3D Printing Houses and the Barn-Raising of Tomorrow

April 29, 2014 

Chinese company WinSun Decoration Design Engineering has made headlines by constructing 10 houses in one day using a large-scale 3D printer. The gantry-style machine extrudes quick-drying concrete in layers to create blocks and other components that are then put into place for final construction. Conventional fittings such as windows and doors are then put into place.

From pictures publishing by the International Business Times and a video by RT, the designs are simple, and based around what we typically think of when considering a "house." However, just as small-scale 3D printing was first used to make conventional products but eventually adapted to take advantage of the unique manufacturing process to create entirely new patterns, products, and possibilities -- large gantry style 3D printers for architecture will yield exciting new forms and possibilities, not just in terms of construction but also in terms of how, by whom, and for whom that architecture is made. 

WinSun's project is not the first application of printing architecture. D-Shape in Italy has been experimenting with 3D printed architectural forms for years and world-renowned architectural firm Foster + Partners has proposed the technology be used for constructing outposts on the moon.

Hi-Tech Barn Raising

Barn raising was a European-American tradition in which a community would gather together in cooperation to build a barn for one of their neighbors. It is still practiced today in parts of America by the Amish, but the concept of community, let alone a community gathering together to build a neighbor a dwelling has become a scarcity. This is mostly due to the current sociotechnological paradigm that makes such efforts costly in both time and money. Technology, however, appears to be changing that.

Networks of hackerspaces (also sometimes called makerspaces) have begun stretching across cities around the world. Even here in Thailand we have the well-equipped Bangkok Makerspace. These have become an epicenter for rebuilding our communities in both social dimensions as well as physical dimensions. With computer-controlled manufacturing such as laser cutters and 3D printers, members of hackerspaces can collaborate on designing and constructing just about anything.

The WinSun company in China and others like D-Shape in Italy have proven that "anything" includes architecture.

A 3D printed home in China constructed by the WinSun company. The process took less time and money than traditional construction and while aesthetically it may not be very appealing, the paradigm it may be kicking off most certainly is. (Image: WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co.) 

The result may be a shifting paradigm where housing is no longer as capital intensive and no longer seen as an individual undertaken accomplished through hired labor, but as an opportunity for collaboration. Just as projects in hackerspaces today originate from one member, but become a collective learning experience with possible economic opportunities for others, developing and raising architecture locally can likewise serve as a collective experience everyone can benefit from.

Just as was the case with barn raising in European-American history, the practice of collaborative architecture may become yet another means of gluing back together our local communities.

What Can We Do Today? 

Already, there are several other 3D printed architectural projects either being planned or already underway. While most of these are being tackled by professional architectural firms as experimental projects, they have a certain "hacker" aspect to them.

The average hackerspace has small table-top 3D printers for product design and prototyping and perhaps a larger CNC laser cutter or water jet. Architectural models can be made on them, but actual architectural projects are still out of reach. Hacker communities might begin with small CNC cut shelters like Open Source Ecology's CNC Shelter. From there, it is only a matter of scaling up.

The possibility of producing construction material using recycled materials processed through existing or hacked community tools to then build structures in a more conventional manner might also be an experimental first step toward collaborative architecture. Concepts like crowdsourcing and crowdfunding may already be modern analogues to the old days of barn raising, but with houses literally being printed using the same technology found in our local hackerspaces (just on a larger scale) hi-tech barn raisings of tomorrow may be just around the corner.