Designers try building an eco-friendly house by 3-D printing bricks and tiles

These days, people are using 3-D printing to produce everything from shoes to human organs. The Bay Area-based architect-designer-artist team of Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello are thinking about 3-D printing on a much larger scale.

The duo’s Emerging Objects studio on the University of California, Berkeley campus is experimenting with that technology with a view to building homes and work spaces out of a range of organic materials like sand and coffee grounds. One of the projects Rael and San Fratello are dreaming up is a 3-D-printed, solar-powered mobile unit using clay.

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“All over the world there are materials that can be found locally that can make buildings,” San Fratello says. “If we can take this technology to a particular place, the people building in that area could work in collaboration with the machine to design for local contexts using local materials,” Rael says.

In addition to using eco-friendly building materials, 3-D printing allows for mass customization and more complex structures. “Can we print the insulation into a building component?” Rael says. “Can we allow it to passively cool a space? Can it last longer because it resists seismic loads? So that the building can contribute rather than deplete resources.”

Rael and San Fratello see their work on the frontiers of 3-D printing as an extension of what they’ve always been doing: designing things, integrating technology and thinking about traditions and materials. “3-D printing just happens to be one of the tools we use,” Rael says. “It could have been a hammer. It could have been a saw. It just happens to be a printer.”

This report originally appeared on PBS member station KQED. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.