If you’re designing and building office space for staff at the Museum of the Future, utilizing a first-of-its-kind, 3D-printing process seems like a fitting move. In the case of the newly constructed, 2,600-square-foot office on the campus of the new Dubai museum, which opened last week, the choice of construction method was both forward-thinking and cost-conscious. Built with the help of a massive 3D printer based in China, the structure signifies a new stage in modular, prefab construction, while also cutting labor costs in half and reducing material costs by more than 30 percent.
According to Gensler Principal Richard Hammond, who led the design team behind the project, the Chinese company famous for popularizing the scaled-up 3D printing technology, WinSun Global, approached Gensler more than a year ago, asking how their technology could be utilized to solve the housing crisis in different parts of the globe. Gensler teams in Chicago, which specialized in computational design, and Costa Rica, which had been experimenting with prefab, modular concrete housing, teamed up to come up with prototype designs. The firm had created numerous concepts when the opportunity to build the office for Dubai’s Future Foundation came up, offering an opportunity to apply the technology to a real-world challenge.
A life-sized office presented a completely different design challenge than the models the firm’s architects had been making on desktop-sized 3D printers. Strict size limitations gave the architects strict parameters. The prototype office had to be printed in controlled conditions at WinSun’s Shanghai factory, using a machine 20 feet tall, 140 feet long, and 40 feet wide, then shipped by container and assembled at the site in Dubai. The unique materials used in the massive printer—a proprietary concrete mixture that’s a closely guarded secret, according to Hammond—made project engineers from Thornton Tomasetti slightly skeptical until they were tested. Hammond says that in addition to running calculations and stress tests, the engineers made 10-meter planks of "printable" concrete and had five guys jump up and down on top to see if they could break it.
"This is just a small, one-story building, but the prototype taught us a lot," says Hammond. "I expect in the future, this kind of technology will work like an auto assembly line, with systems pre-installed in walls, which would make production much simpler. I think we’re going to see multi-level buildings and more interesting shapes, all without radically changing the cost."
Hammond says his team had even designed custom printed furniture and interiors that blended in with the building, but weren’t able to incorporate them into this model. The new, curved office in front of the Emirates Towers may be a novelty now, but Hammond believes this technology will evolve quickly. He already can foresee a time when buyers can choose options for a home online and have them custom printed, and the Gensler team also came up with a scenario that would utilize the technology for humanitarian means; a house printing factory could be built in an affected area, crank out needed shelter, and then be converted into a community center once enough buildings have been completed.
"With the introduction of this kind of technology, architects become guides for the experience of creating buildings, not just experts in building structures," he says. "I’m seeing kids that play MInecraft, saying ‘why can’t we build this now?’"