If you can’t find the right building, print it instead

From an out-of-this-world project on the moon to the future workplace in Dubai, the age of the 3D printed office building is coming closer

This has been a significant year for off-world architecture. The latest scheme to shoot for the moom is Project Olympus, which aims to develop robotic construction for the moon based on a 3D-printed infrastructure. The project is a joint piece of work by the 3D-printed building company ICON, space architecture group SEArch+ and the Danish architecture studio BIG.

While there have been a number of previous designs for lunar habitats, this one aims to 3D print a habitable infrastructure using materials found on the lunar surface. Working with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the team will start by using a simulant of moon soil to investigate a printable construction. They aim to create a technology that will use only in-situ resources on a zero-waste principle instead of relying on the costly transportation of materials from Earth. The team consider that Project Olympus will also offer a more sustainable example for building on earth.

The 3D printed home

The lunar project is representative of a much broader upsurge in exploring 3D printing as a construction technique; and it’s moving ever closer to widespread implementation. In 2018, a French family became the first in the world to move into a 3D printed home, and the first printed residential building in Germany is currently under construction.

3D printing technology for residential construction is now argued to be market ready. And not just residential construction – the first 3D printed office building was completed in Dubai last year. The largest printed building developed so far at two storeys and a footprint of 640 square metres, the printing took place out in the open to prove that the technology could handle harsh environments. The machine was moved around the site using a crane; efficiencies in this process mean that manual work such as the installation of pipes and cabling can take place while printing is still in progress.

Printing the future

While these may seem like experimental one-offs, Dubai has announced an ambitious plan for a fourth of new buildings in the city to be 3D printed by 2025, striving to become the world leader in 3D printing for civil construction.

While there are some obstacles inherent in the current process – the height constraint of current machinery being a significant one – it does offer significant advantages to conventional construction. There’s a lower margin of error, the costs are lower and likely to fall further as the technology develops, and it offers opportunities for architectural experimentation with form that would be cost-prohibitive in a more traditional process.

It also offers exciting opportunities around sustainable construction. With accurate calculations, it can be a zero-waste process, and researchers around the world are working on ways to use local soil and even agricultural waste as an additive material. While we may be some way off inhabiting printed building en masse, we’re certainly a step closer to being able to say – ‘can’t find the right building for you? Print it’.

Read Imogen Privett’s complete design round-up of architectural innovation in our Innovation Zone here

Imogen Privett is a Senior Research Associate in WORKTECH Academy. An architectural designer and researcher, she holds degrees in both History and Architecture. Imogen has worked in architectural practice focusing on workplace design with projects including UK headquarters for Barclays, Macquarie Bank and Reuters
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