Lecture: 3D printing houses: dream or reality?

23 June 2012

Architecture centre TOPOS Maastricht and NAiM/Bureau Europa organized in collaboration with FabLab South Limburg a lecture by 'stone alchemist' Enrico Dini.

Survey of the lecture by  ‘stone alchemist’ Enrico Dini

Everything’s ready, the seats,  the lectern, the microphone, the beamer and the various types of 3D printers: the Orca, the Ultimaker, the Felix and a rebuilt Shapercube that prints ceramics.  The Ultimaker, rebuilt into a chocolate printer, was brought along. Unfortunately it is too hot this summer night and the chocolate remains fluid.  

About seventy curious visitors  examine the exhibited objects and the printers that are printing various items. The printing of a mug starts as Frits Hoff begins his introduction of the history, the application and the potential of 2D and 3D printing from the perspective of his FabLab South Limburg. Great optimism, magnificent possibilities,  unprecedented implications. Several examples of applications are described, both private design and semi-industrial applications, for example for the car industry and the world of medicine. Frits Hoff shows for example the possibility of printing a new jaw after 3D scanning the old one, but also printing skin or a kidney will be possible in the near future.  

’Stone alchemist’ Enrico Dini tells in his lecture that he is the offspring of the Vespa family and that (technological) innovation is in his genes.  Dini, originally a robotics specialist, speaks about the origin of his 3D printer. He shows the prototypes and explains how he continued its development until he reached the scale his ‘house printer’ now has. Currently, he can ‘print’ computer operated shapes up to 9m long. He explains the process: a fluid glue substance that is squirted out of hundreds of small spouts layer by layer, binding a mixture of calcium and magnesium into a substance similar to Dolomite sandstone.  After the substance is hardened, the remaining sand is removed and you can see several objects with mostly organic shapes. His dreamt applications are making a cathedral such as La Sagrada Familia and restoring ecological structures by printing coral reefs, etc. Dini also sees possibilities – after further development – for large scale printing for social housing. 

Historically, technological innovation and architecture go hand in hand. This evening, for example, takes place in a building that clearly illustrates this: the Wiebenga hall, a century ago one of the first examples of a building of reinforced concrete, moulded on site. On this Architecture Day, the floor is to the architects. The first question addresses the application of the process with other resources. Will it in principle be possible to apply this principle in other contexts, for example for the quick production of refugee camps? More and more often these people appear to live ten years or longer in tents. Dini’s answer confirms this possibility, but also indicates that further research will be necessary to actually work with local materials. 

Then there is a question about the typology and content of the program, such as a thirst for the sacral – the classic creation of a collective by means of a cathedral. The answer shows that Dini is predominantly occupied with the technical process. He speaks passionately about how this technique can serve a social purpose, but relates less to the design, the pure architecture.

The following question concerns the lifespan of this material. Is it cradle2cradle? Will it make a truly sustainable contribution to the development of architecture and the built environment by merging back into ‘nature’ after its life course?  All ingredients are ecological and sustainable, the life span is still to be guessed and dependendent on the environmental factors. 

What is the role of the architect, now that self-production of objects and the optimization of production processes are within reach?  How can the design professionals in a different way relate to the end user? After the industrial revolution some speak about an information revolution with far-reaching democratizing and empancipating powers; here too the role of the architect is discussed.  Many of these questions, however, appear to come too soon.

Educator Frits Hoff answers that no substantial changes will have to be made in the designer curriculum. On the other hand a different mind frame will have to develop. People should be open to collaboration, also with disciplines that may not seem obvious, such as programmers or physicists. The designer will no longer be driven by shape, expression or signature, but seem to operate a little more in the background by designing a sort of toolbox or frame. Within that framework, the end user can appropriate a larger role without possibly generating esthetic or technical failures. This does, however, have far-reaching consequences for the copyright of, for example, formats and requires new revenue models.   

From a historic perspective we can explain a shift from the architectural issue and the discourse. The computer-generated organic shapes – the blob – that can be traced via  Kiesler, Gregg Lynn and a bureau NOX as an issue throughout the 20st century (form, shape, the series versus the generic, the diagonal to activate the user, etc.) could now become technical reality, but make room for a more open source way of designing with a participative role for the end user.  

Afterwards, over drinks, speculations circulate about where we are now on the expectancy curve. After all, each innovation is received with great enthusiasm because of its emancipating potential. The question whether there will or will not be a paradigm shift is still too early. One thing is certain: the audience is very diverse, inderdisciplinarity at its best. 

The 3D printer has finished printing the mug; it has an ear as a reference to the first mouse on which in 1997 a human ear was produced with gene technology...


Word of welcome by Bas van der Pol, TOPOS Maastricht
Introduction by Frits Hoff,  director FabLab South-Limburg
Lecture by Enrico Dini, director D-shape
Moderator: Saskia van Stein, NAiM/Bureau Europa

This event was organized by TOPOS Maastricht and NAiM/Bureau Europa in collaboration with FabLab South Limburg; it could be realized with the generous contributions of: 

Cement & Betoncentrum


Koninklijke Mosa 

Expert Meeting