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These Designers Invented A New Way To 3-D Print Concrete Architecture

Their technique could radically change the way 3-D printed buildings look.

While studying together at the Bartlett School of Architecture, masters students Francesca Camilleri, Nadia Doukhi, Alvaro Lopez Rodriguez and Roman Strukov all agreed that 3-D printing was the future of their chosen trade. But as 3-D printers are being used in architecture today, that future looked pretty stagnant: instead of using them create entirely new types of architecture in situ, 3-D printers were being used to craft nothing more than glorified bricks, a dollop at a time.

So the quartet formed Amalgamma, a team devoted to pushing the boundaries of 3-D printed architecture. As part of their first project, called Fossilized, they have come with a technique which uses robot arms to 3-D print large-scale concrete structures that borrow the structure of the Earth’s tectonic plates, resulting in meticulously detailed and shockingly ornamental designs.

According to Amalgamma, the biggest barrier to entry when it comes to using 3-D printing in architecture is the size of the 3-D printer itself. If you want to print an entire building at once, you’d need a 3-D printer that is larger than the proposed structure. Needless to say, that’s a big ask, so the designers of most so-called 3-D printed buildings take a modular approach, producing smaller pieces of the proposed building and then putting them together like Lego on-site.

Team Amalgamma thinks this is boring, arguing that many current examples of architectural-scale 3-D printing are “extremely revolutionary and advanced from a tech standpoint,” but little more than “stagnant construction assemblies” in reality.

To move beyond the confines of conventional architecture that just happens to be made in a printer bed, the group used a computer-controlled robot arm to print out designs in layers–which allows structures to be much bigger than anything that could fit in, say, a MakerBot printer. It’s not a wholly unique approach; this is the same idea that Dutch designer Joris Laarman is pursuing to 3-D print a steel bridge in Amsterdam.

But Amalgamma wanted to do more than print out structures that were bigger than conventional 3-D printed objects. The team wanted to create an entirely new aesthetic that extended directly from the way it was produced. Using the robot arm, the designers extruded 2-D layers of concrete over and over again over a period of six to ten hours. Unlike most 3-D printers, which only end up producing glorified blocks, Amalgamma’s technique made each layer of concrete a little different, a little squigglier than the last, resulting in structures that look like they were assembled from tectonic cross-sections. These stylized pieces resemble fragments snapped off of an underground stalactite cathedral–dazzlingly ornate and stylized, and definitely unlike anything conventional building techniques could produce.

So far, the designers have printed out a column, table, and vase using this technique. Given a big enough robot arm, though, they could create even bigger structures: in the video above, the team previews a wriggling spaceship of a building that looks like something straight out of H.R. Giger’s set designs for Alien. But first, the team plans to experiment with making 3-D printed windows out of translucent concrete–yup, there is such a thing!

The ultimate goal is to challenge other architects to think beyond the brick, and get back to the fundamental question that makes 3-D printing so exciting: if you could 3-D print any shape or object imaginable, what would you make?

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at john.brownlee+fastco@gmail.com.