What will large scale 3D printing mean for the future of building design?

February 9, 2018

‘3D printing has the potential to change our whole design methodology’—designers talk about the present and future of 3D-printed structures

By Andrew Cole, Mariana Flores, and Martina Mishkova 


Three Stantec design professionals—Andrew Cole, intern architect, Toronto, Ontario; Mariana Flores, designer, Washington, D.C.; and Martina Mishkova, structural engineer, Surrey, British Columbia—talk about the present and future of 3D printed structures. Where are we headed? And how does that change what designers do?


Is 3D printing something architects are talking about today? What interests you about it?

Andrew: I believe it’s a prevalent topic right now in architects’ conversations around the design process. Personally, I’m interested in the gap between two scales in 3D printing. There’s the scale of the constructed finished piece and the scale of desktop prototyping. Those are the two fields of interest that most designers are curious about. On a prototyping scale, you have MakerBots and 3D printers that are allowing designers to explore formal relationships that they couldn’t have otherwise expressed outside of their computer monitor. When you are talking large-scale 3D printing, that lends itself to calls for modularity. What can we do away from site and what we can build on site with these robotic tools?

That’s been a conversation in the design community about the loss of tactility in designing. With the commercial desktop 3D printers, that tactility can be brought into the conversation. We can prototype as we are working, so you have this back-and-forth with what the machine is adding to the process as well as what us as designers can control with the machines.



How soon is large-scale 3D printing coming?

Martina: I researched 3D printing in construction back in 2012-13 as part of my master’s degree, and the feasible scale for Direct Metal Laser Sintering (using powdered metals) was less than a meter then. At that time, industry specialists predicted that it would take 7 to 10 years for the technology to develop enough to enable large-scale 3D printing of metal construction elements. Back then, DMLS was already in use in the medical, aerospace, and automotive industries. Since then, we have seen experimental printing of structural building elements in metal. I’d say in 3 to 6 years from now we will see this technique become more feasible and used on a larger scale.

When it comes to 3D printing using materials other than metals, the scale is already much larger. Examples include the Daedalus Pavilion built in 2016 out of biodegradable polylactide (PLA) filament and a concrete tiny house erected within 24 hours by a San Francisco start-up earlier this year.  

Should architects be excited or concerned?

Mariana: I think it is our responsibility as architects to be up on the latest technology and to work with the best products and tools that we have available. Now, we are doing 3D printing in prototyping. It would nice if large scale printing became a completely different way to build and think about architecture.

Andrew: Architects need to stay ahead of these technological advances, so we can exercise that responsibility that comes with being on the forefront of the design process.

_q_tweetable:I think it is our responsibility as architects to be up on the latest technology and to work with the best products and tools that we have available._q_


What are some of the benefits we foresee with 3D construction?

Martina: The first benefit that comes to mind is efficiency—cutting down material waste by using honeycomb or biomimetic structures, and applying materials only where needed, thus maximizing structural performance. 3D printing brings about greater efficiency when it comes to building with metals—instead of using run-of-the-mill elements, we could design custom beams and columns, which would be much lighter in weight and efficient in material use.

Another benefit would be ease of customization. Looking at connections for example, 3D printing would enable easier customization, i.e. you don’t have to use a mold that is one-size-fits-all or be limited to what is available through traditional manufacturing techniques. Designing customized connections and other structural elements and being able to 3D print them supports the principle of “form follows function” in the shape of a building and the design of products that do exactly what they are supposed to do. For every project, you can create a unique design with an aesthetic and features customized to what the client wants.

Andrew: Accessing that fluidity and gestural stroke of the original sketch and bringing it into the design is exciting. With 3D printing, a designer can take a hand sketch and turn it realistically into a full finished product. There have been so many steps along the way with technology and manufacturing where that information in that gestural sketch has been rationalized or faceted. We reduce the sketch of an idea to make it buildable. Now, we have the capability to render the final product just as we imagined it to be or just as we sketched it to be in the initial phase. I think that opens up a lot of doors to designers, because we can print the piece or the formwork at the tolerance that we desire.

Mariana: It will have a lot of benefits, but I also think there’s some sort of risk in it. I see it in prototyping, that sometimes you lose a step in designing. Theoretically, you can go right from a sketch to a whole prototype of a building. It could be risky in that we can’t step back and think about design as truly as we do now. I am curious to see how that will affect our design process. 


How will the design and construction processes change?

Martina: 3D printing has the potential to change our whole design methodology. If we use 3D printing to build a steel frame warehouse, we will go through several iterations to create a customized and optimized design in terms of material use and connections types, then we will create prototypes to make sure everything is working as intended before we begin construction. We will spend most of our time focusing on the design and planning stages of the building, leading us to a streamlined construction process where most of the work will be done by clicking “go” on a 3D printer.

We are a long way from a one button, fully automated building process. It’s possible that we will see 3D printing of building components incorporated alongside conventional construction, i.e. focusing on prefabricating customized elements and assembling those on site, resulting in shorter construction times.



What about waste reduction?

Andrew: It’s an interesting aspect. You’ll have a method of construction that minimizes waste. You’re only going to use the exact amount of ink required to print the document. As the range of types of material we can print in expands, it will be exciting to see what we do on an architectural scale.

Mariana: We know that construction can be a wasteful process, so having a process that is much more exact could be great in terms of sustainability.


How would a client benefit from the adoption of 3D printed components?

Andrew: The obvious answer is just a reduced cost of construction. If the technology becomes as efficient as we are optimistic it will be, then when you’re dealing with prefabricated components, site assembly should be quick. Reduced time means reduced cost.

The more information we as architects are juggling with our consultants, the more we can bake that into the printed object or component.


What are some of the other possibilities we foresee for this technology?

_q_tweetable:I think it’s important that architects get closer to the construction process._q_

Andrew: Some could argue that BIM and documentation has moved us further and further away from actually participating in design and construction. We are more of just documenters and administrative members of a process. I think it’s important that architects get closer to the construction process. If we can bring in a tool closer to the reach of architects and allow them to participate in the building of buildings, rather than the administration of buildings, I think that’s a good step to a more complete design process.

You take back some of the manufacturing process. You can design the exact fitting you want and you’re not at the mercy of the marketplace which is a very interesting proposition, that the architect can take back that type of control of solution search in terms of finish detailing.


What might we lose? Gain?

Andrew: One thing that we might have to accept as architects, is that we’re going to need even more consultants. We’ve opened up the conversation about changing the cellular makeup of our modular assembly. With 3D, we can have honeycombs or closed cell wall systems. Do we need someone with a more scientific background to inform us?

We are professional generalists but we will need specialized knowledge to take full advantage of some aspects of 3D printing. The market is changing the role of the architect again.

Martina: Another thing to consider is the customization of the material properties themselves. If you are 3D printing a steel member, you can customize material properties such as tensile and yield strength, and create a higher strength piece than what is widely available on the market, and this could soon become even more cost-efficient than traditional manufacturing methods.

In architecture, we know that great designers have created shapes that were near impossible to build—until they went through an iteration that structural engineers found constructible. A huge step forward in the past has been the use of computers when designing challenging structures—think Sydney Opera House, or London’s Gherkin and Shard buildings. I think 3D printing has the potential to drive another significant design advancement—I am sure it opens more doors for architects and engineers.


Can you imagine a future where we’re not only 3D printing buildings but unbuilding buildings as needed?

Andrew: I’ve been fascinated with temporary structures as a whole. When you consider things like expositions and past world’s fairs, there’s a large amount of architectural effort and material that’s wasted or lost as these things are constructed and left up for a season and torn down, rarely repurposed. It would be really interesting to consider, say, the brick laying robot that could build your pavilion at the fair, and at the end, unbuild it and put it on the skid. You could return it with the receipt. That’s a really interesting proposition.

Martina: Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House comes to mind—he had great aspirations to design an affordable and environmentally efficient house that is also easy to produce, transport, and erect; then easy to disassemble and recycle or transport to a new location if needed. This idea, in conjunction with additive manufacturing, could help address housing concerns in many parts of the world, especially given our growing population. 3D printing could help not only create such houses, but also close the loop by “unbuilding” them when necessary.


About the authors

Andrew Cole is an architectural intern in Toronto, Ontario. Andrew focuses on projects in the healthcare sector. Mariana Flores is a designer in Washington, D.C. Martina Mishkova is structural engineer in Surrey, British Columbia. Martina’s focus is on structural design and analysis, project control and management, and field engineering and construction supervision. 


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