Benjamin Piper
Benjamin Piper

Comment: Killa Design's Ben Piper writes on the the potential of 3D-printed architecture

The first experiments in the use of 3D-printed building elements were made using separate printed modules that were limited by the bed size of the conventional thermos-plastic printer. Customised modules were connected to create larger architectural scale pavilion structures. While achieving a ‘proof of concept’ for 3D-printed buildings, these approaches have been limited by structural load bearing capacity, environmental resilience and the prohibitive cost of printing in thermos plastic at an architectural scale.

More recently, large scale printing machines have been developed that can print architectural scale building elements several metres across. Alternative materials are being developed for the purpose of including printable, self-supporting and rapidly curing concrete mixtures. The Office of the Future, one of our projects in Dubai, was the world’s first fully occupied 3D-printed building and made use of 3D-printed structural concrete elements. In delivering the project we gained tremendous insight into the possibilities as well as the limitations of this kind of approach.

3D-printed building have the potential to reduce the cost of the production of highly complex and customised building elements. Traditionally, such elements would require individual moulds and a high labour cost. Direct 3D printing affectively allows for this process to be automated. Such technology allows the design team to optimise building forms in ways that were not previously feasible. For example instead of thinking of a column or a slab as a standardised plane or extrusion, it is now possible to consider an optimised geometry that uses less material to carry more load, a concrete slab or column that responds to the forces enacting on it resulting in a highly bespoke structural form similar to forms found in nature, such as in organic bone or tree structures.

Using 3D printing technology makes it possible to consider the design of responsive façades that adjust dynamically to environmental conditions varying openings and orientation accordingly. The promise of 3D-printed building elements is that this level of adaptive design and customised fabrication would be greatly reduced in cost and so become common place in the built environment.

Conventional construction methods have traditionally separated building trades into different stages and sequences. However, with developments in BIM, it is now possible to achieve previously unattainable standards of coordination between disciplines within a pre-construction digital model. This could lead to an approach where previously separate disciplines coexist within the same building element; a structural beam can simultaneously act as an air duct, an architectural feature and an interior design surface. In this way 3D printing technology has the potential to allow buildings to attain the same level of intelligence found in naturally evolved organic forms. By striving for efficiency in design we can achieve a new form of beauty in our building design aesthetic.