I spent the first eight months of 2013 living in Mexico. We had a pretty nice house, but we spent a lot of time in the houses of friends and family where the roofing material was corrugated metal. This was not by choice, but rather because it was the material that was available. While it did keep much of the rain off of our heads, it wasn’t so effective at keeping the water from running down the walls or dripping in between the sheets. It also made even the lightest shower have the decibel level of a New Orleans marching band. To add insult to injury, on a hot day, it would have been easier to make tortillas on the floor than it was over the feeble gas flame on my sister-in-law’s cooktop.
Corrugated metal is often seen as a roofing material for auto-constructed houses in the developing world. In an effort to provide an alternative material that would rectify some of the weaknesses of corrugated metal, Resilient Modular Systems, an organization focused on the production of innovative modular components, has turned its attention to roofing. There are two products that have been created thus far, a slab called ‘the chocolate bar’ because of its appearance and a brick-like component for filling in holes or patching small areas.
These modular units are produced by 3D printing recycled plastic that has been converted into printer filament. This means that the materials to make the units are continually available and lower in cost. The very fact that they are modular also helps to increase efficiency as smaller areas can be replaced or repaired as needed and it is simple to adapt the roof to individual circumstances. Wendy Fok, the project leader, described one of the benefits specific to this plug-and-play method of approaching roof construction:
“If you’re still using corrugated metal as your roof system, there’s a way to transition out, or start patching your roof with the new system. It can be integrated with the existing structure.”
Another interesting aspect of RMS’ innovative approach is their interest in local production. Instead of finding the cheapest possible location for manufacture and shipping production off to that locale, they focus on keeping things local both in terms of its initial production and in terms of educating local people to create local jobs. Fok defined their mission:
“The key is to work with communities to introduce new job options, and give them the empowerment of new technology. This is at the core of the mission. It’s not just introducing a new product.”
This kind of socially conscious application of 3D printing technology is part of a growing relationship between construction and 3D printing and is no surprise given the underlying open source culture that many members of the community support. RMS is currently involved in discussions with 3D Systems with regard to the possibility for creating a printing kit for the smaller bricks. They are also on the look out for a funding injection that will allow them continue testing and field work to improve the product and make it fully market ready.
Who knows, maybe my sister-in-law’s house could be a test site and we could have a conversation even when it’s raining.
Let us know your thoughts on this new potential for developing world roofing in the RMS 3D Printed Roofing forum thread over at 3DPB.com.