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The words “we print architecture’s future” adorn the wall of a showroom on the outskirts of Suzhou, a rapidly urbanising city in eastern China. Arranged around the room are samples of odd-looking concrete wall of varying thickness. Outside, across the car park of this otherwise unremarkable industrial estate, is a grand, neoclassical mansion that recently became a global internet sensation . It is the world’s first 3D-printed villa.
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing – the process of fabricating solid objects from digital models – has been around for three decades. Talk of how this technology could transform both the construction industry and the way we conceive of and build cities has long circulated, too. With 3D printing, customisable “dream” homes would no longer be the purview of the rich, and architects would be able to create fantastically complex geometrical structures. In the developing world, low-income housing could be erected en masse, while speedily printed structures would provide disaster relief or temporary homes for refugees.
But until recently such talk was largely theoretical. Then in March 2014, the little-known Chinese company Winsun announced it had 3D-printed 10 £3,200 concrete houses in a day. When, in January of this year, it unveiled that 3D-printed 1,100-square-metre villa – and a five-storey apartment building – it raised the question of whether the technology was about to become commercially viable.
In Winsun’s showroom, a video on a giant LED screen shows a printer head moving horizontally along a massive gantry frame. Winsun’s 3D printer is 6.6 metres tall, 10m wide and 150m long, I’m told. I am not permitted to see it. ….