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3D Property Technology: Printing Houses for The Future

POSTED BY   Michele Baker
April 16, 2016

3D Property Technology: Printing Houses for The FutureThis website is, as you may have gathered, principally concerned with introducing new technological developments, and how they will impact and change the world we live in. I am wholly fascinated with charting the process by which new innovations, such as 3D property technology, are evolving the brave new world ahead of us. We are in the midst of a next generation industrial revolution, a time of advancement at a pace not seen since the early nineteenth century. It is a very exciting time to be alive.

Perhaps one of the most poignant developments gaining momentum in recent years is 3D printing – which I have written about a few times previously. Though the genesis of the concept first appeared in the early 1980s, the various additive processes and the sequential layering technology involved in 3D printing have only reached early maturity over the last five years or so. It is within these last few years that the potential impact of this technology has started to become clear, and that potential is huge.

In engineering and manufacturing, 3D printing has already made a substantial name for itself. It is also anticipated that 3D printers will soon become an everyday addition to homes across the globe, following the same route as the inkjet printer, towards affordability and functionality. However, there is one industry which 3D printing technology is on the precipice of transforming forever: architecture.

Bespoke Homes With 3D Property Technology

In terms of domestic architecture, we are already seeing open source building systems, such as Wikihouses, opening the doors for almost anybody to design, print and assemble their own bespoke homes. It is likely that this sort of personal design and manufacturing technology will become increasingly widespread over the next few years.

3D property technology breaks down traditional design boundaries that have long stood in the way of architectural innovation, freeing designers from the necessity of straight lines, for example. It’s all exciting stuff, but when you consider the wider implications for 3D architecture, the personal design element pales into insignificance.

Life On Mars

Dr Behrokh Khoshnevis is recognised as one of the world’s leading authorities of 3D printing in property technology. He is the brains behind Contour Crafting, perhaps the most sophisticated form of 3D print construction currently in play.

Khoshnevis’s approach involves mobile, lightweight, but still terrifically large-scale printers that can be easily transported directly to sites, where homes and other large structures can be constructed with less waste, cost and time. He anticipates that his company’s first printers will come to market by 2017, with widespread usage expected by 2020. Initially, the machines are estimated to cost around $200,000.

Dr Khoshnevis’s impressive CV of professorial roles at the University of Southern California includes Astronautical and Aerospace Engineering. It is no surprise, therefore, that he is working with NASA to develop the applications of his technology for Lunar and Martian colonisation.

NASA Lunar Settlement Construction 3D Printing | Property Technology| James DearsleySuch technology, Khoshnevis states, has already been demonstrated to be viable for this purpose, using solely in-situ materials. NASA has, unsurprisingly, been working with 3D printing technology for longer than most of us have even been aware of the technology, and the idea of Martian and Lunar settlements isn’t new either.

The maturation of 3D technology, and its application as almost certainly being the means of construction for space colonies, puts the possibility of life on Mars squarely on the horizon.

Disaster Relief

Coming back to Earth, moving beyond the luxury of custom homes and space settlements, there is one application of 3D printed construction that is already proving a real possibility for improving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable citizens.

As the cost of 3D printing in architecture gradually falls, the use of 3D property technology for providing emergency relief in disaster zones is set to bear fruit.

Dr Khoshnevis told Al Jazeera in 2014 that 3D printing “could become a preferred method of responding to emergency shelter in disaster situations”.  

He was, of course, quite right. In 2015, WASP (the World’s Advanced Saving Project) unveiled Big Delta, the world’s largest 3D printer. Standing 40 feet tall, Big Delta promises low energy, extremely low-cost housing construction using local materials, and – vitally – on a very tight budget. It is flagged as a viable solution for disaster relief, though we are still waiting to see where the project will lead next.

Dr Mirko Kovac 3D Printing Drone | Property Technology| James DearsleyAnother disaster relief solution combines 3D printing with that other current techie zeitgeist, the drone. Dr Mirko Kovac, leader of the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London, has created the world’s first drone 3D printer, which is able to 3D print material onto waste to make it transportable. Though the 3D printing drone is still fairly crude, Kovac has received nearly £3.5 million to advance its development.

The drone would be hugely useful in addressing relief in disaster situations that occur in hard-to-reach locations. The 2015 earthquake in Nepal, for example, proved a logistical nightmare for relief teams trying to reach cities and villages deep in the Himalayas. With the use of drones to initially scout the on-ground situation, then to return and 3D print emergency housing based on designs created based on intel from the initial scouting mission, such logistic complications would be greatly reduced. Not only this, but the risk to emergency personnel would be improved, in no small part because the drones would reduce the headcount of necessary relief workers on the ground.

Quite aside from disaster zones, in the whole of the construction industry, the International Labour Organisation estimates that at least 60,000 people every year are killed on construction sites. Drones taking care of the most hazardous aspects of construction would improve safety and dramatically reduce the number of deaths. As would, of course, Khoshnevis’s brand of 3D printer, as the number of construction workers doing hard manual tasks would be reduced.

If that makes you worry about machines taking human jobs, never fear. Whilst 3D printers, and drones, may make some jobs redundant, they will create countless more through their manufacturing, operations and maintenance.

Could 3D Property Technology Mean No More Slums?

Brazilian Favelas - Anielle Guedes - Urban 3D | Property Technology | James DearsleyThe UN currently estimates that between 800 million and 3 billion people currently live in slums. One third of the world’s population. That is, unless 3D printed homes can offer a solution.

Anielle Guedes, founder of Urban3D, is a 23 year old with big ambitions to solve homelessness within the next 15 years. She’s starting in her home country, Brazil, working with institutes and companies from Germany, America, and Brazil itself, to create quality, low-cost, 3D printed dwellings to replace the dilapidated, dirty and dangerous favelas that are sadly home to over 11 million Brazilians.

Using pre-formatted modules to build walls, floors and beams, the project that is currently underway aims to build four five-storey buildings at a cost of several thousands dollars. This will form the prototype stage of the project. However, that’s the easy part.

For Guedes, the challenges ahead don’t come directly from the technology itself. She says the difficulty is getting the funding and investors to put their money into 3D property technology as the solution. There’s also the matter of the sheer volume of production required to replace the slums and favelas altogether: is the current technology up to the large-scale challenge such a project requires?

Judging by the optimistic attitude of Shanghai-based construction firm, Winsun, the technology is more than ready. Winsun hit the headlines in 2014 for allegedly creating ten 3D printed houses in one day, and subsequently claiming to have 3D printed an entire six-storey apartment building and mansion. Winsun has enthusiastically declared that it has struck a deal with the Egyptian government to build 20,000 single storey dwellings in the desert, using the sand itself as the raw material from which to construct the buildings.

How Winsun’s recent widespread exposure reflects the reality of their technology is, however, subject to some uncertainty. Dr Khoshnevis has strong opinions about Winsun, and not only because Winsun effectively aped Khoshnevis’s Contour Crafting process, albeit in a crude manner. Khoshnevis has been pretty vocal in his condemnation of Winsun, making it clear that the system they are using is pretty subpar.

Whilst Winsun claim to have 3D printed entire dwellings, Khoshnevis points out that they are actually only printing small sections of walls using an expensive system from Italy. These sections cannot be created on site, unlike the Contour Crafting machines that Khoshnevis has been developing, instead needing to be transported by truck to the site, where they are offloaded and constructed.

Winsun’s technology is not only inefficient, it’s also more expensive than the Contour Crafting system, and furthermore, does not have a single patent behind it. Oh, and one more thing: Contour Crafting’s technology is years ahead of Winsun’s. In short, if anyone is going to be fixing the favelas, it’s Khoshnevis.

3D Property Technology For Homes In The UK

3D Printed Home In Highgate, London - Facit Homes | Property Technology | James DearsleyFrom disaster zones and slums, outer space and back again, the germ of a whole new era of architecture is growing. But can we expect to see 3D printed houses in the UK any time soon?

Systemised construction has never been a big deal in the UK. After World War II, we did have a brief love affair with panelised systems when we were building our high-rise flats. But we all know how inspiring and beautiful they looked, not to mention the condensation issues.

Needless to say, we are still a few years away from widespread use here in the UK. However, the first 3D printed home in the UK is already in progress. Leading homebuilders, Facit, are behind the design and manufacture of the high-end house in Highgate, London.

The process used, however, is not quite as high tech as Contour Crafting. Facit Homes’ Managing Director, Bruce Bell, describes the machine they use as “kind of like an old-school plotter like architects had in the ‘80s where you put a pen in and it moves it around”. He also prefers the term ‘digitally manufactured’, which essentially puts Facit’s process more akin to that of the construction of smartphones and cars than the heady tech of Khoshnevis, or even Winsun.

Another UK development in 3D property technology is the deal struck at the end of 2014 between Loughborough University and contractor firm Skanska. Loughborough Uni’s School of Civil and Building Engineering have been working with 3D printing for construction since 2007. The upshot, so far, has been a 3D concrete printer that lays down successive levels of concrete to create a specified object.

The printer will be useful in streamlining complex structural components, plus things like panels of curved cladding and bespoke architectural features. Skanska is excited about the potential for time saving in the production of such complex elements, which could be reduced from weeks to mere hours.

So, the UK’s contribution is not exactly earth-shattering, but it’s a good start. And considering the rocketing prices of buying and building homes here in the UK, there’s good reason to suggest we may be one of the next countries to pick up the baton when more sophisticated processes start becoming readily available.

49The Europe Building in Amsterdam | Property Technology| James DearsleyAnd that might not be too far off, if our European neighbours are anything to go by. Holland seems to be holding the torch highest when it comes to the matter of 3D property technology. Celebrating the handing over of EU Presidency from Luxembourg to the Netherlands, Amsterdam has erected a 700-square-metre modular structure, the ‘Europe Building’ that includes a 3D printed facade and benches. This comes hot on the heels of DUS Architects’ 3D printed canal house, designed to showcase the potential of 3D printing technology in the property sector.

Clearly, we are in the middle of a global 3D construction movement that is fast growing momentum. The wealth of great minds hard at work on the concept, all driven by the revolutionary potential of 3D printing for the construction industry in its many incarnations, just goes to highlight what an exciting movement this really is.

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