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The 3D Printing Revolution 

Image © Gensler

We’re always being told that the world is constantly changing and that innovation is increasing at an ever growing rate. This is true for the most part. Walk down the street and you’re likely to bump into someone who’s staring intently at a smartphone that 10 years ago was just an idea in Steve Jobs head. The ways we communicate, shop, and socialize are profoundly different than they were in the recent past, and further advances in fields from artificial intelligence to augmented reality mean much more change is still to come.

But the reality few people talk about is that some industries never seem to evolve despite technological advances that should foster radical change. The construction industry is a perfect example. For the most part, buildings have been constructed in the same way for nearly 5,000 years. But the mainstreaming of 3D printing technology could disrupt those staid processes and introduce new ways for designing and constructing buildings.

Gensler is currently working on a project that demonstrates some of the promise 3D printing holds for changing how we construct buildings. On behalf of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) National Committee, we designed an office, the components of which were created nearly entirely by a 3D printer. The 2,000 square foot building is composed of components printed in concrete by a 20-foot tall 3D printer in Shanghai. The components were then shipped to Dubai, and installed at a well-trafficked intersection, so everyone can get a firsthand glimpse of this revolutionary technology. The result is a high-functioning, truly sustainable structure, assembled, not built, with no formwork, no surplus and minimal waste.

The benefits of this approach to construction are self-evident: using 3D printer technology reduced labor costs by 50 to 80 percent and construction waste by 30-60 percent. Our project is not without challenges—ensuring the 3D printer could produce a building that adhered to established building and energy codes required a lot of creative problem solving—but the benefits far outweighed the challenges.

Working on this project has brought into stark relief the many benefits and opportunities 3D printers offer designers, developers and users.

  1. 3D printing offers unprecedented levels of flexibility. You can modify components and add unique features to a design without adding costs or time to the project. This opens a host of possibilities when it comes to developing the components used in the construction process. Each component or module no longer has to be 100 percent consistent. Each component can vary in shape, form and finish from one to the other.
  2. Components can be digitally modeled, printed, and installed in a fraction of the time used in the traditional construction process. 3D printers offer developers speed to market from design to print on the go without multiple levels of drawings, shop drawings or weather delays. This allows us to move from concept to fabrication to installation much faster than we’ve done in the past.
  3. Pre-constructed components manufactured in controlled environments assure users they are getting a consistent, high quality, structure, year-round in any climate.

The ultimate dream of 3D printing is that it will give designers the control and ability to create and print an entire building, place it on site and move people in the next day. In my estimation, we’re several years away from realizing that dream. There’s a lot of experimentation, research and testing that needs to be done before we can create buildings entirely from 3D printers.

In the meantime, 3D printing will greatly accelerate the pace of construction by eliminating costly and time consuming steps. And this will have ripple effects for entire markets. Consider housing. The U.S. has not been able to construct the number of housing units needed annually since the Second World War, with the cost of most new homes far exceeding the median income of desirous households. Traditional construction methods can’t keep up with demand and are too expensive for most people. 3D printing can help solve both problems and put people in houses that are built cost-effectively and efficiently without sacrificing quality or design.

The 3D printing revolution will continue to develop incrementally—you’re not going to wake up next month and see a 3D printer layering-up a home in your neighborhood. But each improvement this technology makes has tangible consequences for the design and construction industries, and each brings us one step closer to the disruptive innovation that’s become the norm in nearly every other industry.

Tod Desmarais, FAIA is a Director in Gensler’s Chicago office with over 30 years of experience advancing the quality of the urban environment through innovative architecture and sustainable development. He has performed every function of the real estate development process - owner, developer, designer, architect, contractor, broker & property manager - completing several, turn-key, urban, high-density, mixed-use, speculative developments valued at nearly $2,000,000,000. Contact him at tod_desmarais@gensler.com.

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