At this point, it has become cliche to say that 3-D printing is the fabrication technology du jour. But the innovations keep coming: molten glass as a medium, sky-high kicks, and sweet-sounding musical instruments, to name a few. One thing, however, has remained elusive: 3-D printing at an architectural scale.
The architectural mega-firm SOM and Department of Energy-managed Oak Ridge National Laboratory teamed up on AMIE, a high-tech building that’s as cutting edge with its construction techniques as it is with its energy systems.
The project was borne from an astute observation: Buildings, transportation, and manufacturing consume the most energy. Would it be possible to, in one fell swoop, rethink these systems so they become more efficient?
The first consideration revolved around the building’s bones. Aside from the steel used to reinforce weak points, the building’s frame consists entirely of a 3-D-printed panel system that integrates structure, insulation, and cladding, along with air and moisture barriers. Because every component can be produced to its exact specifications, It has the potential to eliminate construction waste—no need for trimming things like lumber down to size. Moreover, the technology allows complex shapes to be produced, which helps make the architecture more sturdy while using less material.
The engineers then thought about how the completed design could be more energy efficient. Using an 80-20 ratio of solid, opaque surfaces to glass minimized the solar gain and thermal bridging (read: lower costs to cool in summer and warm in winter since there’s less heat transfer). Solar panels, meanwhile, help curtail consumption by offering power to low-energy appliances, like an induction range.
Then came the car. It’s an electric vehicle that has a bidirectional charger, meaning that it can power the building and vice versa. If there’s an excess of electricity generated by the solar panels, then the car doesn’t need to use its generator fueled with natural gas. But if the building needs an extra boost, the car kicks in and powers the both of them.
Last week, the architects and engineers hooked everything up, and the car and completed building successfully engaged in a two-way exchange of energy.
This is no small feat. Sure, 3-D-printing a building has been attempted before, but the results haven’t been too great. The Chinese company WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Co. erected one in 24 hours, but the finished result looks like a banal Soviet-era apartment block made from concrete squeezed through a toothpaste tube. Other projects, like this Baroque-style 3-D-printed room, have the aesthetics on lock, but aren’t structurally sound. But I’d wager than none have so thoroughly considered engineering and energy use in a complete package like AMIE has.
SOM views this as AMIE 1.0. While the design is operational, the team wants to try it again with a 3-D printing material that’s more sustainable than the carbon fiber used this time.