Print it!

Architects are adept at evaluating space, probably more so than most. But the mind’s eye can only see so far. Drawings, models, and computer renderings, these are all tools of the trade for the modern architect. Despite the relatively simply process of creating design studies on the computer, most architects I know still turn to the time honored traditions of building quick sketch models to evaluate their designs.

To clarify for those of you who may not spend every waking moment considering various massing options for various design problems, a sketch model is a physical model, often at a small scale (say 1/16” = 1’-0”) and usually created out of scrap materials. These are purposefully abstracted, and often used early in the design process to narrow down the landslide of ideas that inevitably comes from a blank canvas.

Like most things today, even the sacred tradition of the sketch model is subject to rapid evolution. In this instance I’m speaking about the amazing advancements being made in 3D printing, rapid prototyping, and the integration of CAD/CAM into full scale building processes. No longer is the world of creating physical objects through digital input beyond the reach of the masses, on the contrary, for surprisingly little money you can purchase a desktop sized machine that will literally print practically anything you can imagine.

Obviously we’ve all seen the cute little teacup, or Eifel Tower/Big Ben/Pyramid trinket. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. How about designer clothing, high-end jewelry, sports equipment… even fully functioning kidneys? For the past twenty years, large manufacturing outfits have used 3D printing for prototyping, but now the push is to the general public and beyond. Architecture is being affected as well. While it is still the outlier firm that is actively integrating the full possibilities into their processes, more and more firms are asking themselves how they can utilize this newly accessible technology. My own firm is currently using outsourced opportunities to obtain quick sketch models that are simply printed from our computer models offsite and mailed to us the next day.

Behrokh Khoshenevis, director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies (CRAFT) at the University of Southern California, has set to the task of perfecting a technology that he has coined “Contour Crafting”. In simple terms Contour Crafting is 3D printing at the scale of full buildings. A cementitious mixture of high tensile concrete is extruded through a machine that is designed to lay continuous beads, layer upon layer, following computer generated data at extremely precise locations and amounts. Entire buildings can simply be printed in a matter of hours, complete with integrated structural, mechanical, and routing systems. Because the patterns can be organic in nature, and are optimized through computer analysis, the resulting buildings can contain less material and produce virtually no waste.

While we may be a ways off from printing our built environments, and given the realities of the construction industry this may not be a technology that ever reaches that level of potential. I can, however, certainly see a real opportunity to print complex construction details on site in the GC’s trailer, hand that physical object to the guys in the field and say, “here, make it look like that”. If a picture is worth a thousand words, in that case an object may be worth its weight in gold. Or at least thermoplastic powder.

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