the risk of worker injuries and material waste.

Research and progress in whole building–printing now occurs on multiple continents. In 2016, Chinese company Yingchuan Building Technology printed the first office building in Dubai with a 118-foot by 39-foot by 20-foot machine. Italy’s World’s Advanced Saving Project developed the BigDelta printer, a 39-foot-tall apparatus designed to construct simple structures out of loam, straw, and water. Aiming to provide ecologically responsible forms of shelter for disadvantaged populations—such as communities affected by natural disasters—the company printed its first adobe building in 2016. MIT’s 2017 Digital Construction Platform employs a similar technique with a much smaller robot with a rotating arm to create single detached structures.

Despite the “whole building” label, this approach does have its limitations. Additive manufacturing deposits successive layers of material in a single, continuous pass. This is not always conducive for constructing a typical residential wall, which often contains an air cavity. To date, examples of 3D-printed structures rarely include foundations or roofs—with the exception of domes or conical buildings. Whole building–printing also requires a significant amount of planning and mobilization to avoid unforeseen construction problems, such as scrapping a flawed print, and the resulting structure is often not adaptable to future changes. Ronald Rael, co-founder of San Francisco-based 3D printing think tank Emerging Objects and co-author of the upcoming book Printing Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018) with Virginia San Fratello (also co-founders of the architecture firm Rael San Fratello), believes that printing entire buildings is inherently a dead end.

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