Construction in the 21st Century

I know something in architecture is of more than passing interest when I start to get messages from laypeople about a new phenomenon. Last week, several of my friends who are not members of the church of architecture forwarded me links to the 3D-printed house by the Dutch firm DUS Architects as a proof-of-concept in Amsterdam right now. This house has been all over the web recently, especially when President Obama went to see it when he was in Amsterdam.

I am actually more interested in the concrete homes thatWinSun Decoration Design Engineering Company has produced in Shanghai. For less than $5,000, the company uses a gigantic 3D printer to produce a concrete aggregate layer by layer, building upward. Even better, the concrete uses recycled materials.

Neither the DUS house nor the WinSun dwellings are fully printed. They both consist of printed components that human beings have to assemble. Even though DUS uses what they say is one of the largest printers in existence, the most their “room maker” (or in Dutch, what they call the“KamerMaker” can handle is a small room. Once the machine spits out the pieces, human beings using muscles and construction equipment have to put them together into houses.

The two examples could not provide more of a contrast. The WinSun house looks minimal, rough, and not particularly comfortable. It is unclear how the window assembly would work, let alone how you bring in plumbing, but the company sees it not as a prototype for luxury living, but rather as something that can replace the poured-in-place post-and-slab concrete frame as the basic building block for those who can’t afford more elaborate dwellings. I am not sure that such a mass-produced object will be better than the site-specific and flexible model the concrete frame provides, but it seems to me worth exploring.

DUS, on the other hand, prides itself above all else on being able to combine decoration and structure in one element. Their rooms consist of cellular package walls they manipulate to strengthen the planes while providing visual interest. It is an extremely clever technique, and I can see why it appeals to non-professionals: it combines what seems to be the latest technology with traditional form. DUS’s first printed structure will be a canal house that mimics and abstracts the traditional forms of such buildings, even though it is being constructed on a bit of flat and featureless new land Amsterdam made a few years ago to act as a new suburban settlement.

The Amsterdam house looks sophisticated, if conventional in its spatial elaboration and in its decoration, and the firm is right that such on-site construction will cut down on the incredibly wasteful process of construction—one of  the most polluting industries around. If they can develop the “ink” out of recycled materials, as they say they are now doing, and can then reuse these elements once the building has outlived its usefulness, they will have made a major contribution to sustainable architecture.

When I went to give a desk critique to a thesis student at the University of Cincinnati last week, I was surprised to find a Formlab square on his desk. This slick 3D printer is the result of a Kickstarter campaign and lets you have your own high-resolution device for under $3,300. Now this student is spitting out his elaborate design, as well as that of his fellow students (he has to pay for the machine somehow) in time for final reviews next week. Between that kind of miniaturization, increased availability, and the kind of extension of possibilities and scales the WinSun and DUS projects indicate, it seems evident that we are looking at new ways of constructing. What I do not yet see, even in the best student work, is a way of thinking about design that makes full use of those possibilities without trying to fit them into standard forms and spatial relations. For that we perhaps need 3D-printing theory.

- By Aaron Betsky (Note: Views and conclusions are not necessarily those of Milgard Windows & Doors). This article was originally published in ARCHITECT April 2014.

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