In architecture, latest materials rarely emerge.

For centuries, wood, masonry and concrete formed the idea for many structures on Earth.

In the Eighties, the adoption of the steel frame modified architecture endlessly. Steel allowed architects to design taller buildings with larger windows, giving rise to the skyscrapers that outline city skylines today.

Since the commercial revolution, construction materials have been largely confined to a spread of mass-produced elements. From steel beams to plywood panels, this standardized kit of parts has informed the design and construction of buildings for over 150 years.

That may soon change with advances in what’s called “large-scale additive manufacturing.” Not because the adoption of the steel frame has there been a development with as much potential to remodel the way in which buildings are conceived and constructed.

Large-scale additive manufacturing, like desktop 3D printing, involves constructing objects one layer at a time. Whether it’s clay, concrete or plastic, the print material is extruded in a fluid state and hardens into its final form.

As director of the Institute for Smart Structures on the University of Tennessee, I’ve been fortunate to work on a series of projects that deploy this latest technology.

While some roadblocks to the widespread adoption of this technology still exist, I can foresee a future wherein buildings are built entirely from recycled materials or materials sourced on-site, with forms inspired by the geometries of nature.

Promising prototypes

Among these is the Trillium Pavilion, an open-air structure printed from recycled ABS polymer, a standard plastic utilized in a wide selection of consumer products.

The structure’s thin, double-curved surfaces were inspired by the petals of its namesake flower. The project was designed by students, printed by Loci Robotics and constructed on the University of Tennessee Research Park at Cherokee Farm in Knoxville.

Other recent examples of large-scale additive manufacturing include Tecla, a 450-square-foot (41.8-square-meter) prototype dwelling designed by Mario Cucinella Architects and printed in Massa Lombarda, a small town in Italy.

Tecla was built from locally sourced clay.
Mario Cucinella Architects

The architects printed Tecla out of clay sourced from an area river. The unique combination of this inexpensive material and radial geometry created an energy-efficient form of other housing.

Back within the U.S., the architecture firm Lake Flato partnered with the development technology firm ICON to print concrete exterior partitions for a house dubbed “House Zero” in Austin, Texas.

The 2,000-square-foot (185.8-square-meter) home demonstrates the speed and efficiency of 3D-printed concrete, and the structure displays a satisfying contrast between its curvilinear partitions and its exposed timber frame.

The planning process

Large-scale additive manufacturing involves three knowledge areas: digital design, digital fabrication and material science.

To begin, architects create computer models of all of the components that shall be printed. These designers can then use software to check how the components will reply to structural forces and tweak the components accordingly. These tools also can help the designer work out learn how to reduce the burden of components and automate certain design processes, corresponding to smoothing complex geometric intersections, prior to printing.

A chunk of software generally known as a slicer then translates the pc model right into a set of instructions for the 3D printer.

You might assume 3D printers work at a comparatively small scale – think cellphone cases and toothbrush holders.

But advances in 3D printing technology have allowed the hardware to scale up in a serious way. Sometimes the printing is completed via what’s called a gantry-based system – an oblong framework of sliding rails just like a desktop 3D printer. Increasingly, robotic arms are used resulting from their ability to print in any orientation.

Robotic arms allow for more flexibility in the development process.

The printing site also can vary. Furnishings and smaller components could be printed in factories, while entire houses should be printed on-site.

A spread of materials could be used for large-scale additive manufacturing. Concrete is a well-liked alternative resulting from its familiarity and sturdiness. Clay is an intriguing alternative because it will possibly be harvested on-site – which is what the designers of Tecla did.

But plastics and polymers could have the broadest application. These materials are incredibly versatile, they usually could be formulated in ways in which meet a wide selection of specific structural and aesthetic requirements. They may also be produced from recycled and organically derived materials.

Inspiration from nature

Because additive manufacturing builds layer by layer, using only the fabric and energy required to make a selected component, it’s a way more efficient constructing process than “subtractive methods,” which involve cutting away excess material – think milling a wood beam out of a tree.

Even common materials like concrete and plastics profit from being 3D-printed, since there’s no need for added formwork or molds.

Most construction materials today are mass-produced on assembly lines which are designed to supply the identical components. While reducing cost, this process leaves little room for personalization.

Since there is no such thing as a need for tooling, forms or dies, large-scale additive manufacturing allows each part to be unique, with no time penalty for added complexity or customization.

Another interesting feature of large-scale additive manufacturing is the aptitude to supply complex components with internal voids. This may at some point allow for partitions to be printed with conduit or ductwork already in place.

In addition, research is going down to explore the chances of multi-material 3D printing, a way that might allow windows, insulation, structural reinforcement – even wiring – to be fully integrated right into a single printed component.

One of the facets of additive manufacturing that excites me most is the way in which wherein constructing layer by layer, with a slowly hardening material, mirrors natural processes, like shell formation.

Corner of home built layer by layer.
A 3D-printed house in Shanghai that was inbuilt lower than 24 hours out of construction waste.
Visual China Group/Getty Images

This opens up windows of opportunity, allowing designers to implement geometries which are difficult to supply using other construction methods, but are common in nature.

Structural frames inspired by the effective structure of bird bones could create lightweight lattices of tubes, with various sizes reflecting the forces acting upon them. Façades that evoke the shapes of plant leaves is likely to be designed to concurrently shade the constructing and produce solar energy.

Overcoming the educational curve

Despite the numerous positive facets of large-scale additive manufacturing, there are quite a few impediments to its wider adoption.

Perhaps the largest to beat is its novelty. There is a whole infrastructure built around traditional types of construction like steel, concrete and wood, which include supply chains and constructing codes. In addition, the associated fee of digital fabrication hardware is comparatively high, and the precise design skills needed to work with these latest materials usually are not yet widely taught.

In order for 3D printing in architecture to change into more widely adopted, it would need to search out its area of interest. Similar to how word processing helped popularize desktop computers, I believe it would be a particular application of large-scale additive manufacturing that can result in its common use.

Perhaps it would be its ability to print highly efficient structural frames. I also already see its promise for creating unique sculptural façades that could be recycled and reprinted at the top of their useful life.

Either way, it seems likely that some combination of things will be certain that future buildings will, in some part, be 3D-printed.

White lattice building façade.
A 3D-printed façade in Foshan, China.
The Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture

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