Print This House

Like nano-technology and bio engineering, 3D printing seems an industry still in its infancy. Google-search “3D printed products” and you get a flea market of knick-knacks, toys, a few clothing items—a bow tie, a bra, some funky-looking shoes—and most practically, architectural models and prosthetic limbs.

Virginia San Fratello has bigger plans for 3D.

Virginia is an Assistant Professor of Interior Design at San Jose State University, a licensed architect and one of the founders, with Ronald Rael, of Emerging Objects, a company that uses 3D printing to make components for building.

Virginia dropped by O+A the other day to give a talk on the architectural potential of 3D printing and to show some examples of the things that Emerging Objects is producing. “It’s always an experiment,” she said of the process by which new materials are tested for printing. “We figure it out as we go.” The word she uses for the mix of base materials and binding agents is “recipe” and there is an element of cookery in the various forms of 3D printing her company is testing.

Two parallel impulses drive the work—first, to come up with printable forms that can be assembled into sturdy and aesthetically satisfying structures and second, to identify a range of materials that can be used to make those forms. For materials Virginia and her colleagues cast a wide net. Printing from ground concrete may seem a logical application of this technology. Or sand. Even sawdust feels right. But printing from salt? Printing from walnut shells? By considering unusual ingredients for their recipes, the visionaries at Emerging Objects are looking beyond current construction practices to a time when almost anything can be turned into a serviceable building material.

Already Emerging Objects has printed spoons from sugar—spoons that dissolve in coffee, exactly one cup’s worth in each spoon. Already they have made night-lights and floral vases from 3D-printed nylon. But the big potential for this technique is with waste materials that a consumer society produces in vast quantities—the 280 million rubber tires that are scrapped each year, for example (which can be frozen, broken up and pulverized into a printable rubber powder) or the 7.5 million tons of wood waste that the construction industry generates yearly or the 71 million tons of paper waste we all discharge.

The ultimate goal is to use 3D printing to produce affordable, sustainable, easily-constructed architecture that speaks to a modern sensibility, but still feels human. “I don’t think any of us would want to live in a giant plastic house,” Virginia says—but a conventional house with architectural or ornamental features 3D printed from materials that make contextual sense—a salt installation in a house near a salt-flat, for example or a sand-printed room in a desert home. Those are the kinds of projects that seem not only possible, but desirable. “Can the ground material itself be the source for buildings built on that ground?” Virginia wonders, envisioning architecture as organic as a bird’s nest. “It’s going to happen in this century,” she says. “We’ve been doing it for six years. We have formulas that work.” And then zeroing in on the issue that will determine when this technology flowers, she adds, “Costs will come down.”

Written By Al McKee