Foster + Partners to 3D print
buildings on the moon

Foster + Partners to 3D print buildings on the moon

News: Foster + Partners is exploring the possibilities of 3D printing buildings on the moon using lunar soil.

The London architecture firm is working with the European Space Agency to investigate methods for constructing lunar homes and has designed a four-person residence that would shelter its inhabitants from dramatically changing temperatures, meteorites and gamma radiation.

Foster + Partners to 3D print buildings on the moon

The base of the house would be unpacked from a modular tube and an inflatable dome would fold up over it. Layers of lunar soil, known as regolith, would then be built up around the frame using a robot-operated D-Shape printer, creating a lightweight foam-like formation that is derived from biological structures commonly found in nature.

"As a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials," said Foster + Partners partner and specialist Xavier De Kestelier. "Our lunar habitation follows a similar logic. It has been a fascinating and unique design process, which has been driven by the possibilities inherent in the material."

Foster + Partners to 3D print buildings on the moon

The architects have used simulated matter to build a 1.5 tonne mockup of the structure and have also tested smaller models inside a vacuum chamber. They hope to construct the first structure at the moon's south pole, where it will be subjected to perpetual sunlight.

Led by architect Norman Foster, Foster + Partners has also recently won a competition to renovate the New York Public Library flagship and are working on a 200-metre skyscraper for Lehman Brothers Holdings.

Recent completed projects by the firm include the McLaren Production Centre in the UK and the Spaceport America space terminal in New Mexico. See more architecture by Foster + Partners.

3D printing has been in the news a lot recently, with a boom in demand for 3D-printed sex toys, the race to be first to print an entire building, 3D-printed outfits on the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week and sweet-dispensers with 3D-printed heads.

See more stories about 3D printing »

Here's some extra information from Foster + Partners:

Foster + Partners is part of a consortium set up by the ESA to explore the possibilities of 3D printing to construct lunar habitations. Addressing the challenges of transporting materials to the moon, the study is investigating the use of lunar soil, known as regolith, as building matter.

The practice has designed a lunar base to house four people, which can offer protection from meteorites, gamma radiation and high temperature fluctuations. The base is first unfolded from a tubular module that can be transported by space rocket. An inflatable dome then extends from one end of this cylinder to provide a support structure for construction. Layers of regolith are then built up over the dome by a robot-operated 3D printer to create a protective shell.

To ensure strength while keeping the amount of binding "ink" to a minimum, the shell is made up of a hollow closed cellular structure similar to foam. The geometry of the structure was designed by Foster + Partners in collaboration with consortium partners – it is groundbreaking in demonstrating the potential of 3D printing to create structures that are close to natural biological systems.

Simulated lunar soil has been used to create a 1.5 tonne mockup and 3D printing tests have been undertaken at a smaller scale in a vacuum chamber to echo lunar conditions. The planned site for the base is at the moon’s southern pole, where there is near perpetual sunlight on the horizon.

The consortium includes Italian space engineering firm Alta SpA, working with Pisa-based engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna. Monolite UK supplied the D-Shape™ printer and developed a European source for lunar regolith stimulant, which has been used for printing all samples and demonstrators.

Posted on Thursday January 31st 2013 at 3:53 pm by . Copyright policy | Comments policy

  • Qaisy Jaslenda

    I really hope this 3D printing technology is easily available in abundance on earth first so that homes can be built quickly, cheaply and independently (even without starchitects) before it gets exploited by the rich, denying the technology to the majority of poor earthlings.

    • Bejo

      The value-add of architects isn’t related to whether 3D printing exists or not. You can build a house without an architect now; it just isn’t likely to be very well designed.

  • Fon

    Is it 1 April already?

  • jeremy

    I hope we can print food soon. Then we’ll be able to live on the moon.

    • someone

      No, what we need is to emulate the human brain in a machine. Then we can upload people to the moon and “live” forever ;)

    • Matt
      • jeremy

        Oh wow, fantastic. Soon we don’t even need to step out of the house.

  • notconvinced

    3D printed buildings on 3D printed moons in 3D printed planetary systems.

  • Doub1eD

    3D printing is over-hyped. Most people can’t work a normal inkjet, never mind grapple with the complexities of 3D printing, and the material technologies don’t match materials available to craft on the market today. I saw an interview with some woman who was prophicising the glorious future of the process: she was wearing 3D-printed shoes but didn’t take one step, because they would hurt like hell as they shattered into the soles of her feet.

    The whole 3D printing debate strikes me as uninteresting commercial BS, so it’s only apt that Fosters and Partners are developing ideas for the product.

  • Jes

    @Doub1eD, the same argument has been made time and time again, when new technology pops up. Baby steps: the technology will get there and people will figure things out. Just my thoughts, apologies.

    • Doub1eD

      Sure and I hope that I wouldn’t have been one of the figures casting fear over the arrival of the steam engine, prophesying about the moral downfall with the introduction of the internet or fighting against the switch to renewable energies either. However, this is my opinion on 3D printing.

      The way people are talking about it, it would appear that 3D printing was about to become as fundametal to architecture as a door or stairway. If we take one minute and actually look at the renders Foster gives us, what actually is 3D printed? Forgive me for being sceptical that a printer is going to wire together an airtight chamber to take refuge from the gamma radiations of space, though it could regurgitate a ton of moon dust and dump it on top.

      After working with 3D printing for the last couple of years, the best applications I can see for the technology are recreating bones from medical scans for use in surgery, recreating licensed parts for firearms illegally and producing Eiffel tower paperweights. Whilst useful, hardly revolutionary.

      • WWW

        Dude I’m sorry but you are real shortsighted.

      • fraperic

        You forgot dildos. The sex industry will be all over this.

      • Bejo

        You’e just wrong. Gradually 3D printing will change the way many made objects are designed; certainly industrial products.

        In our lifetime people will ask, “Gee, did you really just squash steel into flat sheets, bend it and then attach it to stuff?”

  • recon::decon

    Unnecessary much? And talk about sprinting before we can even crawl. Has anything of size or note been 3D printed on Earth yet? Have enough prototypes been tested to ensure that 3D printing is even a logical and reasonable solution for architecture? Never mind the whole “We’re going to get to the moon before anyone!” approach – heroic when it meant getting actual people to the moon, but not here guys.

    3D printing seems like the easy answer to make it work: “Oh we’ll just 3D print it!” This seems more like something that would come out of an undergraduate review, one in which the student would easily get thrown under the bus for a totally illogical solution.

    File this away with sky clips, kids.

    • Bejo

      Airbus uses 3D printing to print parts of the main structure of the A380, is that real enough?

  • Jon

    Anyone funding this should perhaps first read the dystopian novel Martian Time Slip by Phillip K Dick. A project that starts with much excitement until the inhabitants realize they’re now living in an airless cave, four hundred thousand kilometers from the nearest coffee shop.

  • Tom


  • efj

    If you look at history, NASA or the military are often the ones to try out the new processes before they trickle down to the masses. I really am not sure what this station/dwelling on the moon will do for humanity at this present time but I hope the other inhabitants don’t mind us being there. ;)

  • Colonel Pancake

    I’m exploring the possibility of printing a chili recipe onto paper. So take that, Sir Norman.

  • Mark

    People seems to have forgotten what a computer looks like and how it was operated just 20 or 30 years ago. There are people who lead the field and there are people who follow – don’t hate on people trying to solve a modern day question by pushing the boundaries of a modern day solution. This is the kind of research that contributes towards technological and architectural improvement.

    • recon::decon

      “People trying to solve a modern day question.” What is the question being solved here?

  • Opinion

    Wait a minute – wasn’t it Nader Khalili that for the first time gave the idea of super adobe for NASA human settlement on the moon and Mars?

  • yomamma

    I would like a 3D nano protein printer please.

  • Hornithologist

    I think this is very exciting! Is everyone completely missing the point here? They are talking about lunar colonisation and all we’re talking about here is 3D printers. Slightly missing the point I think.

  • hokietect

    "How much does your building weigh [on the moon] Mr. Foster?"

  • Hovis 231

    I'm going to 3D print a house on the sun.

  • Sir Norman, PR stuntmaster, take a bow.

  • dick c

    How long before there are no more handwritten homes?

  • Daniel Brown

    No-one else has pointed out that it kind of looks like the set of The Klangers.

  • Ania

    What are they trying to say, I mean 3D printing? Really not looking forward to that. Intrigued by the whole thing.

  • d.k

    Hmm, has he been talking to Newt Gingrich?

  • Zer0Sum

    Why do they want to be subjected to constant solar radiation without the protection of Earth’s magnetosphere and atmosphere? The constant state of blindness from the solar radiation passing directly through their brains would drive the humans crazy let alone the affect of high powered gamma rays and other galactic phenomena.

    Surely they want to be at the poles so they can escape the constant threat of radation. If they need energy run some fricking cables to an external solar array. I mean throw me a bone here people!

  • CuriousCat

    @0de30ec9c3ef0c180ed7b76ebe150865:disqus I agree that at the moment there are few interesting things being 3D printed, but with all the current enthusiasm and experimentation, it’s inevitable that material choices will diversify, and the technology will become more sophisticated.

    What is exciting about 3D printing on the moon is that for the first time this technology might have found an appropriate challenge – operating in an environment not fit for humans.

    And if it weren’t for space exploration, we wouldn’t have Velcro #underwhelmingTechTransfer.

    But, I do think this kind of thought experiment is useful as a way to consider how we inhabit spaceship earth.