Building technology Dreams from a 3D printer

Inventors are working on creating homes from print, lasers and bonding. This could speed up construction times enormously.

by Edith Arnold 18 Oct 2016

3D printing is turning the construction industry on its head. Illustration: Matt Murphy

A house that’s built overnight. Is it a pipe dream? It’s actually possible with the 3D printer at the WinSun company in Shanghai, which squeezes out cement paste as if from a tube. One-room houses, bungalows, and even a villa grow layer by layer. The prototypes still look quite crude. The new offices of the future in Dubai are different, where vertically printed mirrored modules sit on the desert sands. In Amsterdam, DUS Architects are building their 3D Print Canal House. Their “KamerMaker” printer produces elements for 13 rooms via laptop. And Enrico Dini, a visionary from Italy, takes it a step further. His “D-shape” prints enormous designs – like for Expo Milano 2015 – as well as coral reefs made of sand that protect against the surf. These already have fish swimming through them!

A printed cathedral

Where is Switzerland in all this? The tiny cathedral “Digital Grotesque” has drawn international attention since 2013. This work by Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger uses algorithms, and was printed from sand and binding agents. A model is on exhibit at the ETH Zurich. “3D printing technologies allow radical rethinking about production,” Dillenburger, senior researcher at “NFS Digital Fabrication,” explains. The issues interesting him currently: How to build individual architecture efficiently? What does it mean for architecture if the cost of a highly complex component is no greater than that of a simple one? “One of our goals is to construct building components that are as compact, elegant and precise, despite increasing requirements, as we have come to know from a Swiss watch.”

What kind of house would Dillenburger like to live in some day? “First, it would have spaces where lightness and transparency are achieved through the optimal use of materials. The house must offer a novel wealth of forms. It must make you curious, and create a stimulating backdrop for living.” You’ll have to wait if you want to pay a visit, however: the technology to produce the elements won’t be ready for another six years.

10-year wait

The ETH spin-off named “buildup” is in the office next door. “Printing is a visually attractive additive technology,” explains CIO Paul Curschellas. Today you can also glue, laser or cut elements. The process leading from computer to production is important. The digitization of the construction industry, with its 7,500 SMEs, is giving architects and networkers some concerns. “It’s not about where Switzerland stands today, but where it will be tomorrow. Then BIM will be standard.”

Digitizing means centralizing information and decentralizing operations. Daniela Tenger, co-author of the GDI study “Smart Home 2030,” sees companies’ production lines as the place for construction methods of the future. She doubts that print houses will meet our needs in the next decade. But printed elements, robotic prefabrication and ad-hoc production will be established. Multifaceted and even ecological modules from 3D printers already offer inspiration for private construction. Fully automated building sites remain the stuff of science fiction, however. Nonetheless, Enrico Dini is tinkering with printing a moon base from lunar materials on behalf of the European Space Agency.


“Building Information Modelling (BIM) means you build a house twice: first digitally, then for real,” says Paul Curschellas. You gather all the building data and create a model. Curschellas says, “More people work on the building together, contributing their expertise. This helps to minimize errors in reasoning.”


Establishing the most uniform language possible is fundamental for digital building. The “buildup” platform should facilitate knowledge transfer. Products and services can be placed in the SwissBIMLibrary – a nationally funded initiative.