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High-quality houses at the push of a button, affordable, fast and completely flexible—the pioneers of 3D printing of buildings promise all of this, pointing to numerous successful projects around the globe. The following are three propositions about a new technology that could have a lasting impact on the building industry.

Text Tino Scholz

The development of 3D printing is still in its infancy.

 

The construction of buildings with the assistance of 3D printers is booming. At least that’s the impression you get from reading popular internet sites, with regular reports of new projects. However, these articles are often describing prototypes or individual buildings. 3D printing is not being used in the construction industry across the board, but is actually still in its infancy—yet it has a great deal of potential.

The idea and the technology have been around for about fifteen years: individual modules or parts of houses are printed on site and can be assembled there. Still, there are already first printers that can seamlessly produce entire houses, and 3D printing applications are gradually advancing thanks to digitization. “It’s still being experimented with at the moment,” says Astrid Achatz. She is the managing director of the Fraunhofer Building Innovation Alliance and in this capacity is knowledgeable about the newest developments in the industry. “We’re mostly talking about individual cases. But every important technology started out small,” she explains. “I think this type of construction can quickly take off under the right conditions.”

A few high-profile projects are already pointing in the direction 3D printing may be heading. Just a few months ago, there were media reports about a Russian start-up company that was able to build a 38-square-meter house in just 24 hours. The costs for the entire house, including the roof and windows, were less than 10,000 euros. Several luxury mansions have been built in China and the United States, while an office complex was printed in Dubai. Projects are being realized in Italy and China where entire villages are taking shape through 3D printing.

“There are definitely countries pursuing a high degree of experimentation,” Achatz says. This is the case, for instance, in those countries where new homes cannot be printed fast enough. “In countries more conservative about building, such as Germany, digitization in the construction industry is running into more difficulties. Germans have very high expectations about construction quality—which is a good thing. At the same time, however, we should be careful that we not miss the boat with this technology.” Both the rapid, print-everything approach and the slower, more methodical approach are evolving as the techonology improves.

The printers themselves are currently developing at a rapid pace—however this is not a global phenomenon, but instead remains regional. While one company is driving high-rise construction, a thousand kilometers away another is experimenting with single-family homes, yet another is perhaps trying its hand at reproducing castles. Thus, at this time, no general comparisons can be made at all.

Photo: apis cor

“We’re mostly talking about individual cases. But every important technology started with small steps,” says Astrid Achatz of the Fraunhofer Building Innovation Alliance. Printing a 3D house in Russia within 24 hours is just the beginning.

 

3D printing must adapt to the demanding requirements of building construction, and not the other way around.

When things are built in Dubai, it’s usually in a superlative form. The majority of buildings there should be taller, more luxurious and more innovative than the structures they’re being compared to elsewhere in the world. On the topic of 3D printing, the emirate wants to position itself as a trendsetter in this area, as well. It is said that soon the first printed skyscraper will be constructed there. The building contractor points out that his company already has experience with smaller multi-story buildings. On the materials side of things, there are many options for high-rise construction projects: steel and concrete are just two of many possibilities.

In many of the countries of the world, this type of construction might not be feasible in such an early phase of the technology’s development. This also demonstrates the shortcomings of 3D printing in the construction industry right now: the often differing, country-specific rules and regulations are difficult to bring together under one roof.

In Germany, for instance, there are strict regulations for housing construction. The house must be energy-efficient and safe, and comply with a whole catalog full of standards. These aren’t exactly the best conditions for introducing new techniques. The dilemma begins with the choice of building materials. German universities are researching the best material for 3D printing right now, for instance at the Technical University of Munich, where they are experimenting with a mixture of concrete and wood that also has insulating properties. Yet looking at the global picture, it’s a free-for-all, where everyone is doing whatever they please and what they think is correct.

In the city of Suzhou, the Chinese company WinSun has printed a 1,100-square-meter estate using leftover raw materials, construction waste and recyclable concrete. Architect Adam Kushner, in New York City, is planning to print a 2,400-square-meter luxury mansion using different materials, namely sand, powder and gravel. The Italian Wasp Printer is using an admixture of water, clay and plant fibers to construct an entire village, named Shamballa. Yet another vendor has developed a building material that they claim is ten times stronger than previously used standard materials. Unsurprisingly, it’s the same company that is supposed to build the high-rise project in Dubai.

“You don’t know what building materials many companies are using,” Achatz says. “For a number of them, it’s certainly some type of secret recipe that they hope will bring them competitive advantages.” On that front, there should be more investment on researching suitable materials.

Given concerns about resource depletion and carbon footprints, materials development should be geared toward regionally available raw materials.

Photo: WASP Project

In Italy they print with a mixture of water, clay and plant fibers; in China with leftover raw materials, construction waste and recyclable concrete; in New York, architects use a mixture of sand, powder and gravel. “For a number of companies, the building material is certainly some kind of secret recipe,” Astrid Achatz says.

3D printing could solve the problem of housing shortages—especially in the slums of megacities.

According to a study completed by the market research company MarketsandMarkets, the market for concrete from a 3D printer will grow from USD 24.5 million in the year 2015 to USD 56.4 million by the year 2021. From a global perspective, that’s an incredibly small amount of money, yet the study’s authors expect that the demand for new construction methods will rise worldwide, particularly due to urbanization.

Which is not surprising: forecasts predict that populations in informal settlements will continue to grow into the future. “I think that 3D printing probably won’t be used across the board in the construction industry,” Achatz explains. “Instead I think that it will be used selectively. In places where housing is needed in the near-term—for instance for building refugee shelters. Modular construction would enable fast and high-quality solutions in this area.”

A Brazilian start-up, for example, wants to use 3D printing to tackle the huge problems in the favelas, the urban slums, with its first project being a five-story building. Materials processing during construction is to be accomplished with a digitally controlled robotic arm. The Singaporean government in turn is investing 150 million euros in the Singapore Centre for 3D Printing, a research center. It is reported that the team is planning to use a 3D printer to build an entire housing development of government-subsidized housing for the Singapore Housing and Development Board. The Egyptian government plans to have 20,000 homes printed to help alleviate the housing crisis.

A cost-effective and efficient 3D approach could definitely help solve social problems—and there’s no end in sight to the possibilities. The next step will be upgrading the homes being constructed, for instance with integrated building technology including ventilation and electronics; currently these must be installed manually afterwards. “The Fraunhofer Building Innovation Alliance is conducting research in this direction in the context of building renovation,” Achatz says. “Integrating this type of building technology into the modules would increase the quality of prefabricated components, which could then be used on a broader basis.”

Photo: Wenjia Zhang CC BY 2.0

The population in informal settlements is expected to continue increasing in the future, which is precisely where 3D printing may get its chance. Modular construction can quickly and cheaply produce living space. Singapore is planning to use the printer—but at the moment, homes are still being built using traditional construction techniques.