There has been a lot of buzz about 3D-printed buildings, but is there any validity to the hype? Here’s what we think.
3D printing is at a tipping point, poised to go mainstream in ways that promise to upheave even the most stubbornly traditional of industries. Even the construction sector, typically among the last to innovate, is beginning to explore ways to incorporate 3D printing technologies in its undertakings.
In Asia, a burgeoning pressure to produce affordable, sustainable housing for a large population of low-income earners stands to gain the most relief from 3D printed buildings. The trend is already well under way: last year, the Philippines’ Lewis Grand Hotel unveiled the world's first 3D-printed hotel room, while in China, entire houses, apartment buildings and villas have already been printed. The government of Singapore, tasked with providing homes for its ageing population, has also begun testing the feasibility of 3D-printed public housing.
A sustainable solution, or wishful thinking?
The potential advantages of 3D-printed architecture seem incredible at first glance. Chinese engineering firm WinSun claims to have printed 10 houses in less than 24 hours, at a cost of less than $5,000 each. Throughout the process, the company was able to reduce its production times by 50 to 70 per cent, and decrease labour costs by 50 to 80 per cent.
Another Chinese company, Zhuoda Group, printed and assembled a two-storey villa in just three hours. Testing has proved that their building is able to withstand average wear and tear for at least 150 years. On top of being fire-proof, waterproof and almost corrosion-proof, it also stands up to harsh weather and severe earthquakes.
From an economical point of view, therefore, 3D-printed buildings present fantastic opportunities for savings in labour and material costs, as well as production time. However, the environmental impact of 3D-printed architecture remains questionable.
Intuitively, most would assume 3D printing to be an inherently green technology. The most common claims to support this notion include reduced wastage generation due to the fact that materials can be printed to order, recyclability of waste products, and reduced reliance on transportation. Deeper studies, however, have cast doubts on the claims that 3D printing buildings would necessarily be environmentally friendly.
Apart from the fact that no comprehensive studies have been conducted to demonstrate this assumed environmental superiority, researchers have also found that 3D printing not only generates waste, but also requires excessive energy consumption and necessitates the transportation of bulk quantities of raw materials as well as the printers themselves.
Integrating smart technologies for greener living
While the enormous potential of 3D-printed buildings cannot be denied, at the moment, systemised construction using solely 3D printers is unrealistic. Despite the examples produced by WinSun and Zhuoda, extensive long-term studies first have to be carried out to test the sustainability of these buildings before wide-scale adoption can begin.
In the long term, 3D printing technology should be able to produce buildings that are liveable, affordable and environmentally friendly. Until then, however, the technology is more appropriately used to produce basic building shells or emergency housing. But that’s not to say that such buildings can’t be green.
Existing eco-friendly technologies can be integrated into a 3D-printed building to reduce energy consumption or maximise the use of renewable energy resources. Common applications that fit into any household include water systems heated by solar energy, biodegradable paint, and ENERGY STAR-certified windows, for instance.
Consciously choosing smart household appliances and consumer electronics that use less energy will also go a long way towards reducing one’s carbon footprint at home. Panasonic’s ECONAVI Inverter air conditioner is an example you can consider: its flexible compressor rotation speed means it optimises energy consumption and requires less energy than standard air conditioning systems.