Though scientists like USC’s Behrokh Khoshnevis and Enrico Dini are edging ever closer to developing a 3-D printer large enough to print houses, the technology is still a long way from being widely implementable. That hasn’t stopped architects from designing for it, though--after all, plenty of great architecture is unbuildable.
A London design studio called Softkill is leading the way, painting a far-out picture of what 3-D printed architecture could eventually look like. At last week’s 3D Printshow, the team of Architectural Association grads presented a concept called ProtoHome, which imagines a radical new mode of construction based on the strengths of 3-D printing. Their design is in stark contrast to other 3-D printed home schemes, which are either markedly utilitarian or oddly traditional.
The spindly, web-like structure is based on an algorithm that mimics the way bones grow in human bodies. It directs extra material to the points of greatest stress within the home, and tells them to form stronger bonds in those spots--hence the rabbit’s warren of micro-columns that form under the home’s long cantilevered deck.
ProtoHouse is different from traditional structures in roughly the same way an invertebrate like a spider is different from mammals. It has no exterior facade, meaning that rain and snow would permeate the dense honeycomb shape, and rather than relying on an internal skeleton, its structural components are completely exposed (possible because the building is printed in plastic). The cladding, waterproofing, and insulation are actually embedded inside the structure, in a reversal from typical home detailing practice. Each habitable space is nestled inside a cocoon of flexible waterproofing that’s also 3-D printed, thanks to a new type of laser sintering we’ve written about before. Softkill’s prototypes for the flexible membranes include a fascinating mesh chain mail made up of interlocking 3-D printed rings (similar to those used in a recent 3-D printed iPhone case).
The house is divided into 30 discreet sections, defined by the size of the flatbed truck that would transport them to the site. Amazingly, Softkill has modeled each section to interlock with the others--meaning that no additional adhesives would be required during assembly. “The Softkill house moves away from heavy, compression-based 3-D printing of on-site buildings, instead proposing lightweight, high-resolution, optimized structures,” write the designers.
One strategy that a lot of people have been experimenting with is constructing a very large 3-D printer on site. The printer is essentially the size of the structure that is being built. But we were interested in working within the constraints of the existing technologies.
I think at the moment, as you said, [3-D printing is a specialized, one-off, luxury, rich man’s thing]. But I think there really is an interesting future for architecture and 3-D printing; because you have great cost savings and material efficiency, which architects are really interested in. That’s where 3-D printing is really pushing the discipline.
Silver tells Co.Design that plans are in the works for a larger-scale prototype than this (relatively small) 1:33 model. But it’s important to note that ProtoHouse isn’t really a literal design for a "house," so much as a provocation, pointing out that in the face of large-scale 3-D printing, traditional thinking on structures and construction will undergo a transformation on par with the first steel buildings.