Print Your Own House

3D Printing Technology

So it’s appropriate that a project that actually started in 2009 but is only now being talked about in excited whispers, a project that appears at first sight to be both irrelevant and barking mad, may turn out to be a watershed in the use of 3D printing technology with repercussions for every industry and business segment in the world:

A Dutch architect and an Italian-led UK company are building a real house in Ireland in the shape of a Möbius strip, constructed from pieces made on the biggest 3D printer in the world.

Architecture bloggers have been outdoing each other in hyperbole since details were released of the Landscape House, a one-piece building designed by 39-year-old Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars of Universe Architecture in Amsterdam. The project is scheduled for completion in 2014.

According to the website, “the landscape house will be a landscape in the landscape.” Ruijssenaars was more lucid. “It was a house in Ireland. The location on the coast is so beautiful that we want the design to reflect the nature. Landscapes are endless and our question was whether we can design a home that has no beginning and no end.”

Bear in mind that this is the architect who won a Time Magazine ‘best invention of the year’ award in 2006 for his design of a floating bed (I mean, how would you change the sheets?). He has been working with a mathematician and artist, Rinus Roelofs, to develop the project using 3D printing technology with a plan to print the building in pieces and then put them together to form a complete piece. According to Roelofs, the design is “one surface folded in an endless Möbius band. Floors transform into ceilings, inside into outside.” It apparently represents “architecture of continuity with an endless array of applicability.” Living in it, you won’t know if you’re coming or going.

Well, the architect’s impressions and computer-enhanced images hardly look like something you or I would consider living in (it’s draughty, to say the least, and there appears to be nowhere to sit). But that’s not really the point. The point is that these gentlemen, together with a Dutch construction company, intend to print the whole thing in 6-metre cubed sections (that’s 6m x 6m x 6m) using an enormous 3D printer called D-Shape. Designed by Italian inventor Enrico Dini, the D-Shape is potentially capable of printing a two storey building in rather less time than it would take a gang of construction workers to do the job. The D-Shape name, trademark and technologies belong to Monolite UK Ltd, which has produced a large aluminium structure inside which the building will be constructed.

CAD-CAM software drives the machinery during the building process. The structure holds the printer head, which is the real core of the new technology. Despite its large size, the structure is a very light and it can be easily transported, assembled and dismantled in a few hours by two people.

The architect uses CAD 3D systems to map the project and downloads it to an STL file which is then imported into the computer program that controls D-Shape’s printer head.

In a trial three years ago, Andrea Morgante, founder of Shiro Studio, collaborated with D-Shape to produce his Radiolaria pavilion, a complex, free-form structure measuring 3 x 3 x 3 metres. This structure was a scale model of a final 10-metre tall pavilion which was to be built in Pontedera, Italy.

According to D-Shape, the printing process “takes place in a non-stop work session, starting from the foundation level and ending on the top of the roof, including stairs, external and internal partition walls, concave and convex surfaces, bas-reliefs, columns, statues, wiring, cabling and piping cavities.”

One of the aspects that holds back 3D printing from becoming truly mainstream is the difficulty of working with ‘real’ materials. True, numerous common metals can now be used in the printers as a fine powder that is then cured in a furnace; but most 3D printouts are in that plasticky substance that is fine for demonstrations or prototypes but not for actual components. But in the case of the building, D-Shape reckons it has overcome this drawback: the printer spits out precise quantities of sand and an inorganic binder, creating an “artificial sandstone”. The company says “the new material has been submitted to traction, compression and bending tests. The results have been extraordinary.” The artificial sandstone created “has excellent resistance properties. Effectively, the new process returns any type of sand, dust or gravel back to its original compact stone state. The stone is very similar to marble.”

The binder is claimed to transform any type of sand into a marble-like material (ie a mineral with micro crystalline characteristics) and “with a resistance and traction much superior to Portland Cement, so much so that there is no need to use iron to reinforce the structure.” This artificial marble is said to be indistinguishable from real marble and chemically it is “one hundred per cent environmentally friendly.” Once a build is complete, the structure needs 24 hours to fully set, after which it is separated from the surrounding sand. Any sand not used to build the structure can be reused.

D-Shape claims its printer will make it possible to include more advanced design and construction (the Landscape House demonstrates this, of course – it isn’t just wacky). The actual building can be within tolerances of five to 10mm and all sorts of complex designs and styles can be built without, they say, impacting on the building’s cost, which in any case is claimed to be 30-50 per cent less than a conventional building because of the much lower labour costs (there is also a potential safety benefit in not having people working on site).

Of course the equation isn’t quite so simple – D-Shape doesn’t discuss the need to prepare the site in the same way as usual – but the company does point out that “existing materials such as reinforced concrete and masonry [are] expensive and inflexible. To build a complex concave-convex surface, for example, would require the pre-fabrication of expensive formworks and cages, the mounting of complicate scaffolding and then the manual casting. Furthermore, existing techniques require skilled personnel to continually refer to plans / blueprints. This is very expensive.”

D-Shape can print any feature that can be enveloped into a cube 6x6x6 metres. The applications in construction-related sectors are seemingly endless, including bus stops; park benches / seats; kiosks; coloured marble effect pavements; fountains; gazebos; swimming pool furnishings; artistic staircases; flower boxes; stone home furnishings: basins, kitchens, sofas, tables; temples; bell towers; altars; statues; arches; columns.

There are applications for zoos, producing specialised enclosures with low environmental impact; for archaeology, adding the missing pieces of broken columns and the like; for civil engineering (D-Shape suggests bridge portions, road portions, tube sections, pillars portions, stone floating, harbour sections, marina furnishing, variable section beams and columns, water depuration, insulation plates); and even cemeteries (headstones, etc). But it’s a safe bet that within a year or two, there will be many more materials that a printer head can spray. And then everything will be printed. The Landscape House may be a diverting, amusing (or just completely silly) ‘party trick’. But large-scale 3D print production is no joke – and it’s coming our way.

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January 18, 2019, 3:34 AM AEDT