Navigant Research Blog

The Future of Buildings Will Be Printed in 3D

Noah Goldstein — March 11, 2014

There is something mesmerizing about watching a 3D printer work.  Whether it’s printing in plasticsandmetalsugar, or chocolate, it is captivating to see layer after layer be laid down to create simple or sublime forms.  3D-printed (also known as additive) materials have been recognized as having novel material, physical, and even electric properties.  Impossible shapes have been created that could enable an expansion in how materials can be conceived and used.  But what does additive manufacturing mean for buildings?  The ultimate application is easy to conceive: printing buildings, molecule by molecule, creating homes with landing pads for flying cars, and a HAL-9000 built into the walls.  But that is the Future (with a capital F).  In the near future, 3D printing will change the ways buildings are maintained and built.

The first application of 3D printing will address a very old-school problem: replacing parts in aging equipment.  Buildings are incredible for their durability.  This is also true for the equipment inside buildings.  At the Hotel Boulderado in Boulder, Colorado, the city where Navigant Research is headquartered, the original elevator is still running after 100 years.  With good maintenance, some systems will last for decades beyond their intended service life.  Keeping legacy systems in place lowers capital expenses for building owners.  But it’s not always easy to replace old parts.  In some cases, the replacement parts are no longer available, either because the manufacturer has gone out of business or has simply stopped making them.  In other cases, the transport costs for replacing parts can be prohibitive.  3D printing can solve that by creating custom parts made with extreme precision.  With the portability of 3D printing, it could even be possible to send the design specs for the part to the location where they are needed and print the part onsite.

Print Me a House

Constructing buildings using 3D-printed materials is still in the visionary phase of development.  DUS Architects has launched an ambitious project to print a traditional Dutch Canal House out of polypropylene.  In a very public display, a large silver box will print walls and other structures onsite, to be assembled into the traditional canal house form over the next few years.  Starting with the façade, the buildings will be printed and assembled out of plastic, building voids into the walls for support and insulation.  This is a public demonstration of an innovative approach.  One can envision printing building materials onsite using local materials, curbing transportation costs, saving energy, and reducing carbon emissions, not to mention vastly lowering the material waste that is a part of the building manufacturing industry.  In the next few decades, we can look forward to 3D printers getting bigger and cheaper, enabling 3D-printed material to be merged with traditional approaches.  The economics of 3D printing materials for buildings are not clear, and could be a major limiting factor in most settings.  In the meantime, if you find yourself in Amsterdam, you can buy a ticket to see a house being printed.  The architects and partners have made the building site (and print shop) open to the public for a small fee.

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