3D-printed canal home takes shape in Amsterdam

By Colin Grant
Click, BBC World Service

image captionThe architects intend to use the house as an education centre to help promote 3D printing

It sounds like the ultimate do-it-yourself project: the print-your-own-home.

In place of bricks and mortar and the need for a construction crew, a customisable building plan which transforms itself from computer screen graphics into a real-world abode thanks to the latest in 3D printing technology.

That dream is still beyond our reach, but several teams of architects across the globe are engaged in efforts to take a major step towards it by creating the world's first 3D-printed homes.

Amsterdam-based Dus Architects is one of the firms involved - it plans to print a canal house in the Dutch capital.

It's worth taking a moment to reflect on that premise; the machine will not modestly 3D-print the usual cup, curtain ring or piece of jewellery, but an actual building.

image captionObjects are created by printing thin layers of the construction materials on top of each other

The printer that will make this possible - the KamerMaker - is a marvel in itself. The name translates from Dutch as "room-maker".

With a shiny metallic exterior, built from the carcass of a shipping container, it is 6m (19ft 8in) tall and would easily fill the average sitting room.

Using different types of plastics and wood fibres, the device takes computer-drawn plans and uses them to make first the building's exterior walls, then the ceilings and other parts of individual rooms and then finally its furniture.

The pieces will be assembled on site like a huge jigsaw with parts attached to each other thanks to some of their edges having being shaped like giant Lego pieces, and the use of steel cabling to "sew" the elements together.

Each part is created using a layer-by-layer process in which solid objects take shape by printing thin "slices" of the construction materials, one level at a time, which bind together.

When I interviewed the architects involved - Hedwig Heinsman and Hans Vermeulen - for the BBC World Service's Click - I was able to stand comfortably with them inside the machine.

Looking across I could see the device's huge print head was connected to a flexible tube running down from the ceiling through which it could pour the heated plasticised material that will ultimately form the house's structure.

As with its smaller counterparts, the print head moves firstly horizontally and then vertically building up salami slices of the 3D object.

The enormous contraption will be able to fabricate individual life-sized rooms in one print session.

image captionOne of the house's window frames was among the first parts to be printed

I was shown a rosette window frame that had recently been "printed'" as a demonstration.

The young architects were visibly excited. Architecture is normally a slow and painstaking discipline. After graduation their first conventional building, from commission to execution, was six years in the making. This 3D project should be concluded in a fraction of that time.

By the end of this year the fully printed facade of the building will be erected, though it will be several more years before the project is completed.

"We are makers at heart and a 3D printer offers us a DIY kit," says Ms Heinsman.

Mr Vermeulen adds he believes his industry is "at the forefront of new industrial revolution".

Their firm has formed a collective that includes designers and computer scientists who are sharing their expertise and drawing on open-source computer tools to build this canal house.

The 3D printer stands like a work of modern sculpture on a grassy patch outside the collective's slightly raffish offices.

It's not just that it would it be too big to fit inside their offices, the team wants the public to be able to see the virtuosity of this 3D printer in action.

They also have a more regular-sized 3D printer inside their offices which is used to build doll's house-sized architectural models of the canal house on a scale of 1:20. Critically, the instructions for building these small versions are from the same computer files that the architects have designed for the actual house.

The canal house will be built over time from the bottom up.

Ms Heinsman says you might notice a change in the aesthetic of the building as your eyes travel up it.

image caption1:20 scale models were built from the computer blueprints to help optimise the design

"The top part of the facade will be the most beautifully ornamented because by then we will have perfected our knowledge of how the printer works," she explains.

It is unlikely that the finished KamerMaker 3D-printed house will be built as cheaply as conventional canal houses which are mass-produced by developers. But the architects are treating it as an experiment which provides a proof of concept and proof of the unbound limits of 3D printing.

It may seem like science fiction or the kind of fantastical vanity project expected of a millionaire, but this is really a visionary concept of idealistic but level-headed architects operating with modest budgets, whose focus is on social housing.

Developers may not be quaking in their boots just now but 3D printing has the potential to disrupt construction and the very look of our towns and cities.

You can hear more about efforts to build a 3D-printed house on Click on BBC World Service at 1830GMT.

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