3D Printing And Antoni Gaudí

It is said that the Catalan Architect, Antoni Gaudí, used the evolutionary design of nature as inspiration for the Sagrada Familia. This is one of the reasons why it has taken over a century to construct his dream, but what if Gaudí had the design flexibility of additive manufacturing? What if he could apply some of the proposed techniques from today’s 3D printing industry to gain the same complexity within a typical construction project?

This year [2014], the 3D Print Show visited London, UK. The venue created a platform for hobbyists and 3D enthusiast to see what this evolving industry has to offer to the mainstream user. Many types and sizes of 3D printers were on display with numerous artists and designers showing off their capabilities, such as Aleksandrina Rizova’s Transitional Fields Table. The application of this type of construction continues to have a large impact to the small scale models and prototype design.

Alek Sa Studio (@AleksaRizova, 3D Printed Table)

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, may only be of passing interest to most of the structural engineering community at the moment. One of the largest 3D printer is however currently being used by @DUSarchitects in the ongoing construction of a 3-storey residential house. The structure is designed using a number of bespoke components with a maximum volume of only 7.5 m3, making its use on large scale projects seem dubious. These objects are also mostly limited to polymers or plastics, materials not typically used in the design of buildings. Printing in typical construction materials is currently very costly for metals and only performed on prototype projects using reinforcing fibres for concrete.

The first Hype Cycle for 3D Printing, published in 2014 by @Gartner_inc, predicts that macro 3D printing is more than 10 years in the future before it is utilized productively. Yet the potential to applying this technology to construction practices is increasingly enticing, especially with recent interest in BIM software and the increased reliance on printing 3D models by architects. The adoption of a 3D printing methodology on-site could further this area from individual components to full buildings, such as the technique used on the full-scale house constructed by Chinese Company WinSun Decoration Design Engineering who printed 10 homes in 24 hours. A group called Minibuilders, perhaps not surprisingly from @IAAC based in Catalan, also proposes an alternative method of construction by using a number of small moving ‘printers’ throughout the structure. These methods are at the concept and prototype stage, respectively.

The potential benefit of applying these proposed construction methods for engineers is during the design stage. These aspects, complimented with the progressive robustness of finite element design software, will allow efficient designs to be produced by using an optimal amount of material and effectively take advantage of predetermined architectural features of the structure. This is already being explored on a small scale using for an efficient design of a connection component. There are of course a number of hurdles that need to be addressed before these unique designs start being readily used onsite, such as design code criteria for additive materials and addressing any associated safety risks. It is however likely that the first response of the structural engineering and construction industry to additive manufacturing will be seen in the high-end construction market for architectural design purposes.

Optimized Connection by @ArupGroup

Within the design of the Sagrada Familia, an interior column has been compared to a tree. It varies in diameter along its height for enhanced stability and uses protruding ‘branches’ to distribute the floor load from above. These columns are integral to the design of the structure while also enhancing the building architecturally. It is also these complexities that have caused the his project to take over a century to construct.

From National Geographic, ‘Barcelona’s National Wonder’

If the Sagarda Familia was realistically proposed today, it would, in most cases, be greatly simplified. Any extra costs associated with a nonstandard sections and constructability concerns would be ‘value engineered’, despite both architectural and engineering merit of the original design. One easily identifiable example would be these atrium columns. A simple circular section would be much easier to design and cast using standardized reinforced concrete construction methods. The column would not need to be optimized along its height as the additional cost of material would greatly outweigh the workmanship time/costs involved.

Current Column in Atrium / Indicative Simplified Column Shape (ref)

Many of these concerns could be mitigated if successfully constructed using one of the proposed additive manufacturing methods. The building would be ‘printed’ layer by layer and would not be limited by any geometric complexity and thus enabling realistic consideration for complex design. These methods are advancing very quickly as the industry starts to take notice. Perhaps soon we will in a position to design a structure as grand and detailed as Antoni Gaudí’s masterpeice, although hopefully this time it will take much less than a century to construct.

This article is published as written in the October 2014 ICE London G&S Newsletter.