Will we, one day, be building our houses with 3D printers? It’s a question that’s been posed many times throughout 2013, a year in which designers, architects and artists across the globe have expressed their ambitions to be the first to print an entire building.
It started back in January, with maverick Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars announcing his plan to design and create Landscape House. This revolutionary building will take the shape of a mobius band, giving the effect of never coming to an end. With an estimated cost of £3 million, Landscape House will be made up of 20 x 30 feet slabs created on the D-Shape 3D printer. On its website, D-Shape is described as a machine that:
Enables architects to directly make the buildings they design, with a robotic building machine that uses CAD-CAE-CAM Design Technology.
In short, the Makerbot is a fax machine in comparison.
Then in March, DUS Architects announced its plan to construct a house by the Buiksloter canal in Amsterdam using the Kamer Maker, a 3.5 metre-high 3D printer. Since then, London team Softkill Design has joined the field, with its high concept design for a ‘3D cantilevering house.’
We’ve also seen projects such as Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger’s Digital Grotesque. A fascinating 3D printed room, Digital Grotesque boasted 260 million surfaces, coming together to create a hypnotic, H.R. Giger-esque piece of art.
With so many innovative thinkers on the case, it is surely only a matter of time before the first 3D printed house is upstanding. If it is considered a success, the transformative effects on the construction industry could be massive and, some would argue, devastating.
This week, a team of researchers from the University of South California announced the development of a technique that could hasten the era of 3D printed construction’s arrival. Contour Crafting is a rapid prototyping method that makes layer-by-layer building of large parts quicker and easier, designed by USC professor Behrokh Khoshnevis.
According to Khoshnevis, when Contour Crafting is perfected, it will be capable of printing an entire 2,500 square foot building in just 20 hours. The walls will be both lighter and more durable than those in traditional houses, even though the design process will leave them hollow.
Not only does such a process radically reduce the job time, it also eliminates labour costs almost completely. Productivity and cost effectiveness are not, however, the only potential advantages.
As Landscape House and Softkill Design’s projects have shown, 3D printings allows architects to design and build structures in ways impossible through traditional means. Buildings no longer need to be limited by linear concepts, as they can be printed in curves, for more organic looking structures.
It’s also safer. Though the number has consistently fallen over the last three years, about 50 workers die on construction sites in Britain annually. With 3D printing, this number would almost certainly fall to zero.
Then there is the philanthropic aspect. In the same way SMR’s Anjan Contractor believes his firm’s 3D food printing efforts may one day solve world hunger, Khoshnevis asserts that building homes cheaply and quickly using Contour Crafting will one day provide shelter for homeless people around the world.
All of which makes 3D printed buildings sound like a jolly good thing. Yet above this all hangs a pretty uncomfortable question. In an age where houses are built in a day by machine, what happens to the millions of people employed as roofers, joiners, carpenters, crane operators, scaffolders, labourers and quantity surveyors around the world?
Construction contributes 6-8% of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product and employs around 2.1 million people in the country, accounting for 1 in 14 of the British workforce.
Khoshnevis, for his part, has little concerns for the potential death of the industry, dismissing it as:
Wasteful and emission causing and corruption prone. And, the cost is always over budget.
While that kind of curt attitude towards one of the world’s oldest industries might seem callous, he is undeniably correct when he goes on to compare 3D printing to the new agricultural technologies of the early 20th Century that, essentially, made the manual farm labourer a thing of the past. While many of those employed in agriculture found themselves out of a job, the widespread industrialisation and mechanisation of Western society created new jobs in new sectors.
Whether or not 3D printing will create new jobs for the squads of labourers it one day replaces, however, is not exactly clear. A manufacturing process that, by its nature, reduces the need for human input, it is hard to see what employment will be generated outside of the 3D printing industry itself.
One thing is for sure: you cannot stop progress. Whether you like it or not, if Contour Crafting works as well as Khoshnevis suggests, it will change the face of construction as we know it and it may well do it sooner than you think.