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Important Answers About the Future of 3D-Printed Architecture

Here’s what you need to know about architecture firm WATG’s latest roundtable discussion on the future of printable urban design.

by Andrew Nunes
Jun 21 2016, 12:35pm

This past Wednesday morning, The Creators Project sat down with members of architecture firm WATG's urban architecture team for a roundtable discussion on the latest trends in urban design. WATG Vice President Dennis Rehill and Associate Vice President Chris Hurst led the discussion, which focused on the rise of 3D printing in architecture. It is a topic they are more than familiar with after winning Branch Technology's Freeform Home Design Challenge in April, alongside Miguel Alvarez, Daniel Caven, and Brent Watanabe of their design team. 

Below are four questions and four answers about the future of printable urban design, courtesy of the WATG team. 

Rendering of WATG’s 3D Printed House

1.) What is Branch Technology’s Freeform Home Design Challenge?

Branch Technology, a Chattanooga-based 3D-engineering company, held a competition earlier this year where architectural firms were invited to design a freestanding housing between 600 and 800 square feet. The house had to be made with Branch's own “Cellular Fabrication” 3D-printing technology, which uses a KUKA arm to print with a 3D-printing head to create elaborate designs.

Over two weeks, WATG created a design using Rhino modeling software for a boldly curved, carbon-fiber ‘bachelor pad.’ Although it was the first entry to enter the competition, it was ultimately the winning design as it “utilized Branch’s technology the best and was the most feasibly constructible of all the projects,” according to Hurst.

Beyond a monetary prize, WATG’s design will also be the only one physically built by Branch in Chattanooga. Printing is scheduled to begin in 2017.

Rendering of WATG’s 3D Printed House

2) Why is 3D printing so useful for architecture?

3D printing allows for parametric design in architecture, without the normally exorbitant prices associated with this type of design. With traditional materials, parametric design is possible, but most materials are often made for ‘box’ type architecture, with rigid angles and highly geometric forms. Adapting regular materials for parametric design is incredibly expensive and incredibly difficult, which is why this form of architecture is relatively rare.

When done through 3D printing, parametric design (and any kind of unusual design you could imagine), becomes much easier and importantly much cheaper, as the printer will fabricate the materials to the exact specifications required for that design. 3D printing also comes with “an ease of construction that requires no construction drawings,” says Hurst, and it allows for “high performance buildings with problems and issues prevented in advance,” adds Rehill.

Essentially, 3D printing allows for one to have a robust house with an added bonus of sky-is-the-limit customization.

3D Printing KUKA Arm in Action

3) Where is 3D printing in architecture today?

Your most standard form of 3D printing is done using a printer that is larger than what is being produced. Although using a printer larger than the structure being built seems unfeasible, there have been instances of this type of 3D printing in architecture, although the results are “super impractical, very crude, and require a lot of human finishing touches after being built,” Hurst says.

Through Branch’s technology and the KUKA arm, the printer no longer needs to be bigger than the structure. This is a huge advance in the field. Currently, the technology allows for one 3D-printing head and thus only single-material printing, which in most cases is carbon fiber. At the moment, the technology prints the building in pieces, meaning that human touch is still required in the process to assemble and weld the pieces together. Despite these issues, all of these 3D-printing architectural developments have come recently, and Hurst and Rehill seem confident that they will be solved soon, opening further doors for architectural possibilities.

Rendering of the pieces for WATG’s 3D Printed House

4) What Is future of 3D printing in architecture?

One of the short-term goals of 3D printing in architecture is to “reach a point where architecture can be ‘what it needs to be’ and not what the materials and software demand,” says Hurst. Once a dual-head KUKA comes to fruition, and thus multi-material 3D printing becomes feasible, Hurst states, they will be able to do anything architecturally. He adds that the ability to print everything as one piece and not in multiple pieces will happen once there is a KUKA arm long enough.

As for 3D printing’s long-term goals, Hurst is somewhat romantic in his ambitions. He hopes that we will reach a point where KUKA arms and other 3D printers can be flown out to an uninhabited place like Mars and build structures and livable places for humans before they even arrive. Rehill, on the other hand, focuses on the sustainable, humanitarian possibilities that it could someday achieve, like the building of cheap, resilient infrastructure for underdeveloped places and their inhabitants.

Rendering of WATG’s 3D Printed House

Find out more about WATG’s diverse global projects here. For information about Branch Technology’s competition and 3D-printing developments, visit their website.

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