3D printing technology has opened up new possibilities in sustainable housing and furniture design. Visionary architects and designers are now using this technology to create homes and furnishings that are not only beautiful but also environmentally friendly. From homes made of mud to furniture crafted from cacao waste, 3D printed structures are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with sustainable materials. In this article, we will take a closer look at some of the most innovative sustainable housing and furniture designs created and learn about the architects and designers behind them. We will also explore the benefits of using sustainable materials in 3D printing construction and design, and how these practices can help to reduce our impact on the planet. So, whether you’re a homeowner, designer, or simply interested in sustainable living, read on to learn more about the future of sustainable housing and furnishings through 3D printing technology.
Bonnie Hvillum cheerily describes the smell of her company’s new curtains as “a wet dog coming out of the sea”.
“I know that doesn’t sound great,” says the founder of Natural Material Studio. “But when the dog fully dries, the odour evaporates.”
Reassuringly, Hvillum’s curtains are not actually made from dog hair. They are crafted with a fabric called Alger – basically, reconstituted seaweed developed at her Copenhagen studio.
The prototype curtains were unveiled at the recent 3 Days of Design expo in the Danish capital, where they caused the best kind of stink.
Hvillum also uses innovative textiles made with charcoal, clay and collagen, but it was her Alger that stole the show. Now, she and her project partner, the trendy Danish design firm Frama, are tentatively discussing retail.
There is no shortage of talking points. For example, Hvillum says: “Alger also contains live algae, which contributes to pigmentation and gives the curtains a mould-like feel.”
The fabric comes in a range of fashionable neutral shades and, because it’s made from ‘live’ ingredients, no two pieces are alike.
“So far, people have responded well to the ‘organic’ look,” she says.
Hvillum began exploring alternative uses for seaweed during a research residency at Noma, Denmark’s most famous restaurant, where the plant is revered as an ingredient.
She cites a low-carbon manufacturing process and 100 per cent biodegradability as two more key benefits of the new curtains. One day, she hopes, a host of design companies will forage for special seaweed along windswept Scandinavian beaches.
But what will consumers make of the canine bouquet?
“People need to warm up to new materials,” Hvillum argues. “When we look at wood, we understand and trust it, even if we don’t know the exact type we’re looking at. With a brand-new material like Alger, we lack that understanding.”
She believes this is one reason we keep using all sorts of carbon-intensive materials in construction and in our homes.
Concrete, for example, requires huge amounts of energy to produce, and the end product is not easily recyclable. But high-performing, low-carbon alternatives have yet to find widespread acceptance, despite being in late-stage development.
At the university ETH Zurich, researchers are using mineral foam to make a concrete alternative with 70 percent less raw materials than is standard.
And in London, the design studio Newtab-22 is turning shell waste from the seafood industry into high-performing ‘stone’.
But neither product has so far been licensed by a company to be manufactured at scale.
South African architect Xavier Huyberechts says there’s a limit to how much innovation the construction sector can stomach when making large investments.
“My practice in Johannesburg [GLH Architects], is known for corporate buildings, and we made our name 20 years ago by introducing more sustainable elements into that space,” he says. “But for years now, to my great frustration, we haven’t been able to push the corporate world much further.”
Huyberechts reckons novel sustainable materials will take hold in the residential sector first, where passionate homeowners can act independently of boards and shareholders.
To demonstrate what is possible, he recently built an off-grid holiday home in the arid Free State region with his brother, also an architect.
The siblings balanced familiar eco features (solar panels, a water treatment facility) with an old-fashioned challenge: to construct the home using little more than the raw materials around them.
“We looked at techniques that worked tremendously well for centuries but fell out of favour post-industrialisation,” he says.
The home’s interior walls were built with compacted-earth bricks. The outer walls are either rammed earth or stone. There’s also a central, dome-topped room that was built with earth-filled sandbags.
“Sandbagging is fast, economical and super-strong,” says Huyberechts.
When made with modern equipment, traditional earthen bricks and rammed-earth walls are also surprisingly robust.
Best of all, says Huyberechts, is the home’s sense of place. “Aesthetically, it’s beautiful because the earth was sourced on site. There’s a perfect integration between the house and the reddish environment surrounding it.”
Could using old-school techniques and materials that are right in front of us be the answer to the building industry’s carbon problem? Huyberechts is not alone in thinking so.
In Ecuador, chocolate maker Muze is bankrolling a village for its workers made largely from 3D-printed cacao waste. Construction begins late this year
The Sydney-based architect at the helm of the project, Valentino Gareri, dubs it “poetic as well as practical”.
“Few people know that 80 per cent of the cacao fruit is wasted when making chocolate,” Gareri says. “Here, we are taking the bulk of the fruit, combining it with some resin and creating a material that can stand up to earthquakes.”
Gareri admits the buildings won’t be entirely made from cacao – there will also be timber skeletons to hold the panels in place. But he believes the project is worth taking seriously, not least because it redefines 3D printing, which usually involves plastic.
The Italian-born architect’s CV is certainly robust. “I first moved to Sydney in 2014 when I was working for Renzo Piano on the Barangaroo towers,” he says.
“Then I spent some time in New York with [Danish architect] Bjarke Ingels, but I returned to Australia a lot. When the pandemic hit, I decided to stay and set up my own company.”
In addition to the cacao project, Valentino Gareri Atelier is designing several housing developments in Australia, including a so-called ‘Spiral Village’ in Bellingen, on the mid-north coast of NSW.
The 200-resident village, also scheduled to begin construction late this year, features a nautilus-shaped layout and agricultural plantings that Gareri says will make it virtually carbon-neutral.
He is coy about the materials his team is using, although he says 3D printing will be involved.
“New materials are what will drive global architecture forward,” he says. “There is no doubt in my mind.”