Additive and the architect – how 3D technologies are impacting construction

Do you know the origin of the word architect?” asks Eric Barendse, Designer and Researcher at Studio RAP during a phone conversation last month. I enjoy a good bit of etymology. I’m from a town called Widnes, which apparently earned its name from the Vikings who took a liking to the “wide nose” shape of the land projecting into the River Mersey. It’s not the most glamorous origin story but I can appreciate its history in the same way the source of “architect” got me thinking about how words and their meanings change over time. It comes from “arkhi”- and “téktōn”, which mean “chief” and “builder”, the latter of which doesn’t exactly fit the job description of a modern architect.

I call Eric following a visit to Studio RAP’s space inside Port of Rotterdam’s Innovation Dock, an oasis of technological research and creativity featuring giant robotic arms modified for 3D printing, water drones, and all. Studio RAP also has its own hidden meaning; robots, architecture and production, which is exactly what the team deploys across a wide field of work ranging from the functional to the weird and wonderful.

“We are an architectural practice, but we don’t just design buildings, we also develop technology to make those buildings,” Eric explains. “What is very difficult about many of our projects is we design projects with technology that does not exist yet and we then develop the technology to make what we have designed.”

Advanced design and manufacturing technologies have changed much of the way we create our world. CAD and simulation tools mean designers can draft ideas and apply different forces to test how a structure will fare in a real environment. Cloud computing means that entire construction teams have access to the same data and can communicate and resolve any challenges quickly. Additive manufacturing (AM), though not commonplace on a building site, is a tried and tested way of quickly producing accurate scale models in architectural offices and we’re also seeing more and more examples of how large-format concrete AM might be adopted to produce alternative housing. Studios like RAP are embracing that with a range of robotic fabrication and design process including wire cutting, AM and brick stacking to make complex or curved optimised shapes which could not be made in a traditional mould.

“There are a lot of things starting up, some making pace, but the technology is not mature enough to be implemented on a larger scale,” Eric comments on the adoption of AM in the fi eld. “That will come in the next few years, I’m quite sure about that but it will still start on a small scale.”

Along with design and consultancy work, the studio has a sister company which has developed its own software called RAPCAM which allows designers to take 3D models and translate that into code that can be used in industrial robots. The entire chain is connected digitally so there is no loss of data from the CAD model to production.

Eric started out in his own backyard with a giant 3D printer which he built himself and used it to experiment with concrete printing. It’s not identical to the type of concrete you would find in a DIY store and it has a slightly different consistency to make it suitable for extrusion but in the Netherlands the material has been deemed appropriate for use in construction. Using 3D printing, the studio can design and build a column or wall in a matter of hours compared to the 12 weeks it would normally take with traditional construction tools. When I visited the studio, there were examples of structures built using a similar process with clay which show how the technology might be used to print hollow structures filled with traditional materials or to produce interesting colour gradients showing which fade through the visible print layers. There was also a prototype created for the Circular Experience project for ABN Amro’s new building in Amsterdam’s financial district, where RAP proposed a design for the pavilion’s interior walls where wooden strips and waste material are reused in a parametrically controlled, robotic fabrication process.

“It’s very efficient but also very flexible and quick,” says Eric on the range of processes. “You can respond to what someone is asking very quickly so that takes away a lot of problems with a client. It takes a lot of slowness and frustration out of the process.”

Now the studio is working with a small Dutch concrete construction company, Bruil who approached the company around three years ago with an interest in reducing waste using 3D printing, a tool it felt would be crucial to its future due to the declining numbers of traditionally skilled workers coming into the industry.

The role of the architect has changed. Once a chief builder, their job now is to design and plan a building or structure. You might see them on a construction site wearing a high-vis jacket and hard hat but it’s unlikely they’ll be taking part in the physical building. Without that hands-on experience, adopting and exploiting those new technologies may pose a challenge.

“There is a lot of curiosity,” Eric says. “Mostly from more engineering minded people, many structural engineers come with lots of ideas as to how to optimise structures and shapes which couldn’t be produced before. Many architects have a hard time coming up with ideas that are appropriate, it really takes a different mind-set than many mainstream architects are used to.”

Architects will consider not just the look of a building but also functionality, safety and economics. With something like 3D printing, that list of considerations becomes even greater; optimisation, material behaviour, best print paths to reduce material consumption, which geometries are possible and perhaps most importantly, is it the best process for this particular project?

“There is a huge, widespread, bonfire explosion of shapes, forms, images, colours and textures but at the moment the question of why you would want to do this, I haven’t seen a very good answer for yet,” Eric says of the more elaborate headline stealing examples of AM in construction. “Often these buildings are extremely well optimised and perfect but they’re holding up nothing, or there’s nothing on it, or it doesn’t translate well if you step out of your technical viewpoint. There are other ways that are a lot cheaper, more efficient.”

Demands from the construction industry are also evolving at a similar pace. Nicholas Mangon, VP AEC Strategy at Autodesk recently spoke about the need to double the size of some cities by 2020 during the launch of the software giant’s new manufacturing site in Birmingham, a city which he later referred to fondly in a tweet as “a giant construction site”. Advances such as pre-fabrication off -site in controlled modules (think cells where individual blocks might be built in a high-tech manufacturing facility and slot into place on the construction site) or transportable robotic systems for large AM parts, may provide a solution to achieve that goal in this short time frame. Rather than a case of technology killing the carpenter, this is about becoming more hands on in order to embrace the benefits of automation, sustainability and beyond. In order to design and plan efficiently for these technologies, perhaps the role of the architect needs to adapt once again (archi-tech, anyone?) or go back to the roots of chief shipbuilders and carpenters it once reflected.

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