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3D printing opens up sustainable housing opportunities

The use of 3D printing in sustainable construction in environments such as the outback is being investigated at UNSW Sydney

Dr Kate Dunn, from the UNSW Sydney School of Built Environment, is researching how robotics and digital fabrication, such as 3D printing, can lead to more sustainable construction.

“I want to build houses with robots and use materials from the [construction] site,” the architectural designer says.

“We’re looking at really traditional vernacular architecture [that uses local materials and traditional techniques], like mud-brick houses, adobe houses and sustainable materials like hemp.

“We’re researching how we can adapt some of those processes, but then optimise them using robotics and new technologies, such as large-scale 3D printing.”

In 2021, UNSW Sydney and Melbourne-based 3D-printing company Luyten signed a memorandum of understanding to research a project that spans rural and regional New South Wales, the Moon and Mars.

One of the most significant obstacles for building in remote areas is the cost associated with transporting machinery and materials.

“3D printing building components using site-specific materials is one way to circumvent this,” says Dunn.

“Computer scripts can direct the 3D printing of complex architectural structures made from materials, such as clay and soil.”

The project has begun at Fowlers Gap Arid Zone Research Station in western NSW.

Following an initial site visit, Dr Dunn and her team have begun testing the site material for feasibility: “How sticky it is, the clay and sand composition, the shrinkage and drying times, how well it adheres to itself for building, how well it holds its own shape.

“The materials out there are great – so you could potentially harvest straight from site and then build on-site,” she says.

The research looks at the effect of introducing fibres, such as hemp, straw and bamboo, to optimise the material for construction.

Luyten is developing a compact 3D printer able to print large-scale complex geometric structures and cope with rough terrain.

Its lightweight construction and robotic technologies make it ideal for transportation to remote areas as well as its built-in capability to produce designs of up to nine by 12 metres. The printer unfolds and fabrication can be undertaken autonomously via satellite.

These material and design processes will prove invaluable for addressing housing issues in remote Indigenous and fly-in-fly-out communities, those living in extreme climates, and working in disaster zones, such as earthquake-prone areas, says Dunn.

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