SULSA and Vickers Wellington: When will we print a building?

By October 24, 2011blog
Machine-printed SULSA aircraft

The recently developed Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA) offers a glimpse of a revolution in design, fabrication and material science that will alter architecture as dramatically as the blast furnace, elevator and finite analysis did 150 years ago.

Machine-printed SULSA aircraftMachine-printed SULSA: form is digitally optimized free of manufacturing constraints.

The SULSA team noted that they had been inspired by the Vickers Wellington, a WWII bomber of British design that used a labor-intensive geodetic structure for its airframe. But for the SULSA, this optimized structure carries no manufacturing penalty: one doesn’t worry whether there are too many lines or circles being sent to the laser printer.

The Wellington BomberThe Wellington Bomber: consideration of its inventive, lightweight structure was dominated by the material constraints of incredibly labor-intensive assembly.

While a perfect solution for aeronautical engineers, for architects, this new technology raises questions about Expression.

Architecture as we know it is dominated by a number of economic rules (steel is rolled in straight pieces; glass is made flat; there are many pieces that are be put together, etc.) against which all buildings are designed. Meaning comes from, among other things, the success with which these rules are exploited.

But when walls, for example, can be “printed” in container-sized panels, in any form, with integrated glass and structure, we’ll see many of our present experiments in architectural form as both fairly tame and generally crude in execution.

One needs only to look at typewriter-composed reports, Kodachrome slide shows or hand-drawn acetates on overhead projectors from forty years ago to understand what is coming to architecture and its existing practices.

As digital fabrication tools for buildings become more common & powerful, the creation of form will stem increasingly from a numbers-based paradigm as computational tools, unfettered by constraints in form or material, seek every optimization: economic, environmental, contextual relationship – any parameter can be included.

So, like chess players, airline transport pilots or even writers are finding, our ideas of creativity, problem solving and meaning will be challenged by our digital counterparts, and it will be the machines’ imagination for form, optimized in ways that will exceed our abilities, that will become the rule against which we judge (or reject) our notions of success.

Flat floors, desire for sunlight, and private property regulations are likely to remain constants; everything else will soon be up in the air.

(We will explore these and other digital themes in my Introduction to Building Information Modeling(BIM) seminar at NYU, January 20th & 21st)

Architectural Drawing: a script (the visual display of logical connections between algorithmic modules) used in the generation of complex formArchitectural Drawing: a script (the visual display of logical connections between algorithmic modules) used in the generation of complex form (courtesy Parametric Wood.)

Nendo Diamond Chair caught in the process of being madeFrom dust: a Nendo Diamond Chair caught in the process of being made (these photos are staged – in actual manufacturing, the form is printed in its entirety and then carefully excavated from the tub of unfused particles). A laser hardens a thin layer from the nylon medium (similar to the laser/toner operations in a printer), the table is lowered the thickness of the layer, and the next layer is “printed” in an additive process.

printed metal prototype of a pipe manifold with liquid latticeThis printed metal prototype of a pipe manifold is notable for making a fantastic HR Giger-esque optimization of the interstitial structure into an unremarkable technical achievement, as meaningful as a ball-bearing (or Duchamp’s urinal).

Herzog & de Meuron's Prada TokyoHerzog & de Meuron’s beautiful Prada Tokyo:
A hand-crafted glimpse of the machine-printed future.