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Beyond Gimmickry: Exploring a Future of Printed Houses

Welcome to Thinking Big, wherein journalist Bridget Moriarity (whose work has been published in Travel + Leisure, Art + Auction, and Time Out New York, among others) joins Curbed to explore large-scale trends and topics within the design and architecture community. Have a pressing issue worth discussing? Drop a note to the tipline.

Three-dimensional printing is taking the world by storm—everything from guns to bionic ears is under experimentation. However, as Sophia Tang, an architect with London's Softkill Design laments, the bulk of goods being produced at the moment are inconsequential: "People are printing coffee mugs and things that can be readily available through other means of production and fabrication, but we want to put something out there on the market that really takes advantage of the technology." As such, Tang and a team of architects and designers are currently collaborating to build the world's first 3D printed house.

The project, dubbed Protohouse 2.0, is a single-story pavilion-like dwelling made from plastic, yet it boasts all the functionality of a home. It measures about 26 feet long and 13 feet wide and will be printed in a factory in sections that can then be slotted together on-site, much like puzzle pieces; in terms of aesthetics, its porous, calcified look isn't an accident; the fibrous nylon walls were inspired by the way bone grows. Originally, the group hoped to build the residence by the end of summer, but—rather unsurprisingly, of course—the effort is taking more time and money than anticipated. Softkill won't disclose an exact cost, but Tang says it's not something that the average family can afford.

Two more firms, both based in Amsterdam, have also released plans to erect 3D-printed houses. Earlier this year, Universe Architecture publicized their designs for a two-story house in the shape of a Möbius strip (above). The formwork for the dwelling will be printed on-site by the world's largest 3D printer, and then concrete will be poured into the forms. The process is estimated to take 18 months and will cost around $5.2M to complete. The site has yet to be identified.

Meanwhile, the Dutch firm DUS Public Architecture intends to print a handsome-looking row house room by room on land beside Amsterdam's Buiksloter canal (above), which, at press time, is still in the process of being secured. The team is playing with different materials, ranging from a potato-starch-based bioplastic to a wood-like substance made from wood chips and glue, and hopes to commence construction by the end of this month. "We will pave the floor of the entire site with concrete tiles, and then we will put the printer there and it will become an open exhibition," explains DUS architect Hedwig Heinsman, who addressed the expense vaguely: "it's clearly more than a million-dollar project."

Despite these current and obvious limitations—the cost and the speed of printing, among them—it's still worth exploring whether 3D printing has the potential to reshape the way homes are constructed.

"It's quite viable ... though not immediately," says Heinsman. "What is so nice about 3D printing is that it's not only about new buildings. You can make unique, made-to-measure interiors that can fit well into existing structures," she elaborates. Heinsman also notes that HUD specializes in pop-up architecture, and she envisions a future using 3D-printed bioplastics to create temporary structures that will, after a while, disintegrate from rainwater.

Tang agrees. While we won't see exclusively 3D-printed homes take over as the next five years unfold, she does think we will see many 3D-printed components within standard buildings—whether a door handle, a sink, or a table. She also envisions more intelligent brick being printed in smaller batches with a cavity inside, for example, for piping, or with built-in insulation.

Beyond the aesthetic potential of 3D printing, Heinsman says her firm is invested in the societal implications. "A lot of architects are very interested in the capacities of the technique in terms of shape, whereas our office is more fascinated by the social aspect of the printer—how it democratizes architecture and how these printers, for instance, could be placed in areas where there's been a disaster, and you can just start to print small houses."

Janjaap Ruijssenaars of the Amsterdam-based firm Universe Architecture doesn't believe 3D printing will replace more traditional methods of construction, but he's confident that the complex forms that can be created through additive manufacturing will, well, wow. He sees printers becoming faster and more reliable in the near future and the varied techniques that exist merging into one definitive form of printing.

Ruijssenaars recalls being approached recently by a bank in South Africa about the prospect of printing houses for the poor. "At this stage, I don't think it's very competitive," he notes. "But once the amount of houses increases, what I think is interesting to bring up in South Africa or any other country, is the idea of a very simple plan for a small family house—a whole street might be printed in one go." After all, as Tang points out, "Once you have designed one home, it's like a PDF: you can print multiple copies. If it works out, it could be hugely ready and available. And I'm pretty sure it will be cheap once the time comes."

· Softkill Design [official site]
· Universe Architecture [official site]
· DUS Public Architecture [official site]
· All Thinking Big columns [Curbed National]
· All Computer Projects [Curbed National]