3D-Printing Earthquake-Proof Towns, Brick by Brick
The looping path returns again and again, tracing precise geometric patterns. Some fall back on the shapes that preceded them, as if being woven together; others accrete to form new layers. Eventually, an object emerges – a tabletop vase, a piece of avant-garde furniture, sometimes an entire building.
Designers Ronald Rael at the University of California in Berkeley and Virginia San Fratello at San Jose State University are exploring the limits of 3D printing in architecture. Three years ago, the pair founded a San Francisco-based start-up called Emerging Objects to devise not only new building components made possible by the technique, but also ways to use materials such as rubber, wood, paper and clay in architectural-scale 3D printing.
Their feedstock includes edible materials such as chocolate and salt, which can be used to construct both individual bricks and large, room-sized structures inspired by igloos. Salt turns out to be surprisingly well suited to the intricate digital forms 3D printing allows. Fragile but beautiful, rooms fashioned from it (pictured below) are translucent, seeming to glow from within when sunlit.
This might sound like creating a sculpture and then dressing it up as a garden shed. But the team’s purpose is highly practical. Rael’s forays into the field began with a look at the use of earth in construction throughout history.
In his 2009 book Earth Architecture, he laboriously documented how earth has been a mainstay of building for millennia, from mud bricks to rammed-earth walls, from African mosques to Iranian mountain villages. That there is a direct line between mud-brick making and the strange ceramic objects emerging from Rael and San Fratello’s 3D printers is striking, yet entirely logical.
For Rael, building with earth has simply been updated. On his Instagram feed, he uses the hashtag #dataclay to describe this mesmerising confluence of computer-based fabrication and good old, fingernail-crusting clay.
Clay and salt – as well as resin, nylon and sand – can now be squeezed out precisely in layers to form complex, interlocking geometric shapes. Whether you call them bricks, modules or components, it is earth architecture reborn, filtered through algorithms and high-tech machines.
The implications of this rebirth could literally be seismic. Much of the work produced by Emerging Objects would not look out of place in a Manhattan art gallery. But the unusual aesthetics belie the practical applications.
Cool Brick, for example (pictured above), is a material with a sponge-like interior capable of storing small amounts of atmospheric water in ceramic micro-pores. This allows evaporative cooling, which helps to maintain a comfortable internal temperature with no need for electricity.
A related project called the Involute Wall uses deep folds and internal loops – all 3D printed from sand – to create a wall (pictured below). The wall thus keeps part of itself in the shade even in direct sunlight, helping keep residents cool, again without energy-intensive air conditioning.
Then there’s the Quake Column, an earthquake-resistant structure built from interlocking 3D-printed sand blocks. Inspired by ancient Incan construction, the angular blocks are designed to shift and resettle after a seismic event,unlike the rigid cemented-together rectangular blocks of most modern buildings.
Such nested architectural components promise an easily scaled response to living in a seismic zone such as San Francisco, says Rael. Builders could simply incorporate irregularly shaped 3D-printed blocks into their constructions and the resulting buildings would resettle rather than break apart after the big one hits.
Emerging Objects wants to revolutionise building techniques the world over. As with plans to bring delivery drones to Africa, traditional village life in developing countries can sometimes be transplanted into the future at a stroke.
Rael imagines high-tech workshops humming away in remote regions. With basic computing power, local masons would be able to 3D print new building components in situ more easily than they can shape mud bricks by hand, leapfrogging modern cities in terms of construction techniques. Importantly, printing bricks rather than larger components allows them to be assembled into forms in keeping with a region’s existing architecture.
Indeed, one of Emerging Objects’ fundamental axioms is that the surge of interest in architectural-scale 3D printing has been waylaid by an unnecessary search for ever-larger printers. A building-sized printer might produce a building-sized object, but thinking in terms of individual components, not whole buildings, is the way to go, says Rael. Scale the product, not the printer.
This would be a win-win for everyone, he says. Smaller printers are more likely to fit into existing workshops and would need less energy to run. They also make it easier to add much-needed redundancy.
“If you only have one machine, and it crashes or breaks in the middle of a job, then the whole operation grinds to a halt.” Not so when you have a hundred printers all churning out bricks. And local workers are already proficient at assembling buildings using individual components.
At least, that’s the idea. Supplying earthquake zones and the developing world with architectural 3D printers is yet to happen, of course. So far, Emerging Objects’ work has found little purchase outside of their research lab and a few art galleries.
But Rael and colleagues offer a glimpse of a different future to most, where architecture is not based around prefab walls of glass and steel. Buildings could be handmade and bristling with ornamental detail, just built using individual pieces hot off a printer.