The use of 3D printing in architecture is on a rapid upward trajectory as architects, academics, engineers, and construction experts find ever greater applications for this technology. Whether or not 3D printing will revolutionize the industry is a matter of ongoing discourse — like any technology, it will have its advocates and critics.
3D printing, also known as “additive manufacturing”, is comparable with the once ubiquitous inkjet printer. The inkjet creates characters and images by squirting ink droplets onto paper in a controlled manner. In a similar way, the 3D printer “prints” or layers a material mix, making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model. The layering is controlled and repeated numerous times until the object is completed.
The use of 3D printing technology in architecture and construction results in a high degree of accuracy and efficiency. The iterative process saves time and reduces costs, with less material waste for example. 3D printing enables architects to innovate new ideas and to experiment with a range of materials in novel ways — it offers a high degree of flexibility in comparison with traditional construction techniques. The technology is finding an increasing number of applications, from the building of housing, notably sustainable housing, to various infrastructural projects.
The projects featured below highlight a range of 3D printing accomplishments and applications.
TECLA — a portmanteau word combining technology and clay — is a 3D printed prototype dwelling that evokes a connection between the past and future. The first eco-sustainable housing prototype to be 3D printed using raw earth, TECLA is a collaboration between Mario Cucinella Architects and WASP (World’s Advanced Saving Project). The prototype, whose shape is inspired by the potter wasp, is the culmination of research into vernacular construction practices, climate studies, and bioclimatic principles. TECLA offers solutions to housing emergencies around the world. Read more about TECLA in this Detail article on Archello.
Located in Eindhoven, “Project Milestone” is a collaboration between architectural studio Houben / Van Mierlo Architecten, developer and builder Van Wijnen, Eindhoven University of Technology, and the municipality of Eindhoven. Described as “the world's first habitable 3D concrete-printed homes,” the project includes five dwellings. The first home, “The Eindhoven house” (pictured), was delivered in April 2021. With its futuristic design, “the 3D printing technique gives freedom of form, where traditional concrete is very rigid in shape,” says Van Wijnen.
3. Chicon House
Chicon House was “the first permitted 3D printed home in the United States,” says construction tech company ICON. The 350-square-feet (32.5-square-meter) home was printed in a period of 47 hours across several days, using the first-generation Vulcan printer. The project, a collaboration between ICON and US non-profit New Story, was conceived with a particular focus on the provision of housing in areas of the developing world. The Vulcan printer “is designed to work under constraints that are common in places like Haiti and rural El Salvador, where power can be unpredictable, potable water is not a guarantee, and technical assistance is sparse,” says ICON.
4. Ashen Cabin
Designed by HANNAH Design Office, the Ashen Cabin in Upstate New York is part of a response to the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, a beetle that is having a destructive impact on native ash trees. The prototype cabin utilizes robotics and 3D printing in timber and concrete construction. “By implementing high precision 3D scanning and robotic-based fabrication technology, [the] infested ‘waste wood’ [is transformed] into an abundantly available, affordable, and sustainable building material,” says HANNAH. The 3D printed concrete “requires no formwork and uses the absolute minimum amount of concrete in the production process,” says the studio. 3D printing eliminates the need for formwork and helps to cut CO2 emissions.
This 3D printed Urban Cabin by DUS Architects was designed as a small retreat. Located in Amsterdam, the building is part of the 3D Print Living Lab by DUS Architects, a research project that considers the use of compact and sustainable dwellings in urban environments. The cabin is entirely 3D printed from bio-plastic — the material is fully recyclable and can be reprinted.
The Flagship Dolce Gusto Neo store in São Paulo (also top image), is Latin America’s first 3D printed biodegradable building. Designed by Estudio Guto Requena, the form was algorithmically generated. The prefabricated structure is made up of glued laminated timber (Glulam/GLT) and covered with a biodegradable plaster shell. An example of regenerative architecture, the temporary structure will be dismantled in around two years: the wood will be recycled and the plaster will be crushed and used as agricultural fertilizer.
Designed by AZL Architects, this pavilion in the courtyard of LEI House in Tonglu, Zhejiang, China, is constructed from translucent 3D printed PLA bricks. PLA, or polylactic acid, is a plant-based, biodegradable plastic that is popular in 3D printing owing to its printability and versatility.
Striatus, an arched 3D concrete-printed masonry bridge in Venice, Italy, is a collaboration between the Block Research Group at ETH Zurich, Zaha Hadid Architects Computation and Design Group, and building materials and aggregates company Holcim. The bridge is made up of 3D printed concrete blocks, assembled without mortar. “Concrete is printed in layers orthogonal to the main structural forces to create a ‘striated’, compression-only, funicular structure that requires no reinforcement,” says Zaha Hadid Architects.
9. MX3D Bridge
Designed by Joris Laarman Studio in collaboration with Arup and realized by MX3D, the MX3D Bridge in Amsterdam is a 12-meter-long (approx. 39 feet), 3D printed stainless steel bridge. In this project, “computational design and 3D printing come together to streamline both the design and production process, allowing designers to explore greater [freedom of form] and shrink delivery timelines,” says Arup.
The Výstaviště tram stop in Prague was designed and realized by So Concrete. The structure was 3D printed using ultra high-performance concrete (UHPC) and its basic form was completed within 24 hours. “The properties of UHPC make it possible to manufacture such subtle self-supporting structures using a minimum amount of steel,” says So Concrete. “Robotic 3D printing [makes it possible to produce] complex shapes without the need to use molds or formwork.”