Interview: Michele Pasca di Magliano – Zaha Hadid’s 3D printing evolution

Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) is planning to scale up its involvement in 3D printing, possibly by building a pavilion or large interior installation. Stephen Cousins spoke to senior associate Michele Pasca di Magliano about the plan and future prospects for the technology.

Where is ZHA on its 3D printing journey?

We have been using 3D printing machines for around 10 years now, so they are just another piece of office equipment to us. About a year ago we set up our own in-house 3D printing shop, with several large machines we have used to print small components, such as door handles, a chair, lamp shades and other pieces of furniture. However, the machines are limited in size and we are now looking at how we can take it to the next level.

What will that involve?

We are thinking about how to develop a small-scale building installation, maybe a pavilion or an interior application. It’s just a matter of identifying the right project and finding the right partners to take it forward. It will be a project designed to exemplify the potential of the technology, and its difference from other forms of construction.

There will be a lot of testing involved, 3D printed material is currently not strong enough or durable enough. However, we know that high levels of quality can be achieved and high-quality 3D printed components have already been used as medical implants and it is possible to print metal alloys.

What do you see as the main benefits of 3D printing for construction?

The construction industry creates a lot of waste, and there are limitations in what you can achieve using existing construction products, especially creating the complex geometric structures ZHA designs.

With 3D printing construction costs are purely linked to the volume of material used, you just print the material you actually need and you don’t need to produce moulds. It also removes material transportation issues, packaging issues and breakages. A large amount of construction waste is associated with materials transportation, and packaging is often double the volume of the original product, which must be disposed of. 

What are the benefits of 3D printing for design?

There is a greater array of creative possibilities and the final appearance of buildings will be much closer to the original will of the designer, as it does away with traditional moulding techniques and there is no need to fold or bend materials.

The technology could enable a new level of customisation for the mass market. For example, housing developments today involve a huge amount of component repetition, mainly to reduce cost, but if you are printing on site from an accurate 3D model, every single unit can be customised in terms of views, orientations and other aspects, using only the material you need.

A 3D model of ZHA’s City of Dreams project in Macau

What are the technology’s limitations?

The size of the machines available at the moment mean it’s only possible to print relatively small components. Large-scale printers have been used in China to print actual houses, but the end product is appalling quality and not in any way acceptable under building standards.

To me, the process should be a componentised, using smaller-scale printers to create, for example, a panelling system for a ceiling or a light diffusing system that becomes part of the architecture of a building.

Another limitation is the testing and certification required to create a durable building structure or envelope, that’s why temporary or interior installation will be a more suitable starting point for us.

The logistics of 3D printing is also uncertain, as it is likely that people will still print off-site, to maintain consistency and quality in controlled conditions, then ship the prefabricated elements to site.

The insurance costs could also be prohibitively high given the unproven nature of the technology?

Precisely. To be able to certify a building facade developers will typically want an insurance level of 25-35 years but there is no 3D printing technology available now to deliver that. Printed components being used for medical implants are very robust, but cost many thousands of pounds each, so you can imagine the cost of covering several thousand square metres – it’s not economically viable yet.

Is 3D printing particularly suited to the complex curves and geometry seen in Zaha Hadid’s buildings?

In our every day work we face limitations related to the feasibility of the design and the repetition of shapes because no one wants the cost associated with building a hundred different curved panels. We developed a flexible mould system, using an adjustable bed and a series of pins to create a double curved surface, to avoid having to machine every mould. 3D printing would open up even more possibilities, reducing constraints on curvature radius and the number of perforations through a surface.

In addition, when designing a project with complex geometry and curvature, those pricing to build it will charge a premium just because of the shape and the need to rationalise it into individual repeatable components and assemblies to make the project feasible. 3D printing is just about volumes, it doesn’t need moulding or forming, so a straight wall and a curved wall of the same volume should have an identical cost.

Foster + Partners has been talking to the European Space Agency about the possibility of 3D printing structures on the moon, is that something ZHA would like to get involved with?

We’d be quite happy to 3D print buildings on Earth for now, and once we make it sustainable here we can start to look elsewhere. However, the idea of using moon dust to build structures is a very sensible one, which avoids the need to transport materials through space.

What are your plans for the future?

After our first large-scale project is completed we can start to have a conversation about whether the technology can be brought up to a whole new level. Apart from on a few iconic building projects, we still build in a similar way to 2000 years ago, 3D printing can bring a new level of experimentation and benefits to mass market housing and other mainstream projects. It’s a very exciting time to be involved.

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