Creating buildings is one of the next frontiers of 3-D printing that makers and architects are actively exploring. But the field of 3-D-printed architecture is still a niche of a niche that doesn’t have compelling real-world applications.
A new project out of UC Berkeley aims to change that. In early March, a team at the university revealed a pavilion made of 3-D-printed blocks that its creators say is groundbreaking because of the materials and production process used.
“This project is the genesis of a realistic, marketable process with the potential to transform the way we think about building a structure,” says Ronald Rael, associate professor of architecture at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.
The pavilion, which has been named “Bloom,” is about 12 feet by 12 feet and stands at 9 feet tall. It’s made from 840 individual 3-D-printed cement blocks. Bloom is unique because it uses a new production method using powdered cement. Other 3-D-printed cement buildings made until now have used wet cement extruded through a nozzle.
“We are mixing polymers with cement and fibers to produce very strong, lightweight, high-resolution parts on readily available equipment,” says Rael. “It’s a very precise yet frugal technique.”
Rael believes this production method offers a number of advantages in terms of speed of production, cost, and aesthetics. To wit, past 3-D-printed cement buildings have been a remarkable feat of technology and engineering, but they basically look like piles of cement. Bloom, in contrast, has a decorative Thai floral pattern built into the cement bricks. Its form was inspired by Richard Serra sculptures.
Each of Bloom’s printed blocks has a built-in “structural grid” so that no other supports are required for the building. The printing method is so precise that each individual block can let through different amounts of light, creating stunning visual effects. This breakthrough in 3-D printing shows that the technology can be inexpensive and practical–and also beautiful.