Your house comes out of the printer

As a lifestyle magazine, Classy Dubai of course has many managers of German and international technology companies among its readers. In our meetings we have observed how the subject of additive manufacturing and 3D printing, which actually sounds highly technical and industrial, has so far been subtly taken up and is now becoming increasingly important in our everyday lives. The Dubai Health Authority, for example, will regulate standards for the use of 3D technology in the healthcare sector, as dental prostheses and hearing aids are to be produced by 3D printing in the future. 

In this interview with architect James Law, we want to take you for a look behind the scenes. All of our readers live in a house and are more or less satisfied with the quality of the construction and maintenance condition. But, what will your house look like in the near future? How do you convey your ideas to the architect and how will they be created?

The ruler of Dubai has initiated a program stipulating that 25% of houses are to be produced via 3D printing by 2025. Simply put, buildings will be ‘printed’ in the future.


Is this technology also a development for you as a designer, architect and cybertechnologist? Or is it just a matter of optimising costs?

This will change the whole architecture and building industry. We are just in the start-up phase of that now. Let me explain to you why. Currently, how we build our buildings is very inefficient, costly; and involves a lot of risk and manpower. This has to change, as we cannot afford structures like this in the future – it is not sustainable. If you look at other industries, like the automotive industry or aircraft industry; they can build many, many planes, create many products - very quickly in a factory using technology and machines. The same applies to a building, the way we pour concrete into a mould is ‘man-made additive manufacturing’. However, the new additive manufacturing will be ‘printed additive manufacturing’. You will have a robot with an arm and they will be combining a new kind of concrete mix which will harden straight away. You can create a building with walls straight away by pumping it out from a robot arm. This will be faster, more efficient and less wasteful. Additive manufacturing allows us to do things at a higher accuracy because the arm is computer controlled, it's down to one nano millimetre and you use less human labour force. This is also important because human labour is expensive and last but not least, people are a risk on site.


Additive manufacturing will transform our architecture. In fact it is not just about completing the building and then people move in; additive printing can continue over the lifetime of the building. So, let's say you build a building in the city and you build ten floors first and then these ten floors are occupied. Five years down the road that building needs to expand. How do you extend an existing building? If you build with Additive Manufacturing you can continue the printing/building process quite easily. When you continue, you are not restricted by the design of the building. It's like a tree bringing out a new branch, you can adapt to the needs in five years’ time. Let's say, your building was quite large at the base and you need to change it into two smaller towers at the top. With additive printing on the building you can actually keep printing out the two towers on the top without affecting the bottom section. Additionally, you can change the size and shape of each apartment or office. You can reflect what is needed at the time.


Another aspect, additive printing can help in repairing a building. Normally, if you have a crack in the concrete in existing buildings it's very hard to fix. You need to have workers there and to do a lot of hand-crafted work. With additive printing you go in there, you print the concrete back inside the crack or you can add some extra concrete on top. Everything is possible.


Construction will be more like growing a building. It will not be the construction that we know today, like fabrication. Actually the building will be first ‘born’ from the ground up; but over time it will change - it will grow, it will modify and it will reflect the changing nature of the city and of life. And this is going to change architecture, radically. Because if you see the architecture today, it’s like the first generation of smart phones. You buy one and it has only 12 apps and it's good for that day because you can do the basic things. But it's not enough for the new generation. The new generation needs to download apps, needs to have more functions. Then your phone becomes a camera, and your phone becomes a GPS and your phone becomes like a TV and your phone becomes a game – architecture will be like this. (James points to his famous building, which is located directly on the bank of the canal in Business Bay.) “Today the architecture is - like if you take The Pad (link) - just a residential building. If you take the Burj Khalifa. It's a hotel and office building. But later you may have to change that. And with additive construction there is a much bigger potential for us to grow and mature buildings and change its personality and its function, as the time changes. 


Do you imagine that building materials will also change? That we can move away from traditional concrete because many people criticize it. Must or can we find other materials?

Yes, definitely. In fact printing concrete is actually probably the least high-tech way. If you are looking at other industries, they're printing steel, they're printing titanium, they're printing aluminium and they’re printing plastic of course, because it's an easy one. So printing concrete is actually a little bit like using new technology but using old material. 


I believe there will be new kinds of materials for buildings. For example I am working on some buildings which are made out of aluminium. The good thing about aluminium is that it's light and it's high-quality and it's recyclable. If we put that into additive as well, it means that we can manipulate the material to create everything - from the wall, to the furniture, to the door, everything can be printed. And we don't need to have different materials. This is definitely opening up a lot of opportunities. I think in the future there will be more buildings made out of aluminium and that there will be more buildings made out of plastic as well. I believe there you can mix concrete with plastic and you can have different performing materials for different functions. For example when we are printing a high-rise building the columns and the structure will be printed by using a kind of material similar to concrete, but when we print the skin of the building we can use even lighter materials like aluminium or other kinds of new high tech material that is better for performing this.


I guess you can play more with your fantasy and do a lot more than you can do today. Because nowadays you need craftsmanship to make beautiful facades, for example?

Yes you are right. Actually we will come full circle when it comes to design. So now when we're gonna build a new building, a lot of it is using standard parts because they are cheaper and we can find them in a catalogue, put them in the building. That is restricting some of our creativity. But we have to do this. Many years ago every building was made by craftsmen, so the craftsman could really do a lot of unique things. Now we can go full circle, back to that kind of craftsmanship because the additive printing robot is actually a craftsman. If you draw in a computer, it's the same for the robot whether he is printing a straight wall or a wall with a lot of details on it. And so, I think architecture will come back to something which is much more detailed, much more expressive, because in fact the craftsmanship is embodied with extra costs or with extra time in the technology. There will be another renaissance in that kind of design.


When we look at things like the work of Gaudi – no one can build a building like Gaudi. But in the future Gaudi-like buildings can be built like traditional buildings through additive construction everywhere, as fast as we can see. If you want to have a Gaudi building to appear here, you can. It's easy. You use basically the same file which is applied there, you can have the White House, you can have Big Ben and you can have the Taj Mahal.


There is another interesting point about additive manufacturing. There is probably going to be a big change in how you as a user want your building. For example, when you're looking for an apartment or house you go around. You look at the buildings and you think “This layout is better for me. That one is not so good...“ In the future it won't be like this. In the future you do it on the computer because every building will be printed. The data for the designs is all in a massive internet database and you have algorithms that has analysed all of these data to say which apartment has the most sunshine, which one has a happiness index, which one has the most beautiful view, which one is most feminine, which one is good for couples. So that data is already inside and then when you chose, the system will help you. You will find out, like for example from your own data, like what apartments you have lived in, how you lived, what you liked. It will find the closest optimum building for you in the future to live in. So the additive part is not just construction, it's about digitalization of the actual architecture and the building. And that data comes full circle back in the embedded database that you can learn so much from, whether it's to choose the place to live or to manage a place or to plan a place. You can see a building like in New York and you want to have something similar here in Dubai - how do you find it? It's impossible right now. But through this data base it can be printed and you can find the data in the data base. It's a kind of customization without doing your own building, but it's finding something that is really a fit. 


Cybertect James Law in front of his lean building "The Pad" in Dubai, Business Bay.

You are the man who not only creates a building. You as the “cybertect” are also the one trying to adapt what people expect from the inside of a building...

Additive technology has recently changed us a lot. A few months ago a gentlemen left our employment and his desk was left empty. And I was left the choice, do I employ a new staff member to cover his workload or do I try to change my organization - so that we can adapt and upgrade ourselves for a better performance in the context of today.

Finally for the salary that I was paying him, I took that money and I bought a very powerful 3D printer and placed it on his desk. 

Symbolically and also deliberately to show my other colleagues we are in a changing world. Now in any business or company or process, human beings are starting to work on machines. When I put the 3D printer there I networked it to every computer in our office and I asked the supplier of the 3D printing company to come and teach everyone how to use it, what software to use and all this. Once everybody learnt, I said to them, “We need to adapt the way we work using additive technology.” Where in the old days we had to make ten drawings and then show them to the client, now we take away that process and we do this thing, we call it 3D sketching. So the idea that we have is not wasting time to do drawings. If you have an idea you model it in the computer and we print it. And this printer is working 24 hours a day. 

When we leave, the printer is still printing, printing, printing. And when we come in the morning the objects are ready. We take these objects to the meeting and we show them to the client. The clients are like very receptive: “This is what we want.” It is easier for them to make a decision better and faster. By being faster and smarter with the decision it saves us work. Normally we show them some drawings and they are worried - what about the back, what about the front, what does it look like from different angles. Then we have to go back, my team has to do another round of work and going back to the client and so on. But now we give them the object and it's very exciting because we have an exciting design. When people see a 3 D design, they see the novelty behind it. So now in our office one of our key staff members is not a person, it's a machine. And for the price of one month’s salary. I am getting a staff member - a robot that will work 24 hours a day without complaining (laughing), always listens to the other colleagues, always is willing to follow their instructions and helps us to be upgraded to the next level.  


Does this mean that your employees have more time for creativity?

Several things impact on the business. One is by being faster, then we can do more. So that helps in revenue. By being faster and smarter we maybe help our margins. But the third thing is – and very important - is it injects a kind of creative adrenalin into the whole organization. It's a new tool. It's a new repertoire that people can play with and this one, I think, makes people more creative. The fourth factor overall is the way which we have an idea and we use to make it real. You used to have ten steps to get there, now it's becoming five steps. But only for the organizations who can use the technology the right way. We are learning coming from ten steps to seven steps, to become five steps and stay in touch with these trends. Design is like that. Designers want the ideas to become real in the most beautiful way, as fast as possible. I think we will get this with this kind of technology. 

One example for the end. I'm helping friends to design a house in the Caribbean. Previously I showed them the computer rendering. Before I left the UAE I asked my colleagues to print out a model of the house and put it in my hand luggage. You can open up the house and you can see the furniture inside and the rooms, the basement, the staircase. For them, as they're no architects, no contractors, they now have an object that explains everything. It's very useful.


Thank you for the interview.


Photos: (c) Paule Knete


More information

James Law Cybertecture

James Law Facebook

James Law Instagram

The Pad, Dubai Business Bay

James Law and OPod Housing on German TV "Galileo"

James Law on Classy Dubai