Building the future: cutting-edge technology changes the blueprint of construction

The construction industry is increasingly turning to cutting-edge technology like 3D-printing to improve productivity and reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.
  • Is 3D-printing a true game-changer?
  • Printing the city: 3D printed houses and fabrication cities
  • A sustainable ink for 3D printers could soon replace concrete
  • The ultra-sustainable, microorganisms-free 3D-printed living spaces of tomorrow
  • 3D-printed facilities are the safe havens we’ll need in the future

The construction industry has always been known to be averse to change and unwelcoming to new technologies. However, as cutting-edge technologies increasingly enable sustainable, and cost- and time-efficient building processes, this is starting to change. The future of construction will be much more digital and tech-driven. Smart algorithms will increasingly become part of design processes, blockchain will ensure safe data transfers, and additive manufacturing or 3D printing will enable the on-site production of customised construction materials, leading to a dramatic reduction of carbon emissions. The future of the construction industry is built on the foundations of the latest technologies that are slowly becoming of age.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused much damage to all industries and businesses are desperately trying to stay afloat. The crisis affects the construction industry as well, leading to the sector’s reluctance to start using new technologies on a larger scale. For instance,  the global 3D printing building construction market is expected to dive from $0.004 billion in 2019 to $0.002 billion in 2020, falling at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of -35.76 per cent. Not everything is looking bleak, however. The list of benefits of using new tech like 3D printing and modular construction is far too long to even think that construction doesn’t value intelligent solutions, especially during difficult times such as these. 

Is 3D-printing a true game-changer?

Not everyone shares the same enthusiasm about 3D printed buildings despite the building method superseding traditional construction on many levels – from being more time- and cost-efficient to producing less waste material. Thijs Asselbergs, architect and professor of architectural engineering at TU Delft, thinks that regardless how advanced the tech is, major changes in the construction sector won’t happen overnight. “Three-dimensional printing is revolutionary, but we cannot transform construction into an industry that works with 3D printers in one fell swoop. There are many major issues that need to be solved, so I expect this way of 3D printing on site won’t take a huge flight.” Professor Asselbergs also points at one of the issues with 3D concrete printing that some believe to  be “responsible for up to 5 per cent of the world’s total amount of carbon emissions, which contribute to greenhouse gases”. “Concrete is a tricky material when it comes to circularity. For example, in residential construction you see more and more wood frame work, but wood does not come from a printer. We have to move towards full CO2 neutrality.” To achieve zero carbon emissions, we must use materials that are more environmentally friendly, and scientists and experts in the field are already working on developing new materials that could contribute to a wider application of additive manufacturing if the ‘ink’ used is eco-friendly.

Printing the city: 3D printed houses and fabrication cities

With nearly 70 per cent of the world population expected to settle in urban areas in a couple of decades, highly centralised megacities are no longer a viable option. Firstly, the pandemic has shown that paralysed supply chains can mean that those who don’t live in close proximity to the most important infrastructure such as medical centres and shopping places won’t have access to essential goods and services. Some believe, however, that the answer could be decentralisation of the urban area, and urbanist specialist Moritz Maria Karl, also a researcher and lecturer at Berlin Technical University, suggests that the current outline of centralised cities don’t cope well with crises such as COVID-19. “We have to break it down into smaller systems and into smaller urban systems. This is a way more resilient way of designing cities.” While this and similar ideas are, indeed, revolutionary in the sense that they change the preconception that the future of the city is one large centralised urban area, new circumstances dictate a different approach, in which cutting-edge technologies can play an important role.

Additive manufacturing enables the construction of houses even with a limited workforce and resources. Combining cutting-edge tech with creative ideas can lead to ingenious and efficient solutions for housing challenges, even during the crisis. Silicon Valley startup Mighty Buildings has devised a 3D printer that uses “a special gel that cures instantly into a solid material when zapped with light.” This method makes it possible to print a 32.5 m² studio apartment in a day. Sustainable and energy-efficient houses such as these could help fight homelessness as well as provide fast housing solutions. This is just one example of how 3D printing can help society. And many agree that fabrication cities, where a significant amount and a wide variety of products are manufactured locally, are ecologically and economically feasible alternatives to traditional urban settings. And thanks to additive manufacturing, fabrication cities are a real future possibility. Barcelona, for instance, is one of the most well-known fabrication ecosystems in the world, and the latest addition to the city’s future-oriented outlook is the HP 3D printing facility which boasts sustainability at a whole new level. Fabrication cities will also make use of photovoltaic panels, reducing energy consumption by 26 per cent, and rainwater collection systems, ensuring a 100 per cent reduction on irrigation water consumption and a staggering 49.61 per cent on indoor water consumption. This is just a glimpse into a sustainable future that is attainable thanks to proactive and future-oriented companies and people with a vision. 

A sustainable ‘ink’ for 3D printers could soon replace concrete

Scientists at London-based concrete manufacturer Novacem have managed to develop a sustainable concrete alternative based on magnesium sulphate. According to the company, “each tonne of cement can absorb up to 0.6 tonnes of CO2” compared to traditional cement which emits about 0.4 tonnes of CO2. Another concrete alternative could be soil. A team of scientists at Texas A&M University have developed sustainable 3D printing technology based on using local soil as construction material. “Our thought was to turn the clock back and find a way to adapt material from our own backyards as a potential replacement for concrete,” shared Aayushi Bajpayee, a graduate student who was part of the project. They built a ‘toolkit’ that, by zipping microscopic layers on the soil’s surface, prevents the absorption of water and material expansion. According to the researchers, tailored this way, the material is stronger than unmodified clay and can hold twice as much weight. “We have worked on addressing the problem of building all-weather roads in the subarctic. The technology could one day be used beyond Earth, to create settlements on the moon or even Mars,” emphasises Sarbajit Banerjee, the project’s principal investigator. Although the concept is met with some scepticism, sustainable  building materials are crucial, even more so if we’d like cutting-edge technologies to become mainstream, as they could help us achieve carbon neutrality across all sectors. 

The ultra-sustainable, microorganisms-free 3D-printed living spaces of tomorrow

While 3D-printing of larger buildings is undoubtedly more challenging than printing smaller buildings, it’s undeniable that additive manufacturing enables construction at unmatched speeds and savings compared to traditional methods. And when the first two-storey 3D-printed model house was constructed in Antwerp, Belgium, with cost and material savings of up to 60 per cent, it became clear the future of construction lies in this cutting-edge tech. In the context of the current health crisis, however, living in a home built to ensure an almost sterile environment might seem far-fetched. Haus.me, an American company that builds 3D-printed smart homes, has managed to design and build a 37m² sustainable studio home that is tiny in size, but gargantuan in intelligent solutions integrated into its minute shell. It features advanced HEPA air quality control and a system that’s able to eliminate as much as 99.9 per cent of bacteria and viruses. A sleek design and ultra-futuristic interior is everything you’d imagine a sustainable and super-intelligent home to look like. “We aim to redefine the way people think of buying a new home and make homeownership a breeze,” reads the company’s website, and by the look of things, the model house does hail the future of architecture and design that caters to the needs of eco-conscious and future-oriented customers.

And when it comes to hospitality – this industry also strives to go green. Habitas, a new hotel brand, is planning to use innovative 3D-printing technology. Oliver Ripley, CEO of Habitas, explains the mission behind the project: “The world, now more than ever, needs to create places for people to reconnect with one another and with nature.”

3D-printed facilities are the safe havens we’ll need in the future

The construction industry is facing many challenges. It is under immense pressure to reduce construction times and minimise its environmental impact, which has led to many construction companies adopting innovative technologies like additive manufacturing. Combined with other intelligent solutions, 3D printing can help us build smarter homes that protect the environment, but also ensure that our living space is healthy and microorganisms-free, which, in times like these, are becoming increasingly important considerations. People with a vision and access to the technology that can turn these visions into reality will build the future, one 3D-printed object at a time. More and more, sustainable, cost-effective, time-efficient, and affordable homes will be sheltering our future generations.

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