Architectural fabrication: printing buildings

Paul Raven @ 08-04-2011

Via Alex “Robot Overlords” Knapp, here’s a Technology Review piece about architect and MIT Media Lab boffin Neri Oxman, who’s picking up the architectural-scale 3D printing ball – still currently in its crude early phases, but eminently plausible – and running with it. The possibilities offered by bespoke design speak seductively to these geologically troubled times:

The work is at an early stage, but the new approach to construction and design suggests many new possibilities. A load-bearing wall could be printed in elaborate patterns that correspond to the stresses it will experience from the load it supports from wind or earthquakes, for instance.

The pattern could also account for the need to allow light into a building. Some areas would have strong, dense concrete, but in areas of low stress, the concrete could be extremely porous and light, serving only as a barrier to the elements while saving material and reducing the weight of the structure. In these non-load bearing areas, it could also be possible to print concrete that’s so porous that light can penetrate, or to mix the concrete gradually with transparent materials. Such designs could save energy by increasing the amount of daylight inside a building and reducing the need for artificial lighting. Eventually, it may be possible to print efficient insulation and ventilation at the same time. The structure can be complex, since it costs no more to print elaborate patterns than simple ones.

Just a proof-of-concept at this point, admittedly, but given how quickly 3D printing at a smaller scale has moved from theoretical future-thing to affordable DIY technohobby, the way we design and build our buildings – at least in the affluent parts of the world which can afford to consider aesthetics and disaster-proofing, rather than focussing on the simple need to construct a shelter quickly and cheaply – could change pretty rapidly. Which means that the Walkabout 3D Mobile augmented reality app is the precursor of a tool that will be essential to privileged NIMBYistas everywhere… after all, everyone loves progress, right up until the point that it interferes with their line of sight or property values. (NIMBYism is inherently a legacy of Gothic Hi-Tech; Favela Chic accepts intrusions and makes the best it can of them.)