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Printed Matter

Increasing advancements behind 3D printing have triggered much excitement amongst architects and the media but is such fascination misguided?

Three-D printing replacement parts for domestic appliances (or gonks, desk-tidies and flammable ashtrays) may be trending, but the digital print-your-own-artefacts world is not yet fully upon us. Surrounding the architectural equivalent of the miracle of the microwave oven, however, there is the suspicion that we might end up with some half-baked, tasteless and even toxic buildings … anyone for a laser-sintered door handle?

Architects are continually in search of some astonishingly versatile, isospatial, all-space-filling construction material that isn’t going to kill you and won’t be eaten by vermin. There remains the great promise of an all-purpose substrate that solves all your climatic enclosure needs and that will be delivered to site ‘oeuvre complète’, or autonomously fabricated in-situ by high-calibre industrial machine tools choreographed in a digitally scripted nirvana. In schools of architecture, these are persuasive narratives and, as a technology tutor, I feel it is my great duty to encourage them.


In the seminal book Fantastic Architecture published in 1969, artist Wolf Vostell advocated a kind of self-assembly housing / instant city construction system made of that ugly wünder material, expanded polyurethane foam. The lightweight (albeit scabby) brilliance of Vostell’s polyurethane dwellings is indeed achievable, and much work in amorphous robotic construction  uses portable canisters of the aforementioned hard-foamed gloop as the miasma with which to collaboratively construct termite-mound complexities.

The dream of the printed building was galvanised a decade ago with the contour crafting of Behrokh Khoshnevis, which seemed to involve a massive three-axis printer that would pipe (an admittedly prosaic) house through a computer-controlled nozzle; so, no formwork, no material wastage, but some pretty hefty site plant.

At the recent Prototyping Architecture conference at The Building Centre, organiser Michael Stacey noted the ubiquity of the robot (or at least robot arm) in many of the presentations. So while the computer-controlled laser and plasma cutting of sheet materials is now normative, the promise of multi-axis robot limbs as workshop assistants and ergo building assembly operatives is fast becoming reality.

Prototyping Architecture highlighted a whole range of new digital fabrication techniques, some of which used construction automation of a known process, like the ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion at the University of Stuttgart, where 60km of glass and carbon fibres were robotically wound around a temporary framework to create an 8m- diameter and 3.5m-high monocoque pavilion only 4mm thick.

Sanhita Chaturvedi and Esteban Colmenares, formerly of the Architectural Association’s Design Research Lab, gave a wonderful presentation about Knitectonics, where the transfer technology of knitting and circular knitting machines is digitally modelled (physical properties and all) and used to create large-scale knitted structural elements from pre-impregnated carbon fibres.


Knitectonics model tensile structures traditionally created using french knitting

Witness also the much publicised plan by DUS Architects to build the first 3D-printed canal house in Amsterdam. They have set up KamerMaker (room maker), a public workshop pavilion where polypropylene building components are being printed using experimental plastic extrusion techniques in a collaborative project to promote the eventual use of bioplastics. Whether or not these components are useful building elements, the open source spirit of the venture has its own benefits. In the ‘digital’ fabrication of a component-based construction system, it might be that printing may not be the best solution and perhaps more satisfying are the digitally-machined moulds for substances such as clay slip, fibre-reinforced polymers, or even concrete.

Perhaps the architect’s fear of the builder also promotes the notion of printing buildings; where the complex territory between idea and physical actuality will be solved by a purchasable machine. More fool the designer who ignores the tacit intelligence of the specialist fabricator (see the skilled analogue and digital artistry of AB3 Workshops) and of the accumulated knowledge (albeit hard to find at times) of the expert builder.

Facit Homes, established by artists and industrial designers, design and build timber houses directly from a digital model; using an on-site workshop equipped with CNC machine, they cut and assemble system components with the flatpack simplicity and minimised waste of product design. See also the integrated structural engineering, fabrication and assembly ‘manuals’ of Price &ß Myers’ Tim Lucas, replacing proximal structural engineering data for complex projects that might have previously overlooked the construction process.

The structural engineer Tim Macfarlane is very clear about his pioneering work with structural glass, that the lack of precedent and associated engineering codes precipitated a great period of invention with the material, and that this flowering of a technology is threatened when material properties are codified and commercial efficiencies protected.

So, while we should whole-heartedly embrace these new technologies (the weirder, the more diverse, the better), we should be sure to ask about the ‘why’ and ‘where’ for these digital fabrication processes and materials − not as justification but imperative, be that economy, lightness or performance.

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