A tiny start-up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, consisting of nine people and three robots, might be on its way to changing how the construction industry operates. Branch Technology, founded in 2015 by architect Platt Boyd, has come closer than anyone to bringing 3D-printed houses to the open market.
The company has come a long way in a very short time. Just three years ago, Boyd was a principal in a mid-size architecture firm. His projects—for government agencies and universities—were substantial, and he earned a good living designing them. But his entire career was spent navigating limitations: Tight budgets constrained the types of materials he could use, which in turn curtailed the ambition of what he could design. “Everything we did looked more or less like a box,” Boyd says.
At a certain point, he began to wonder whether 3-D printing might be able to change what was possible for rank-and-file architects like himself. In 2014, he quit his job. At the time, he had succeeded only in printing one small structure, a proof of concept that weighed half an ounce but could support 18 pounds of books. “That just showed me the power of this idea,” Boyd says. “We wanted to look at how things are made in the natural world on a cellular level, and take that strength, and beauty, and translate it into the world of construction.”
He continued to experiment, teaching himself code, hiring the right robotics experts and engineers, and building bigger, stronger prototypes. “When people from the National Science Foundation and M.I.T. started paying attention to us, that’s when we realized we were onto something,” he says.
When futurists wax dreamily on about all the wild and wonderful possibilities of 3-D printing, one tends to imagine a kind of magical, giant inkjet capable of spitting out whatever object you might desire on demand. But the reality is that most of the methods of 3-D printing now being developed are very inefficient for large-scale production. Whether they work by extruding plastic in stackable slices or by laser-printing using a photo polymer, they all have the same essential drawbacks: They build things slowly, layer by layer, and the device that does the building, the printer, always has to be larger than whatever it’s constructing, which puts a serious limitation on the scale of what’s being made.
Branch employs an entirely different method, a process it calls “cellular fabrication.” Materials are solidified in an open space by a huge robotic arm, which threads plastic that’s been reinforced with glass or carbon fibers into a kind of matrix. These matrices are incredibly strong; Branch builds wall panels out of them, which can then be shipped to a job site, fitted together, and finished with standard, economical construction materials such as concrete or brick.
The panels are light enough that they can be installed manually, instead of craned into place. The potential savings in terms of labor and materials is massive. But the upsides of this technology are not limited to economics. The flexibility to print twisted and torqued prefabricated panels could conceivably allow even architects with very modest budgets to design curvilinear, Zaha Hadid-esque structures without resorting to torturing steel or building plywood ribs.
At the Design Miami fair late last year, Branch demonstrated its technology in a collaboration with the major New York firm Shop Architects by constructing a giant, spider-like pavilion out of grids of carbon fiber-reinforced filament, setting a new record for the world’s largest 3D-printed pavilion.
While collaborations like these are impressive, the real test for Branch will be the completion of a fully-functional, load-bearing 3D-printed house. Rather than designing such a building themselves, the company last year launched a contest, inviting architects from around the world to send in plans based on their technology. They received 1,333 submissions from 97 countries. “The time and effort that went into this blew us away,” Boyd says.
Among the very first submissions was Curve Appeal, a sleek glass house die-cut into a curtain of concrete that, from certain angles, looks like a natural stone outcropping. Designed by the Chicago Office of WATG Architects, it quickly became the standard that all other submissions were held to. “At first we thought it was unbuildable, but that turned out to be part of its elegance,” Boyd says. “When one of our structural engineers studied it, he realized quickly that the whole structure was composed of short-span arches and was designed around our capabilities.”
The house is slated to be unveiled in mid-2018 in a major event on the Tennessee River site of Chattanooga Community College. Boyd expects the company will soon find ways of making its technology commercially available to architects and designers who, he hopes, will use it to stretch the limits of what’s currently possible. “That’s what’s really exciting,” he says. “The idea of democratizing design at this high level.”