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Moment that mattered: A Chinese company announces it has printed ten houses in 24 hours

13 Apr 2014, Shanghai, China --- (140413) -- SHANGHAI, April 13, 2014 (Xinhua) -- A worker control the 3D-printing of a house in Shanghai, east China, April 12, 2014. Ten houses have been built of construction waste using a 3D printing technology in 24 hours in Shanghai. (Xinhua/Pei Xin) (zkr) --- Image by © Pei Xin/Xinhua Press/Corbis

“3-D printing is going to trigger a revolution in construction. Printing ten houses in a day is fantastic and I think there’s a lot of demand in China for building houses at such speed. But what most interests me about 3-D printing buildings is the idea of mass customisation, giving everyone access to tailor-made design, which is currently only attainable by the elite. You could share design files, rearrange them online and have your home printed out to order.

We’re currently printing a modern interpretation of a Dutch canal house with a printer that we’ve developed ourselves – essentially a very large version of a desktop 3-D printer. We’re printing the house room by room so in one year we’ll have a sort of village of rooms that you can walk through. If everything is fully tested for safety, we’ll put those rooms together, creating a four-storey building. We’re doing all of this out in the open – people can come and visit the site.

This technology will make us rethink the way we use the city. Printing with biodegradable or cheaper materials opens a lot of avenues for temporary architecture. You could print a student flat, use it for four years and then tear it down and just print something else. There are so many things that can be done more efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly way.  You cut out a lot of transportation, for example, because you only need to transport raw materials to the building site, rather than bringing in processed materials from around the world.

Smart technologies allow us to adjust buildings to their context. For example, we’d like to print with solar panels in the future. The sun’s angle is different everywhere. So the way we envision it, you could have one digital design, enter your geo-location and the angle of the roof will automatically adjust so that the panels get the most sun. We’re already printing with bioplastic which dissolves after a certain amount of rain. You could print the most extravagant festival tents and not worry about taking them down – they’ll just disappear into the ground after several months. Of course the way that regulations are developed is as important as the technology. One key question printing your own house raises is who will be responsible for safety.

A lot of these developments are still speculative, but in ten years I think we’ll see 3-D printing used on a large scale in construction. That doesn’t mean there won’t be bricks anymore, but rather a symbiosis between bespoke printed parts and regular construction. It could be very common to print kitchens and bathrooms, for example. Or build a steel skeleton of a skyscraper the regular way and slide in printed parts which can be adjusted on demand. Everything is still being developed, but I think we will see the market taking off in the next decade.

Maybe this means architects will at some point become redundant, in the same way that the internet destroyed some things in the music industry but gave a platform to new bands. A change similar to this is likely to occur in the construction industry. That’s part of the reason why we’re doing the 3-D print canal house project, to find out what these new technologies mean for our profession.

The Chinese project appears to be very different from ours: their production was very repetitive whereas we stress unique design. But I applaud any 3-D printing initiative which dares to innovate and test.
I’m very curious to see where this technology will take us.


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