Architects and builders all over the world seem to be participating in a fictional rat race to build the very first 3D-printed house. In the past five years we’ve seen quite some drawings and models of 3D-printed architecture, but only few architects have the printers running until now. In this article we’ll compare five of the most prominent 3D-printing initiatives in the world to find out what 3D-printed architecture has in store for the coming years.
The first stories about printing large-scale three-dimensional objects came from Pisa, where engineer Enrico Dini presented a printable concrete-like material made from sand and water. This technique enabled him in 2010 to print large-scale objects with a huge robotic 3D printer. Dini’s first printed object was an egg-shaped pavilion that became an early icon of 3D-printed architecture. Being the uncrowned pioneer of 3D printed architecture, Dini however never made it to printing a real house. Besides his Radiolaria pavilion, the only memorable object he printed is a small shed that has the shape of a real house, but shows no intention to give shelter to any normal person or family.
The architects of DUS in Amsterdam chose comparable a way to print large structures. They are, as we speak, building a 3D-printed canal house in North Amsterdam. Instead of working with concrete, like Enrico Dini, they chose to use regular 3D printing plastic as the material to create their 3D printed house with. Their printer, an upscaled Ultimaker, is roughly the size of a shipping container. What Dini’s and DUS’ printing methods have in common is that they both do not print complete houses in one print job, but parts of houses that have to be assembled on site. The architects, who have been testing the printer for almost two years, will be producing a facade first and then one room at a time.
The 3D printing rat race reached China relatively late, but the printing techniques that have been developed seem to be more advanced than in the previous examples. Qingdao Unique Products Develop Co Ltd is the first company that managed to build a printer that prints one-family houses in one print job. The massive machine weights 120 tons and is capable of building volumes of 12m x 12m x 12m. The printer is mobile and can be taken to the building site with the help of cranes. Its first challenge, according to 3ders, was to print a seven-meters high ‘Temple of Heaven’ — the largest extant sacrificial temple in China. The printer uses graphene glass fiber reinforced plastic, a new material that has great advantages for house building purposes. This makes the structures stronger than a plastic house. The printing process will roughly take six till eight months. The company only just started, so there’s still no building yet, and no winner…
Another Chinese company, WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co, managed to print a small village of houses. The first structures are humble and definitely not equipped to fit the needs of a regular multi-person household. Nevertheless, there are photos of some real one-family houses that are actually printed, but there are no signs of people inhabiting them. The advantage of the method used here are in the costs. According to 3ders, the small houses are easy to make and very cheap. A fully fabricated unit is expected to cost less than €4,000. The homes were created through the use of a 150m x 10m x 6m 3D printer that fabricated the components that were assembled to create the basic structure. The windows and roof were installed separately. Instead of plastic, the printer spits out layers of concrete partly made from construction waste.
Los Angeles, United States
At the University of Southern California, Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis claims to have built a colossal 3D printer that can build a house in 24 hours. The printer uses concrete as building material, and can build a home based on digital 3D drawings. Although there’s no house printed yet (what a surprise!), the video of the actual printing process looks to be very promising. Most inspiring here is the pace of printing and the fact the building method is based on regular, existing building principles.
A couple of things have become clear. 3D-printing the first house is a rat race with few serious competitors and no clear winner yet. Things seems to have kicked off with smaller initiatives in Italy and the Netherlands, but some architects and builders in China and the States seem to have developed better, cheaper and easier printing techniques. To conclude, it’s not a matter of hitting a Print button. It takes time, money and a lot of efforts to print a building. And, one thing to remember: your technique is outdated before you finish your first house.