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Milestone or millstone? Why 3D innovation in architecture needs to come back down to Earth

An artist’s impression of the 3D printed houses. Photograph: Houben/Van Mierlo

Dan Heyworth is the CEO and founder of Box, the only combined registered architectural practice and registered master builder in New Zealand. Here, he outlines why despite advances forward in 3D printed housing, a shake up to the construction sector isn't imminent – yet. He also explains how the role of architects is changing, and construction companies are now leading the way in innovation. 

When I first read The Guardian article 'Netherlands to build world’s first habitable 3D-printed houses', I was inspired by the innovation of the Dutch construction company Van Wijnen behind this development. They call it Project Milestone.

A moment later, when my business brain kicked in, I thought, 'Now here’s a company prepared to lose the shirt (or should that be Jedi robe?) off its back chasing Star Wars innovations in a slow-moving industry.'

Don’t get me wrong – I feel buoyed by these type of breakthroughs and bold statements like “mainstream within five years”, particularly when they threaten to upend the status quo on a number of levels. Such a change in how we design and build houses is imperative if we are to make architecture more accessible.

But this particular innovation has some interesting side-effects and raises fundamental questions, not the least being, will we want to live in a house designed and built with curved forms, solid-concrete construction, and filled with technology sensors and devices?

I personally love how it brings us closer to the architecture of Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine, which combines highly organic forms with serious high-tech, but could this really be the future?

Unfortunately, I fear change is not imminent. Much has been written about the time it takes for industry and society to adopt seemingly ‘ground-breaking’ technologies. Electricity is a case in point. It took a generation or more for that innovation to mature and become part of everyday societal norms.

Assembly-line manufacturing and the internet are two other examples. That’s why I can’t see construction companies re-tooling and re-investing in assets in such a small space of time. Likewise, it will take a while to persuade my mother that living in a fluid form is better than a four-sided box (and to be honest, I suspect it is, since surely we have some primordial yearning to inhabit caves -– it’s just been a while).

The truth is, the cement-printing technology is simply not refined enough yet. The process will evolve to include materials other than cement (which is under attack for its environmental impacts) but there are all kinds of technical questions that are still to be resolved: thermal bridging, seismic engineering and, of course, cost. I’m sure we’ll get there, but not in five years and possibly not before hover boards are commonplace gliding above our streets.

Secondly, the article highlighted to me how the role of architects is changing. Note that this is a Dutch construction company leading the charge. Globally, we are seeing innovation driven by the construction industry, not the people we usually associate with creativity.

Building companies and manufacturers around the world are emerging as the true architects of the modern age, while traditional architects continue to marginalise themselves as ‘artists’, serving very small segments of the market with custom-designed monuments using old-fashioned methods.

In Europe and North America, the prefabrication industry is driven by insurance companies such as L&G, technology companies like Katerra and manufacturers such as Lindbacks, who are embracing 3D printing, ERP software to manage business processes, robotics, DFMA (design for manufacture assembly) and new materials in order to increase capacity, improve efficiency and produce buildings for the majority of people.

It may only be a matter of time before these companies start to absorb the architectural firms and the pendulum swings so that design becomes driven by the construction industry, not the other way around. Designers have a very important role to play in our built environment but the actual role of architect requires the ability to balance design and production.

Finally, if the 3D printing advocates are to be believed, fabricators looking to invest large in prefab production lines and fixed assets may find cause to reconsider.

Although the construction sector is showing signs of a rebirth, with lots of new ideas, attention and money being poured into an industry that has potential for huge improvement, some companies chasing moonbeams may re-think their strategy when it comes to spending big on factory automation.

Obi Wan might very well advise them not to put all their peggats (a form of currency used by the Hutts on Tatooine) into one technology. After all, who wants to spend $10 million on an automated timber panel line when printed concrete will be mainstream in five years?

Here in New Zealand? There has been a flurry of investment into automated production facilities powered by machines from Weinmann or Randek, without proper thought into the economics of factory production, or prioritising investment based on the simple Pareto principle of 80 percent benefit through 20 percent improvement.

The industry has many complex moving parts, one of which is compliance and regulation, so I don’t expect major innovation shifts to happen fast.

But we need companies such as Van Wijnen to show us what the future could look like, to challenge our thinking. The British business author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek recently tweeted, “We can learn about our future from our past because, regardless of technology or the speed of innovation, people are still people”.

Which takes us back to the fundamental point – how much art will my Mum hang on her curved wall?

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