Is 3D printing the answer for sustainable building?
The current construction industry remains powerful in its environmental degradation. However, 3D printing may offer a chance to rewire construction’s cyclical ideology, acting as a solution to both sustainability and efficiency.
As we all know, 3D printing is perhaps the most captivating application of computer-aided design (CAD) — the almost limitless creation of three-dimensional objects that, at times, transcend the abilities of the human hand.
Though it has been around since the early 1980s, people are just realizing the potential of this technology, with countless industries leveraging it to manufacture better products, boost efficiency and ultimately push the boundaries of possibility.
For the construction industry, 3D printing’s implications are vast; it has already been used to erect unprecedented structures, cut the cost of residential buildings and inspire new real estate aesthetics.
In a sustainability sense, however, the industry remains a crucial proving ground — mainly due to its notoriety as a major environmental detriment. In fact, most traditional construction sites are hubs for numerous different kinds of pollution, including air, noise and water.
Through the use of 3D printing, construction companies could theoretically replace this harmful, tedious process with one that is quicker and more sustainable.
Building a new norm
By simultaneously emitting pollutants and infringing upon ecosystems, the current construction industry remains powerful in its environmental degradation. This is due to its variety of antiquated norms, which favor the reliability of longstanding materials and practices over their natural impact.
As The Guardian observed: The concrete industry, just one of many prominent facets within construction, “would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world” if it were a country.
Collectively, such methods have outlasted sustainable alternatives because they remain tethered to an outdated perception of efficiency. Construction entities know that time-tested materials are as well-established as, quite literally, the enduring foundation and framework of our physical infrastructure — and this logic, while problematic for the planet, is easy to understand in theory.
However, 3D printing may offer a chance to rewire construction’s cyclical ideology, acting as a solution to both sustainability and efficiency.
In recent years, the 3D printing of habitable spaces has proven to be almost unfathomably rapid, which suggests a future where construction could be comparatively brief, and, therefore, less environmentally taxing.
Creating new ideas
Other projects are using 3D printers to experiment with natural materials and innovative designs. Consider the efforts of World Advanced Saving Project (WASP), a sustainability initiative that recently completed construction on a 3D-printed, biomaterial-based eco-habitat.
The initiative’s 3D printing technology was used in tandem with local recyclable materials to showcase a new, organic approach to largescale building — a precedent that could revolutionize how construction companies develop specific structures.
Meanwhile, Emerging Objects aims to innovate 3D-printed construction via other eco-friendly building methods — namely mud architecture. In 2019, the California-based initiative created four mud structures as part of its investigative series on sustainable 3D printing, exhibiting different ways in which certain 3D-printed designs could produce ideal architectural outcomes.
For instance, coiled designs were studied in relation to wall thickness, while mud-based pipes were implemented to “create air pockets for better installation.” Most notably, one of the structures was reinforced with rot-resistant juniper wood, demonstrating how these seemingly fragile creations could be built to last without sacrificing their environmental integrity.
Embracing the future
The 3D printing industry, as a whole, is currently projected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 21 percent by 2028. Specifically, the industry’s design software segment, which includes construction, held the highest global share of all 3D printing software revenue in 2020, setting the stage for a major uptick in the technology’s architectural application.
As a result, construction sits at an important crossroads regarding its use of 3D printing; it clearly occupies a large portion of the broader industry’s vision, but without environmental self-awareness, these aspirations — no matter how sophisticated — could still come at the expense of the environment’s longevity. Put simply, the technology cannot serve as a band-aid for broader systemic issues.
For instance, a 2020 report found that 3D-printed concrete, though created differently, still had a comparable effect on the environment to that of conventional concrete when used alongside reinforced structures, warranting continued research to make the entire process more sustainable (perhaps in the same vein as Emerging Objects’ juniper wood creation).
By leaning into 3D printing in place of less sustainable practices, construction companies could potentially reduce the harm they are unintentionally inflicting on the planet.
Luckily, the industry appears to be gravitating toward not only 3D printing as a prevailing norm, but also to the eco-friendly materials and methods through which the technology could be employed.
Construction’s immediate future may not necessarily entail mud houses and soil cities, but these unconventional ideas, paired with current applications, continue to drive our knowledge of 3D printing’s potential in this space — creating a foundation upon which even more expansive, resonant ideas may one day take shape.