3D Printing’s Emerging Impact on Architecture and Construction

Posted on May 21, 2019 by Cullen Hikene

A lot has been made of 3D printing in architecture recently, as we discussed in our previous vlog entry. At 3Diligent, we were proud to play a part in the construction of Seattle’s newest and second tallest tower, where 3D printed aluminum curtain wall nodes will help shape the face of this skyline-defining building. Shortly thereafter, headlines appeared about Icon Development’s purchase of a 3D printer for buildings, which will help them construct low-cost housing in Austin and around the world.

Farther afield, in the Netherlands and in China, bridges have been constructed using 3D printers to create unique and aesthetically intriguing additions to their pedestrian thoroughfares. In Dubai, the first 3D printed office building is up and operational. And in the Philippines, the first 3D printed hotel has been commissioned.

So what does it all mean? Is the future of construction 3D printed? Are elements of construction untouchable by 3D printers, no matter how long we wait? We will address some of these questions here.

One thing that has defined the architectural industry, for effectively its entire existence, is the desire to create statements with buildings. 3D printing offers a new and remarkably adept tool at achieving this end. With regard to the Rainier Tower project and related curtain walls developed by Walters and Wolf, to achieve the unique aesthetic they desired, 3D Printing was the preferred technology of choice. With Metal Powder Bed Fusion (MPBF) 3D printing, Walters and Wolf felt as though the consistency of the printed parts and the strategic flexibility it offered was superior to investment casting. While casting has been around for a lot longer, it couldn’t deliver in quite the same way across 140 unique geometries the way our powder bed fusion printers could.

If you roll it all up, the highly complex nodes and the different geometries additive manufacturing was able to directly facilitate in a relatively cost-effective fashion made it a great choice for the task at hand. This will come to reflect a broader trend in architecture. While the existing mass-production infrastructure for large-scale steel beams and girders should continue to provide the structural basis for our tall buildings for some time to come, aesthetic elements that provide uniqueness and intrigue to architectural statement pieces are truly made feasible by 3D printing in a way that previously wasn’t either possible or plausible, given the economics and limitations of other traditional manufacturing processes.

Another phenomenon we regularly see a 3Diligent is that 3D printing has helped enable organic geometries otherwise extraordinarily challenging to fabricate with traditional technologies. Notable among these are gradually-arcing designs that draw inspiration from the curved shapes we see throughout nature. 3D printing opens the door to more of these geometry types, empowering more buildings with gradually sloping, organic shapes as you might see in a Calatrava design or a Guggenheim Museum. You’ll note virtually every 3D printed building takes advantage of this feature, as it effectively adds no incremental cost to the building’s construction itself.  Your ability to hang paintings, however, might hit a snag. To reference a classic hammer seeking a nail story, perhaps this is the dream nail the curved TV screen hammer has been looking for all these years!

The last area we see 3D printing being used in architecture—and this is the longest-tenured use case—is in modeling applications. In recent years, architects have increasingly moved toward designing in CAD software. This provides them much greater flexibility than a drawing board to make design edits. Further, it provides customers three-dimensional renderings of the spaces they have envisioned.

These CAD design files are readily transferable to 3D printers. So when architects wish to do more than simply take clients on a virtual journey and provide them a tangible model, 3D printing provides architects a ready means to do exactly that. Such prints can be produced in full color to fully realize the space. In doing so, certain experiential aspects can be accounted for in a way that may not be truly possible with digital rendering—or without having a computer and screen handy.

The ability to create unique, dramatic architectural elements more easily and cost-effectively, to build new organic buildings from the ground up, and to realize full-color and to-scale models demonstrates three key ways in which 3D printing is affecting architecture and construction today. As more headlines such as those about Rainier Square and the ICON houses capture the attention of the masses, we expect to see further exploration of what is achievable with 3D printing, and additive manufacturing will soon become a key input to any architectural endeavor, especially those developments where the developers and architects want to make a statement.

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