Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Will 3D Printing Make the Construction Industry More Sustainable?

Reporting on the successes of architecture 3D printing, Motherboard updates the status of a project to 3D print a skyscraper in Dubai. Two takeaways from the piece:
  1. As the first 3D printed skyscrapers are being planned, there is little evidence to suggest we should expect current generation concrete 3D printers' CO2 footprint to be any different than traditional concrete-building techniques. This is a concern insofar as concrete production is a particularly energy intensive industry and thus at conflict with some of the carbon-neutral goals of sustainable design. More can be done to reduce the carbon footprint of concrete in general. 
  2. The article highlights the cost-effective nature of 3D printed structures but I am doubtful this should be stressed as the most important quality of sustainable design. In certain constructions of the topic, including issues of housing-accessibility and housing-security in the goals of a sustainable design project is appropriate. But a broadening of the topic is also important to ensure all sources of value in an additive construction tool chain are studied and adapted for business. 
To put one last important characteristic of architectural 3D printing in perspective, additive construction technologies' ability to apply different optimization techniques in order to save materials and increase strength should be highly leveraged in a digital design workflow. This process has the potential to make the built environment look much more organic as these optimized forms share much in common with natural biological processes.

Returning to the skyscraper in Dubai, the research and development the project is leading will continue to be of interest to anyone trying to stay abreast of developments in the AEC Industry. If the method is as cost-effective as they are suggesting, this would be welcomed technology indeed. However, there are many questions remaining as the technology shifts into the mainstream, such as the longevity of the structures after decades of exposure. Modelling from similar materials' behaviour is the most direct way estimate its performance to date. It's worth remembering, jurisdictional approval of such projects depends on the availability of robust engineering data or special approval for the project. Neither route is ideal for large developers looking to reduce risk in design and construction workflows. Jurisdictional and technological issues are unpredictable obstacles on the road to success. 

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