Model home

UK researchers are planning to use scaled-up rapid prototyping techniques to make the first ‘printed’ house a reality.

Loughborough University’s mega-scale rapid manufacturing for construction project aims to print walls — and even entire buildings — using the same rapid prototyping processes that are commonplace throughout industry. These produce exact physical replicas of 3D CAD designs by creating cross-sections of the designs using liquid or powdered materials then fusing them together.

The project team intends to apply this approach on a huge scale to revolutionise the way buildings are constructed.

One of the leaders of this adventurous project is Dr Richard Buswell from the university’s rapid manufacturing research group. His team hopes that printing building components in fine incremental layers from the bottom up will provide a huge range of possible shapes for buildings as well as many additional capabilities.

‘We are trying to investigate if we can print materials exactly as we want,’ said Buswell. ‘Can we make buildings more functional? Rather than just casting a solid lump like a brick in a wall, can we minimise how much material is used to make the building strong? At the moment there is so much redundancy in buildings. Do we really need that if we can place material exactly where we want?’

Since moulds and conventional machining would no longer be needed, controlling the deposition of the materials to such an exact degree could also provide architects with far more freedom in their designs.

The project also aims to show that it is possible to print electrical conduits, ducting and pipes directly into the wall as the fabrication process builds it up.

As well as integrated wiring and actuator systems, fibre-optic mesh structures could also be embedded throughout the building to pipe natural light from receivers on the roof and project the world outside to the rooms inside, potentially removing the need for windows.

According to Buswell one of the problems is that although the theory is scalable — from desktop prototypes up to full-sized buildings — it is not yet known how scalable the materials are. At Loughborough, the team has built a 4x5m-sized rig that will act as a printer for the project’s initial stages. It will be large enough to make a building the size of a small room.

‘It is only when we look at it in full-scale that we’ll get a grasp of what the issues are and how far we can go with this,’ said Buswell.

The first two years of the four-year project will focus on learning more about large-scale deposition of a mineral-based material that could be used in construction. The final two years — which Buswell described as ‘the really exciting part’ of the project — will explore how to have extremely fine control over very small amounts of material, something essential for embedding different functions into a wall.

‘We might be able to develop any shape or size of house,’ said Buswell. ‘Using this process, you don’t have to have straight walls: they can be any curve you like. Then we can embed services into the walls as well.’

Buswell believes that there is wide variety of possible future applications for the process. In events such as nuclear or chemical contamination, it would be useful to have an automated building process to contain an area without endangering workers.

Looking even further into the future, Buswell envisages that a rapid manufacturing-based house would be a useful concept for future ‘off-world’ buildings such as those that astronauts might build on Mars.

The researchers are working with a wide range of partners that includes architect Norman Foster’s firm, Foster and Partners, which has shown an interest in the technology’s potential.

For Buswell, it could be the beginning of a new era for the construction industry. ‘Instead of using panels to build up a wall, we are actually saying we can build this from the ground up and control the geometry and even the material properties to try and cover as many different functions as we can,’ he said. ‘It’s a completely new field and will open up a new debate on how buildings are produced. It’s exciting stuff.’