AMS Spring 2023

3D Printed Organic Structures Grow Plant Life


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The 11th annual Jerusalem Design Week was held at the end of this past June, at the Hansen House Center for Design, Media and Technology. Nearly 50,000 visitors showed up to see design pieces made by over 150 designers, from Israel and all over the planet. For the 3D printing industry, one of the most interesting installations saw additive construction (AC) combined with seeded materials, to create a living structure.

The event’s theme for 2022 was ‘For Now’: “exploring both the ephemerality of design and the design of ephemerality.” Exhibitors used that theme as a springboard for executing designs meant to harness the power of time itself, as a means to create signs of reassuring stability amidst a chaotic global environment.

3D Printing with Seeded Soil

Intriguingly, one design team, sponsored by Rogovin, one of Israel’s oldest real estate firms, utilized the constantly transformative nature of plant life to embody that message. The project, called ‘To Grow A Building’, epitomized the interplay between permanence and change at the heart of the show’s theme. The team developed a robotic arm system that 3D printed structures out of a soil-based material infiltrated with seeds. Resultantly, once printed, the structures eventually began to sprout and grow vegetation.

That feature’s most obvious advantage is of course the aesthetic one, yet it also serves a key design function. Once the seeds sprout, the roots start to take hold in the building material, which in turn enhances the material’s durability.

The Potential of 3D Printing Living Materials

It’s easy to envision this technology evolving into an application for earth sheltering and/or earth structuring in AC. Earth sheltering is any building method that involves creating a structure partially underground, organically leveraging the soil as insulation. Earth structuring is similar, but involves using soil, or a mixture of soil plus other organic matter (such as cob), for roofs and walls. Either way, the purpose is to use natural building materials to control the structure’s interior temperature.

Sustainability is often touted as one of the main advantages of AC, and it certainly seems to have potential to be more sustainable than conventional industrial building methods. That is especially true given the low bar that the construction sector has set in that regard. However, the reason the bar is set that low in the first place has more to do with the outrageous carbon footprint of conventional construction materials, especially concrete, than it does with any other factor. Thus, in order for AC to live up to its potential as a tool for sustainability, the sector will have to quickly get serious about organic materials.

The best part about projects like “To Grow A Building” (it’s hard to imagine this not turning into a startup of the same name) is the emphasis on the need to combine emerging technologies with renewable materials. The alternative is for emerging technologies to gradually lead to more technologically sophisticated versions of the same old way of doing things.

Images courtesy of Design Boom

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