Who will be first? Throw out the old ideas of house construction. Greatly expand the concept of 3D printing. Houses, buildings, are being constructed in days by robots. The idea is so new that every new house printed by a robot becomes a news item shared by dozens of publications. Most of those news items are coming from construction successes in China, Europe, and scattered places around the U.S. When will one be built on the US West Coast?
If you haven’t heard of 3D printed houses, don’t be surprised. The technology is only a few decades old, and applying it to the scale of a house in only a few years old.
The idea is radical, but it is also fundamentally simple. 3D printers are regularly creating plastic toys, tools, parts, and prototypes. There are a variety of technologies available, but the most common approach is to create a digital version of the eventual product, create cross-sections every few thousandths of an inch, and print each layer in plastic, one layer on top of the previous. Other approaches are available. Other materials are available. Most are confined to the size of the printers, boxes about one foot on a side. Some printers can even handle several materials simultaneously, opening the possibility to print circuit boards and the electronics they live inside. NASA is using 3D printers in space, so spare parts can be built on site, as needed, rather than firing them up weeks later on rockets. They’re also printing food, but that’s another story.
Take that idea and replace the plastic with concrete. Get high-tech with the familiar concrete pumpers regularly seen on construction sites. Anchor the robotic concrete pumper, feed it the computer file, feed it the concrete, and a small house can be built within a day.
Being able to build a house in a day is very appealing. Site costs are reduced. Pouring only the concrete needed reduces waste, which reduces cost. Because the process relies on printing a little at a time, it becomes easier to create finely-detailed and modernistic shapes and curves. It becomes possible to have an almost arbitrary arrangement of doors and windows. The process and the product become appealing financially and artistically.
One of the most well-known houses used a radial robot. A robot arm was anchored at the center of the eventual house, and in a series of arcs, built a round house with interior walls, air gaps, truss work, niches, doors and windows within a day. It now sits in Russia, a place where the building season is short and the houses must be stout.
China has gone bigger. Using a similar approach, multi-story mansions, office buildings, and apartment buildings have been constructed. China is a rapidly growing country that can benefit from rapid construction processes. They’re willing to try innovative solutions, and have made impressive progress.
For more futuristic designs, look to Europe. A prime example is a two-story modern home based on a Moebius strip. Long runs of concrete wrap into an Escher-style space with walls of windows revealing the innovation inside. Some temporary forms may be required, or a part may be built on its side and tipped up. A 3D printed house doesn’t have to exclude conventional wood or metal framing for support. The old and the new can work together well.
Ironically, look to the US for a castle. A Minnesota firm has built a prototype castle with spires, crenelations, and gothic window frames by building small components and then stacking them. Just because a building can be printed as one large, contiguous piece of concrete doesn’t mean it has to be done that way.
3D printing is enabling innovation in construction techniques, not just in the shape of the house, but also in the way the work is planned, staffed, financed, and coordinated. Conventional construction techniques have been continuously refined for centuries. This new technique is experimental. Each project reveals inefficiencies and opportunities. Mistakes will be made. Rebooting an office printer because of a paper jam is an annoyance. What happens if the computer glitches, the concrete doesn’t flow right, or there’s a mistake in the file? Start over or fix in place?
3D printing also has some pragmatic appeal in disaster zones. Need to replace a lot of houses? Rather than ship in trailer homes, ship in a printer, the necessary materials, and walk it down the street making houses as it goes. Want a different style? Load a different file. The equipment and the process remain the same. Such a deployment may be just the application needed to speed adoption of the technique.
3D printing is enabling architectural creativity. Modern techniques and materials will redefine modern architecture. Previously unbuildable shapes will finally be introduced to the world. Get ready for a lot more curves, spirals, swooping designs.
But first, who will become known as a champion of 3D printed houses by moving into one they had built? Whoever does it will be a must-see stop on any house tour.