Get better housing—faster, more affordably and more sustainably. 3D-printed architecture could kickstart a revolution in the construction industry.
Photo courtesy of Christie’s International Real Estate
The global 3D construction market is set to grow by an incredible 91 percent between now and 2028, according to a report by Grand View Research. Champions of the revolutionary building practice believe that 3D-printed architecture could provide affordable housing that is more environmentally friendly than its bricks-and-mortar counterparts, and could also be used to provide shelter that is quick to assemble in disaster-hit regions.
“3D-printed architecture is a paradigm shift. This transformation allows us to improve construction processes, making them more sustainable,” says Massimo Moretti, founder of WASP (World’s Advanced Saving Project). He founded his company with the aim of developing a 3D printer that can print houses in a totally eco-friendly way, addressing some of the housing problems that currently face, or will face, the world in the near future.
“A United Nations report published in 2017 demonstrates that the current global population of 7.6 billion people is expected to reach 11.2 billion in 2100, and in 2030, nearly five billion people are expected to live in cities,” says Moretti. “With more and more rural areas being incorporated into cities, it is the idea of the city itself that must be challenged.”
Moretti’s WASP takes inspiration from the potter wasp and its pot-shaped wasp nests, he says. “We build 3D printed houses using earth found on the spot, under a sustainable perspective. The oldest material and a state-of-the-art technology merge to give new hope to the world.”
Melodie Yashar, director of Building Design and Building Performance at American company Icon, is in tune with Moretti. “At Icon, we are driven by the fact that everyone deserves access to adequate shelter—a basic human need. We are experiencing a global housing crisis. One billion people around the world lack adequate shelter,” she says.
“Over the past 25 years, the construction industry has lost productivity, as there is a severe skilled labor shortage that’s only going to get worse. In general, the process of homebuilding is inefficient and wasteful. Icon’s proprietary 3D-printing technology advances humanity by providing dignified housing at scale by leveraging robotics, software, and advanced materials. By leveraging the power of automation, we are able to mitigate the current labor and productivity crisis, and create better housing at a better value, faster and more affordably,” Yashar explains.
Marrying Ancient Materials With New Technologies
In 2021, working with Mario Cucinella Architects (MCA), WASP built Tecla—technology and clay—a sustainable 3D-housing model, constructed entirely from local raw earth. “We like to think that Tecla is the beginning of a new story. It would be truly extraordinary to shape the future by transforming this ancient material with the technologies we have available today,” architect Mario Cucinella says of the project.
Tecla, printed in the shape of two abutting spheres, has an area of approximately 646 square feet and comprises a “living zone” with kitchen and a “night zone.” The structure can be printed in 200 hours. Its material can be recycled and repurposed if and when the structure is no longer needed.
In Amsterdam, DUS Architects and new printing company Aectual recently unveiled the “Urban Cabin,” billed as a “3D-printed mini retreat, to escape the speed of everyday city life.”
“The design explores several new ways of manufacturing, new connecting details, drainage solutions, and so on,” explains Hedwig Heinsman, architect and co-founder of DUS and Aectual. The bio-plastic used to print the cabin can also be fully recycled and reprinted.
While the urban cabin was “architecture designed to put a smile on your face,” Heinsman believes that 3D printing can help address some of the serious environmental issues currently facing architects.
The Benefits of 3D
“The construction industry is responsible for almost 40 percent of greenhouse gasses, and some 37 percent of all building materials used during construction end up as waste,” she says. “Because of our 3D-printing technology, Aectual produces zero waste, creating prefabricated products that always have a perfect fit. We also offer much more design freedom, since our products are parametric, meaning that they can be easily digitally customized by the designer or client into a unique signature piece.”
In upstate New York, architecture practice Hannah has created Ashen Cabin—an off-grid wooden structure with 3D-printed concrete stilts, intended as a small-scale study of sustainable building that combines 3D printing with lumber that’s been destroyed by an invasive beetle.
“We believe this prototype offers a new way to think about the future of home construction,” said Leslie Lok, Hannah co-founder and assistant professor of architecture at Cornell University. “The cabin is a combination of our design research and thinking in response to the urgent condition of our natural environment and possible modes of intervention.”
On a bigger scale, German company Peri Group is currently printing an apartment block in Wallenhausen, Bavaria. The five apartments will each have around 4,090 square feet (380 sq m) of living space, and the block will be the largest printed residential building in Europe. Printing is expected to take around six weeks and, upon completion, the apartments will be rented out in the usual manner, with one acting as a show apartment.
“By printing the first apartment building in Germany, we are demonstrating that this new construction technology can also be used to print large-scale dwelling units. In terms of 3D construction printing, we are opening up additional areas of application on an entirely new level,” says Thomas Imbacher, managing director, marketing and innovation, at Peri Group.
In America last year, Icon and developer 3Strands printed four concrete houses on East 17th Street, Austin, Texas—the first move in ready 3D-printed homes for sale in the US. “We believe 3D printing is the toolkit of the builder of the future,” says Yashar. “Traditional means and methods of building wall enclosures involve multiple trades, which increases time to delivery, materials and labor costs. The Icon wall system replaces construction sequences involving coordination of multiple trades, including brick or siding, vapor barriers, sheathing, framing, tapes, sealants, insulation (sometimes multiple types) and drywall with only three materials: lavacrete, insulation and a small amount of steel for reinforcing.”
Creating Less Waste
“Our process drastically reduces time, coordination, and cost of labor. Because our construction process is digitally automated, we only use as much material as is required to complete a print and thus create far less waste than traditional construction,” she explains.
Icon also claims the process makes stronger, longer-lasting material compared with traditional building techniques, and that the homes are tougher when dealing with extreme weather.
Inevitably, 3D-printing companies have begun to think about life beyond this planet. In 2020, Icon announced it had been awarded a government Small Business Innovation Research contract, including funding from NASA, to begin research and development of a space-based construction system that could support future exploration of the Moon.
The company is currently working with BIG architects on concepts under the name of Project Olympus. “Building humanity’s first home on another world will be the most ambitious construction project in human history and will push science, engineering, technology and architecture to literal new heights,” said Jason Ballard, co-founder and CEO of Icon.