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Future freeform facades

With 1.000 individually acryl shaped panels and 6.000 fixture points, the Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria, would be a good candidate for additive manufacturing. Design: Cook & Fournier. Photo: Ulrich Knaack

3D-printing of entire buildings may lie ahead. But for now, custom-made facades will allow better realisation of today’s computer-based freeform designs, argues PhD-student Holger Strauss in his thesis.

Additive Manufacturing (AM) is a collective term for 3D-printing techniques in plastic, metal or other materials. It differs from today’s standard ‘subtractive’ techniques in that the elements are built up from base material instead of carved out of a larger block. Whilst building up, the designer can influence the shape as she wishes. ‘The goal is no longer to design according to production method, but to produce according to design idea’, as MIT’s Technology Review expressed it.

AM has demonstrated great potential for specific applications in aerospace, automotive industry and medical applications. It is also becoming more popular in manufacturing of end-use products, like people printing their own jewellery or replacement parts for utensils.

So what are its potentials for architecture? In his thesis, PhD-student Holger Strauss (MSc. at faculty of Architecture) sets out to explore. He notices that AM invites designers to think differently: ‘We can start thinking about the performance we want to achieve, and then begin to engineer the needed part around it.’ And since most architectural designs are made by computer anyway, freeform design is easily within reach. This leads Strauss to formulate his hypothesis: Facade technology and facade construction will change with the application of Additive Manufacturing.

After an inventory of different materials (metals, polymers and assemblies of these), Strauss presents various forms of AM facades (a building’s outer shell) with integrated heat exchangers in facade profiles; skins that react on sunlight; active insulation; seamless glass surfaces; integrated sunscreens or built-in sound-absorbers. AM facades, so it seems, do more than shield you from the worst of weather – they interact with the environment.

Although for most architects today 3D printing is restricted to the manufacture of the curved parts of their scale models, Strauss argues that AM will find its way into architecture. It will start within the next five years, he argues, with the introduction of high-performance plastics and metals as building materials. ‘AM parts will be integrated as parts of existing systems.

In five to ten years, Strauss expects AM to have become a standard technology for facade builders if the industry will have established standards and quality management by then.

The next step, in twenty to thirty years, is the production of ‘dynamic building envelopes’, Strauss writes. Future facades will not simply stand between interior and exterior, but will ‘fulfil far more functions than expected, which opens up new options for design and use of interior spaces.’

The Nematox system, consisting of individually printed components, has all the flexibility typical for AM-technology Photo: Holger Strauss.

Although additive manufacturing is certainly a modern technology, due to its energy intensive nature it can hardly be called ‘green’. Proponents will argue that local production (enabled by AM) may eliminate long transport distances and thus save fuel. Strauss says that environmental compliancy is an often-discussed topic in the AM industry, which means that ‘greenness’ is an issue, but by no means a defining quality.
Strauss concludes that AM technologies will never replace existing building practices, but complement them where this seems practical. In extraordinary building projects, Strauss expects AM techniques to allow a better, more precise and safer realisation of freeform designs.

→ Holger Strauss, AM Envelope – The potential of Additive Manufacturing of facade construction, PhD-thesis supervisors Prof. U. Knaack, Prof. H. Techen, 14 January 2013.

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