3D-printed buildings to become reality
"in the not-too-distant future"


Interview: 3D printing will revolutionise the way buildings are designed and built - and could herald a new aesthetic, according to Bart Van der Schueren, vice president of Belgian additive manufacturing company Materialise.

"I do believe that in the not-too-distant future we will be able to print really large-scale architectural objects," Van der Schueren said. "We will really see it on a level of houses and so on."

Bart Van der Scheuren

Van der Schueren spoke to Dezeen earlier this year when we visited leading 3D-printing company Materialise in Belgium as part of our Print Shift project, which documented cutting-edge developments in the 3D-printing world.

In this previously unpublished extract from the interview, Van der Schueren predicted that 3D printing would first be used to manufacture cladding for buildings, before being used to print structures containing integrated services such as plumbing and electrical conduits.

Model of 3D-printed ProtoHouse by Softkill Design
Model of 3D-printed ProtoHouse by Softkill Design

"You could think of making plastic structural components, which are covered by metals for aesthetic reasons, or [print] insulation [inside] the structure," he said. "It’s certainly something that I can see developing in the next 5-10 years."

This will give architects radical new aesthetic freedom, he predicted. "I see certainly in the coming years a development where architects will be able to become more freeform in their design and thinking thanks to the existence of 3D printing."

3D-printed Landscape House by Universe Architecture
3D-printed Landscape House by Universe Architecture

At the start of this year several architects announced plans to build the first 3D-printed house. In January, Dutch firm Universe Architecture unveiled designs for a dwelling resembling a Möbius strip.

ProtoHouse by Softkill Design
3D-printed ProtoHouse by Softkill Design

Shortly after, London studio Softkill published a proposal for a home made of interlocking fibrous plastic modules (main image). The DUS Architects from Amsterdam announced that they were constructing a canal house in the city, using an on-site printer.

3D-printed canal house by DUS Architects
3D-printed canal house by DUS Architects

However, none of these proposals have yet been realised.

See our movie in which Van der Scheuren explains the three most common 3D-printing processes. Read more about 3D printing in our print-on-demand magazine, Print Shift.

Here's an edited transcript of the interview with Van der Scheuren:

Marcus Fairs: Is 3D printing of architecture a realistic possibility?

Bart Van der Schueren: There is a potential for 3D printing of architecture. If we are honest with ourselves, 3D printing started in architecture. It started in Egypt, stacking [stone blocks] on top of each other, layer by layer, and that way they created the pyramids. But of course what we mean by 3D printing is slightly different from what the Egyptians did.

What I am seeing happening is that there is a lot of research going on in the development of concrete printers; large gantry systems that extrudes concretes in a layer by layer basis [such as Enrico Dini’s D-Shape printer]. I do believe that in the not-too-distant future we will be able to print really large-scale architectural objects.  We will really see it on a level of houses and so on.

Structure printed on Enrico Dini's D-Shape printer
Architectural structure printed on Enrico Dini's D-Shape printer

But it’s not necessary in architecture to use those large printers. You can see it [working] also on a slightly smaller scale, like the panels that are required to cover architectural structures. Today in lots of cases those panels are limited in complexity because of the fabrication problems. These architectural elements can take advantage of 3D printing’s freedom of design complexity.  So here I see certainly in the coming years a development where architects will be able to become more freeform in their design and thinking thanks to the existence of 3D printing.

Marcus Fairs: So it could affect the way buildings look?

Bart Van der Schueren: Yes. It could also affect other things like the integration of facilities into components, like the integration of air channels and cable guides and insulation in one single piece. Or you can think of the integration of loudspeakers in furniture and things like that, so they’re interior architecture. I’m expecting that there will be a big change and shift in the way that architects are thinking and looking and working, and making products as a result of that.

Marcus Fairs: How could 3D printing change architecture beyond the cladding? Could it be used to print more efficient structures?

Bart Van der Schueren: More organic-looking structures are already being investigated. There is research going on to make use of topological optimisation. This is a kind of computer design by which you define by boundaries of certain conditions and then the computer will organically grow a structure that matches the boundary conditions.

This can result in very organic shapes. It will still take a little bit of time, but for cosmetic uses or smaller components it is already possible today.

Marcus Fairs: What new developments are you expecting to see in the near future?

Bart Van der Schueren: 3D printers today are built typically to print with only one material. There are a couple of exceptions but typically a 3D printer will use a single material. What I am expecting is that printers in the future will combine different materials and in that way you can start thinking of making gradients or graded materials where you can then really change the function of the components. From an architectural point of view this can really have fantastic opportunities.

Marcus Fairs: Can you give some examples of this?

Bart Van der Schueren: An example would be mixing metals and plastics. In that way you could think of making plastic structural components, which are covered by metals for aesthetic reasons, or to [print] insulation [inside] the structure. There is still a lot of research to do but it’s certainly something that I can see developing in the next 5-10 years.

  • Danny

    So all the building rules and regulations go out the window just like that? Even well designed, modular, pre-fab, architecture has had virtually no headway… Which I very much lament… But 3D printed architecture? I would be very wary of that; pushing a certain technology, that is unproven in many ways, especially on a larger scale… Although Zaha Hadid might benefit from this.

  • JayCee

    It seems to me the best way to get column inches in Dezeen is to make some fatuous and wholly unremarkable comments about the “possibilities of 3D printing” in the fields of either architecture, or gun manufacture.

  • Scott – Adytum Design

    The rules and regulations of building are still going to be there and apply. I don’t see how making a building ‘free form’ will change the requirements of travel distance, fire ratings, exist and load capacities, etc. What we are seeing in these 3D plotters is not necessarily ‘unproven’ technology either. These sorts of devices have been working away, all be it, at a much smaller scale for more than a decade.

    I remember seeing a technology very similar to the D-printer about 10 years ago on some late night science program.

    At the time the machine looked more like an enlarged pen-plotter (for those that remember them) with a semi robotic head consisting ostensibly of a small concrete pump and a series of small plates acting as slip forms. This arrangement allowed the machine to lay down concrete in layers several centimetres in depth while creating walls, 45 and 90 degree corners and all window and door openings. The results were hardly earth shattering architectural masterpieces. The point is that a robot was building a building.

    The creator, as I recall, had conceived the device in the hopes that it could be used to build low cost housing in developing countries. He was working on figuring out a means of making the device mobile and the controllers solid state.

    More locally to us, here in Toronto. There was a developer that was apparently using a roving panel factory to construct prefabricated timber frame wall and roof sections, for single family detached houses. There were rumors that they were looking into a technology that would allow them to take the prefabricated panels and assemble them, on the foundations, with a semi-robotic mobile jig/crane. This was all driven by economics. Less labour less logistics, theoretically less waste, quicker build times, etc., etc. were the motivations behind the introduction of these technologies.

    Neither of these processes received much media fan-fair and I only have the anecdotal information from suppliers and trades that worked the developers sites or were privy to tours of the factory. However, these were simply developments of pre-existing building, factory and crane technology being utilized in a different fashion.

    Currently there are companies using 3-D printers to fabricate smaller building components. There is one, I recently saw, that builds custom door hardware and uses a 3-D printer to fabricate a metal buck of a computer model. This buck is then suspended in casting sand becoming becoming both form and part of the structural lattice in the final bronze casting.

    The question of ‘scale’ is simply that. What we are seeing today in these 3-D printers is pre-existing technologies some hundreds of years old Gantries, concrete, metal casting, etc. coupled with 20th century plotter, laser and robotics technology. All in a ‘Newer’ ‘BIGGER’ package that has been under development for decades.

    At the end of the day the final product produced is still going to be of concrete, metal, wood, glass, fabric and/or plastic and is going to be governed by the laws of physics and behave as our engineers have told us it’s going to behave.

    • Casey

      What about the structural integrity? I could see for a single floor habitat but multi-floor. You would need to interweave composites for strength and that run vertical in format compared to horizontal.

  • Jonathan Tuffin

    Difficult to clean, and a bit silly looking.

  • skylabcity

    How long until I can move into that place that looks like it’s made of old wigs? I just love having hair all over my apartment, so it would be a dream to have an entire house made out of it!