Canadian Architect

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How Big Can 3D Printing Go?

The architects in 3DXL, the Design Exchange’s summer exhibition, are working big—creating full-scale building components using 3D printing.

July 1, 2015
by Elsa Lam

A 3D-printed sandstone wall by Swiss architects Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger.

A 3D-printed sandstone wall by Swiss architects Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger. Photo by Peter Andrew

TEXT Elsa Lam
PHOTOS Eugen Sakhnenko, unless otherwise noted

3D printing has long garnered the interest of designers, primarily as a tool for rapid prototyping. Every architecture school in Canada has a 3D printer, and the plastic models they output are becoming more and more common fixtures in design crits and exhibitions. Larger design offices also own 3D printers, usually put to work producing all-white presentation models.

3DXL, the Design Exchange’s summer exhibition on the subject, ups the stakes of the conversation. The architects chosen by Toronto-based curator Sara Nickleson are working big—thus the XL of the exhibition title—creating full-scale building components using 3D printing.

This is no mean feat. If you’ve ever worked with a standard 3D printer, you’ll know that it has two main limitations: it’s painfully slow, and the plastic components it produces are brittle. In the exhibition’s hands-on demonstration space, I watched a MakerBot print a miniature CN Tower—an hour-long process that yielded a spindly plastic spire, somewhat less sturdy than one would find at the Dollar Store.

An ephemeral structure by Denegri Bessai occupies the main room in the exhibition hall.

An ephemeral structure by Denegri Bessai occupies the main room in the exhibition hall.

To economize, some designers are using the technology to create select components of larger structures. Denegri Bessai’s Mangrove Structure, custom-created for the exhibition, is an airy minimalist pavilion made of flexible rods held in place by 3D-printed nodes. Each of the 12 elliptical connectors in the installation is unique, suggesting a diversity of possible configurations.

A detail of a 3D-printed metal connecting joint.

A detail of a 3D-printed metal connecting joint.

“We printed the upper nodes with PLA plastic on desktop machines at our office and at the Design Exchange,” explains co-creator Tom Bessai, MRAIC. The mid-structure nodes needed to be stronger, so they used machines at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, which print with sturdier ABS plastic. “We also had the opportunity to work with Cast Connex to create a single node in 3D-printed steel; that was sent to Shapeways for production,” adds Bessai. “It’s very early days for 3D printing in metal.”

The keystone of a 3D-printed house in Amsterdam by DUS Architects.

The keystone of a 3D-printed house in Amsterdam by DUS Architects.

Challenges of structural strength are also present in an ambitious three-year-long project to print a full-scale inhabitable canal house in Amsterdam. DUS Architects, the group behind the scheme, has sent a component from the house to Toronto: a cubic-metre-sized plastic keystone, reinforced by a honeycomb of internal shafts.

After final assembly, hollows inside the plastic components will be filled with concrete.

After final assembly, hollows inside the plastic components will be filled with concrete.

The keystone was printed on a bespoke machine called the KamerMaker (or “Room Builder”), housed in a shipping container in Amsterdam. The house’s components are being printed canalside and assembled on site like Lego blocks. After assembly, some of the shafts will be filled with foaming concrete that will serve to both insulate the walls and provide structural stability.

3DXL’s most stunning display is in the exhibition’s final room. Digital Arabesque, by Swiss architects Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger, is a visually intricate wall created from 3D-printed sandstone, manufactured at an American facility. The seductive composition—made up of slithering forms, encrusted with ornamentation—is impossibly complex to create using regular 3D-modelling tools. Instead, it’s generated by custom algorithmic software developed by Hansmeyer and Dillenburger.

The design includes an intricate level of detail. Photo by Peter Andrew

The design includes an intricate level of detail. Photo by Peter Andrew

The wall was printed on a large-scale powder printer that solidifies loose sand with a binder. “These large-scale printers were developed to print sand moulds for casting in foundries,” says Dillenburger. In their intended use, the printed form is destroyed after the casting process. “The resulting artificial stone is comparable to natural sandstone in terms of its properties,” he says.

Loose sand is brushed away from each section as it emerges from the 3D printer. Photo by Victoria Fard

Loose sand is brushed away from each section as it emerges from the 3D printer. Photo by Victoria Fard

In terms of know-how, graduates of architecture schools are becoming adept with the technology. A display case is dedicated to 3D-printed tiles made by Dillenburger’s students at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. The patterns evoke fractal geometries and rock formations, representing a search for complex patterns and textures that can be created with—and perhaps only with—3D printing.

The Design Exchange has assembled a remarkable array of projects. However, in venturing into a satellite space—a former condo presentation centre on highly trafficked King Street—the works end up looking more diminutive than they ought. Relative to the tall buildings in the area, the 3D-printed components appear to be more in the S or M rather than the XL range.

It’s a reminder of how far off the use of 3D printers for full-scale building components still feels: the technology needed for printing to a pavilion-sized (let alone full building-sized) scale with quick speeds and durable materials remains out of reach. But 3DXL shows how that future is perhaps a few steps closer than we realize.

3DXL is on display at 363 King Street West in Toronto until August 16, 2015.