December 7th, 2012
02:39 PM ET

Printing 3D Buildings: Five tenets of a new kind of architecture

Editor’s Note: Neri Oxman is a designer, architect, artist and founder of the Mediated Matter group at MIT’s Media Lab. See Oxman's full 30-minute profile this Sunday 2 P.M. E.T. only on CNN.

By Neri Oxman, Special to CNN

In the future we will print 3D bone tissue, grow living breathing chairs and construct buildings by hatching swarms of tiny robots. The future is closer than we think; in fact, versions of it are already present in our midst.

At the core of these visions lies the desire to potentiate our bodies and the things around us with an intelligence that will deepen the relationship between the objects we use and which we inhabit, and our environment: a Material Ecology.

A new model of the world has emerged over the past few decades: the World-as- Organism. This new model inspires a desire to instill intelligence into objects, buildings and cities. It is a model that stands in contrast to the paradigm of the Industrial Revolution, or the World-as-Machine.

While I believe that the new model will eventually become the new paradigm, it coexists for the time being with the old model: our minds are already at home with this new view of the world, but we still employ the building practices and design traditions that we inherited from the industrial era.

For instance, today’s buildings are made up of modular parts and components that are mass-produced and interchangeable. A furniture piece can easily be replaced by a ready-to-assemble kit of parts while a damaged tooth-root or bone can be replaced by the design of a titanium implant.

This model actually works in the same way that a machine does, where transposable parts make a whole. Awesome design machines have been created in this spirit such as composite cars, planes and steel buildings (Le Corbusier’s homage to modern industry by shaping Villa Savoye’s driveway using the exact turning radius of a 1927 Citroen comes to mind.)

But are these complex machines a true reflection of how Nature works? I do not think so. The new sensibility that views the world as an organism challenges us in completely new ways to propose innovative ways of making things. The World-as-Organism implies a continuous living system where the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts, and parts can grow into other parts. To paraphrase Goethe: "All is Leaf."

In this spirit, I attempt to characterize this shift by sketching a design credo in five tenets.

1. Growth over Assembly

In contrast to industrial production and the logic of assembly lines, Nature grows things. Think of your own bones and their smooth transition from solid to spongy tissue, from bone into tendons, ligaments and muscles.

Or consider the tree. It is made of a root system that transforms into a trunk that in turn unfolds into branches and leaves, flowers and fruit all by way of differentiating its cells and prescribing different functions to each entity: roots and trunk are structural support, leaves convert light into sugar, fruits give birth. We are learning from trees how to grow buildings.

We are considering the next generation of printers no longer just 3D, but 4D - in other words, in the future we will be able to print objects that will respond to their users, adapt to their environment and even grow over time after they have been printed.

2. Integration over Segregation

The typical facade of a building, like the typical body armor, is made up of discrete parts fulfilling distinct functions. Stiff materials provide a protective shell, soft materials provide comfort and insulation, and – in buildings – transparent materials provide connection to the environment. In contrast, human skin utilizes more or less constant material constituents for both barrier functions (small pores, thick skin on our backs) and filtering functions (large pores, thin skin on our face).

Barrier and filtering functions are integrated into a single material system that can at any point respond and adapt to its environment. Why should a building's skin be different? We are now considering ways of printing breathable building skins whose pores also contract and expand in relation to the environment.

3. Heterogeneity over Homogeneity

Industrial products are typically made up of a single material property or an assembly of several materials. Cars are made of sheet metal, airplanes of composites, and buildings of concrete and steel. In contrast, homogeneity is something you will never find in the natural world. Take the bone again. It is made up of calcium that varies its distribution according to the load exerted upon it. Inspired by the bone, we are exploring ways to control the spatial distribution of building materials, like concrete, to find intelligent form.

4. Difference over Repetition

Industrial products generated out of the machines that make them consist of repeatable parts with identical properties. In Nature, however, repetition exists only through variation and difference, and every cellular unit is unique: it is due to the bone’s variation of cellular organization that we can conceive of its repeatable elements. Comprehending difference enables us to design repetitive systems – like bone tissue – that can vary their properties according to environmental constraints. As a consequence of this new approach we will be able to design behavior rather than form.

5. Material is the New Software

Our ability to design and fabricate intelligent materials and objects will no longer depend on patching materials with electronics, but rather on our ability to turn material itself into software. Animal hair, a primary source of insulation, provides for a good example.

It responds to low temperatures by causing the hair to stand up, forming a heat-trapping layer above the skin. This sensing function is localized, distributed, and controlled by muscular tissue. It inspires us to embed material with distributed intelligence rather than attach it to an on-off switch.

Beauty Beyond Utility

Beauty is not Number 6 in the credo outlined above. It is the spirit that infuses life into everything.

By this I mean that there is more to printing bones or folding cars than the endorsement of sustainable design. Making things more efficient, faster and cheaper in time is not entirely the point here. Indeed, in most cases the search for utmost beauty will translate into creations of utmost efficiency, revealing the order of Nature.

I propose that learning from Nature, as understood by Leonardo Da Vinci (“… because in her [Nature’s] inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous”), will yield efficiency and sustainability as by-products. It is not a matter of surrendering truth to beauty in design: more often than not we find that they are inextricably linked.

Yes, there is more to the future than printing buildings or growing chairs. Rather, the future lies in questioning what an inhabitable structure is. When we consider printing concrete with variable density as in bones, we do not mean to do this simply to reproduce the same old buildings.

These technologies will enable us to create buildings that are entirely different than the ones that we inhabit today: buildings that will respond to all our physical, animal needs, and also to our spiritual needs. In other words, the aim of printing buildings is not a matter of pouring “new wine into old wineskins” but rather of re-conceiving the entire quest for creating habitat and expressing form.

New technologies will come of age, as has always been the case throughout history. 3D- printing will give way to 4D-printing and it, in turn, will be replaced by synthetic growth, and so on. To me, what will endure beyond the technology-of-the-day is the paradigm of the World-as-Organism. There is nothing new under the sun, stated Ecclesiasts.

Ancient civilizations also perceived the world as an organism. Yet there is newness under the sun: rather than mimicking Nature, we can now actually design Nature.

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Filed under: Architecture • Art • Design • Tech • The Next List • Thinkers • Uncategorized • Video
soundoff (82 Responses)
  1. In home Personal Training

    This lady is blowing my mind. I would love to see a building get grown by giant printers. A ton of jobs would be lost however a ton of higher paying jobs would also be created.

    April 6, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  2. Linen Manufacturers

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    March 13, 2014 at 12:35 am | Reply
  3. whitewaysystems55

    your blog is very nice i like it .

    February 5, 2014 at 4:47 am | Reply
  4. Build from my view

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    February 21, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  5. Dave

    Really this is NEW, I think because she is hot she is getting the press because she is a fruitcake. Her story is a little behind the curve. Several years ago we did a POC to use the technology to create Mega-objects. Think of creating the airframe for a new space shuttle or aircraft that is stronger, more durable, easier to maintain in just a few days. Instead of years. We could create a fleet of new shuttles for what we paid for ONE original and do it in a few months instead of 20 years. We could print a bridge in a week. Buildings on a scale never seen. And our technology was way cooler than a robot arm spitting out foam.

    January 9, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Reply
  6. Paradise

    Welcome to the Digital Era.
    Normal people would be able to produce identical copies of merchandise via a downloaded schematic. It could bring about a new age where a very small amount of people working could supply a very large population of people who wouldn't have to work to make these things. It could do away with the status quo of monetary gain and bring about a new era where an items value was based solely on its usefulness and not on its availability.
    Bit torrent sites would have a field day on distributing schematics which would likely inspire new ways of copy protecting legitimate copies.
    I hope to live long enough to see all this come to be.

    January 8, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  7. Flora

    what an inspiring and provocative way to think about the building blocks of men made environments.

    December 11, 2012 at 7:55 am | Reply
  8. JG

    This is the kind of an out-of-the-cement-box vision that will define the shape of things to come. Thanks for an interesting peek!

    December 11, 2012 at 1:18 am | Reply
  9. Tim

    Lofty and admirable goals but this is basically about a new construction technique. And new construction techniques are not meant to be solutions to the problems she is talking about. It's a perceived short cut, a kind of fool's gold that usually ends up causing more problems than it solves.

    December 10, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
  10. FLO

    Yes, this thinking has been around a long time....look up Landscape Architecture!

    December 10, 2012 at 10:20 am | Reply
  11. waterman

    Almost everything that happens at the media lab tends to be pure fluff. So far, this does not seem out of line with that.

    December 10, 2012 at 10:01 am | Reply
  12. waterman

    Not a single thing that was said in the interview had any substance to it (pun intended).

    December 10, 2012 at 9:59 am | Reply
  13. jonnyb123

    3D Printing on the Earth?? Psshshhhh last year's news...

    3D Printing a base on the MOON using lunar soil to form Concrete?!?!? Now that's COOL!!

    December 10, 2012 at 9:58 am | Reply
  14. Pete

    As long as real civil engineers certify the structural integrity and don't just leave it all to artists who only concern themselves with the looks.

    December 10, 2012 at 9:33 am | Reply
  15. Ed

    I don't see "printing" a building as being practical due to the sizes. The application in the video isn't "printing" a building as much as the application of robotics to replace manual labor. The mostly likely application will be to print architectural details to be included into a building. Current technology allow us to scan a worn piece of decor from an old building, and create a replacement. This allows for the preservation of architectural history that other wise would be too costly to replace.

    December 10, 2012 at 8:57 am | Reply
  16. Chris

    Can a 3D Printer print me a 3D Printer?

    December 10, 2012 at 8:51 am | Reply
    • Tanner

      I could see the Earth ending that way, with all of our natural resources going to create 3D printers.

      December 10, 2012 at 9:16 am | Reply
    • Silverio

      This technology has been around for half a billion years, it's called life.

      December 10, 2012 at 9:49 am | Reply
    • Merc

      Check out the RepRap project.

      The entire idea is that if you have one, you can print more....

      December 10, 2012 at 10:34 am | Reply
    • John Giger


      December 10, 2012 at 11:40 am | Reply
  17. Mike

    Some interesting thoughts, but some terrible analogies. Some of them seem to purposely mis-state organic processes. Sorry, using something for the sake of illustration only works if what you're saying has some passing resemblance to reality.

    Some of the concepts are certainly interesting, but simply saying what you mean is better than reaching for metaphors that make little sense.

    December 10, 2012 at 8:41 am | Reply
  18. catsnake

    She is SMOKIN' HOT and SMART! Wow.

    December 10, 2012 at 8:05 am | Reply
    • NooYawkah

      Yes, a hot architect/performance artist. I'd like a 3D model of her. btw, isn't this old technology? They've been doing 3D printing for a few years now. There's even a video on youtube of idiot Red Sox fans drooling over a model of Fenway Park with the real Fenway Park right behind them. Idiots. Hell yeah she's hot!

      December 10, 2012 at 8:13 am | Reply
    • Tatts

      If that's a problem for you, just put a bag over her C.V.

      December 10, 2012 at 11:39 am | Reply
    • Luis

      Agreed! Very hott!

      December 10, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Reply
    • Paradise

      If what she was saying is the future, you'll be able to print as many copies as you want of her.

      January 8, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  19. truthcaptain

    Reblogged this on truth captain.

    December 10, 2012 at 7:26 am | Reply
  20. oldman100

    she might gain some credibility if she bared her breasts. she'd gain credibility with me anyhow.

    December 10, 2012 at 7:20 am | Reply
  21. Richard Johnson

    Western Forms has been creating aluminum molds since 1962 that are used to mass produce concrete homes at the rate of one housing unit concrete shell per day using unskilled labor. Their industrialized process produces very low cost structures very quickly. Considering the world housing deficit is over 1 billion units, Western Forms aluminum forming systems provide a real solution to a present problem today.

    December 10, 2012 at 6:28 am | Reply
  22. Name*Ava

    I was fortunate to visit the Pompidou exhibition last spring in Paris. It was an amazing experience both intellectual and aesthetic.
    It was stimulating and incredibly creative. It gave a taste of what's to come.

    December 10, 2012 at 4:28 am | Reply
  23. JG

    Her work is interesting as it is astounding

    December 10, 2012 at 4:01 am | Reply
  24. will

    structural engineers and civil engineers are just the rejects who couldn't make it in electrical engineering.

    December 10, 2012 at 12:55 am | Reply
  25. Mywhistlebaby

    Is it me or doesn't she look like she needs to get laid?....haha

    December 9, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Reply
    • crazycatman

      It's just you. Now go back to playing WoW in your Mommy's basement and let the grownups talk.

      December 10, 2012 at 3:24 am | Reply
    • Lou Cypher

      It's not just her, they all look like that. And they need it. So quit typing and get to work.

      December 10, 2012 at 4:01 am | Reply
  26. enrico

    I believe Isaac Asimov mentioned the technique of building houses using a similar technique of injecting concrete into huge molds to make the entire structure. Maybe the molds of components of buildings could be printed and then used to cast the concrete or whatever materials composite materials.

    December 9, 2012 at 10:47 pm | Reply
  27. jay

    So basically she designs construction materials for the rich cultural elitist who fund her little operation so that you can build some fancy building for some rich guy in some important rich area. Momma must be so proud she is helping 1% of the population.

    December 9, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Reply
  28. noeone

    Awwww how romatic.

    December 9, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Reply
  29. noeone

    Awwwww how romantic.

    December 9, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Reply
  30. Caroline

    All you doubters, don't forget Einstein's quote, ""Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

    Here is an example of what manufacturing has learned from nature (they call it biomimicry):

    Lotus = Paint
    "The lotus flower is sort of like the sharkskin of dry land. The flower's micro-rough surface naturally repels dust and dirt particles, keeping its petals sparkling clean. If you've ever looked at a lotus leaf under a microscope, you've seen a sea of tiny nail-like protuberances that can fend off specks of dust. When water rolls over a lotus leaf, it collects anything on the surface, leaving a clean and healthy leaf behind."

    "A German company, Ispo, spent four years researching this phenomenon and has developed a paint with similar properties. The micro-rough surface of the paint pushes away dust and dirt, diminishing the need to wash the outside of a house."

    December 9, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  31. OverMyHead

    Neri Oxman, you are inscrutable. To quote Frasier Crane, " I wonder... what color is the sky in your world?". Let's bring it a little more down to earth, please.

    December 9, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
    • BMcGraw

      As an architecture student myself, I would like to point out that these upcoming advances in technology are not as absurd as you think. At one time, people thought it was impossible to fly, or have moving pictures, or go to the moon. With enough time and ingenuity, anything is possible. You don't scoff at scientists trying to come up with a cure for cancer, so why on earth would you scoff at architects trying to find better materials and methods? Each is trying to better their field, regardless of if it makes sense to you or not.

      December 10, 2012 at 2:28 am | Reply
    • The Eternal Satyr

      OverMyHead is right! Printing buildings is nothing new to those who've been following the work of Jacques Fresco and The Venus Project. This is the future of architecture. Might as well get used to it.

      December 10, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply
  32. Saman

    I came her to hear about this interesting topic and I fell in love with her, She as as beautiful as she is smart

    December 9, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  33. Chris

    As a structural engineering student, it's always interesting to listen to architects speak.

    And, in some cases – like this one – amusing.

    December 9, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Reply
    • AP

      shes on CNN and your not....and she probably doesnt care what you do. lol.

      December 10, 2012 at 2:14 am | Reply
    • Erik

      You're comment made my day. I agree. Nice to dream, but when it comes down to it, the 'structure' regardless of material or design has to stand.

      December 10, 2012 at 9:34 am | Reply
  34. BallSack

    She said a whole a bunch of nothing in this piece. Instead of talking about real engineering, she is babbling about "NATURE" and actually not telling me anything informative about new technology. I seriously learned nothing in this accept hearing a bunch of anecdotal crap. In fact I want to hear something new about design, the story about 3d printers that can actually print an entire highly complex bird clock with moving parts for example, where all pieces are printed and its fully functional upon completion, that is something that is amazing and informative, not this crap babble about absolutely nothing.

    December 9, 2012 at 6:20 pm | Reply
    • TexTeacher

      Exactly! A bunch of bla-bla. I bet she is personally involved with someone at CNN.

      December 10, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
    • NooYawkah

      Yeah, about half way through I realized she talks too much and says nothing. Plus, am I misrembering or do silkworms produce silk, not spiders?

      December 10, 2012 at 8:19 am | Reply
      • Headdesk

        You are correct, silkworm produce, silk, they do not produce spiders. Spiders, however, also produce silk, and spider silk is used in numerous products.

        December 10, 2012 at 10:16 am |
      • Headdesk

        You are correct, silkworms produce silk, they do not produce spiders. Spiders, however, also produce silk, and spider silk is used in numerous products.

        December 10, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Erik

      Towards the end of the segment I was thinking she would have us laying concrete out our backsides as we moved among scaffolds...

      December 10, 2012 at 9:36 am | Reply
  35. Nill

    hum, say, say, say Whhh-aaat? Nowammmsayn like duh duh dow dow dow dow

    December 9, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  36. sifornari

    There is a very good TED talk that is much more informative, in-depth, and fully brought to application than Neri's artistic creations (all due respect) regarding using silk and concrete with CNC machines.

    Link to youtube video of TED talk:

    original article:

    December 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  37. djhm81

    Reblogged this on DJHMcDonald and commented:

    December 9, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  38. jR82

    Interesting ideas about 3D technologies and how they might impact building practices. However if you take for example a FDM rapid prototype machine, how long will it take to grow a building. A fast FDM doing a 1x1x1 cube completes this in about an hour. 3D printing items is best utilized for the fast reiteration of ideas on the small scale. I would like to see a 3D print of my house. All I would need is a massive hard-drive a optical scanner and about 90 pounds of small silver stickers.

    December 9, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  39. Stephenson

    This is brilliant conceptually. Sure we're not even close to achieving it in such an integrated fashion as imagined here, and I'm inclined to think we'll be a long time getting there, but much of it might well be applied in bits and pieces, here and there, all around us right now.

    I have no doubt that printing a building using variable densities of concrete is doable right now. Printing windows, plumbing, electrical circuits, et., is certainly further off, but I don't see much in the way of doing that.

    Printing materials that are made from or integrated with biological components is a great avenue to start exploring right now. The potential is really quite amazing.

    December 9, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
    • Paradise

      Manufacturing in bio material sounds great until I think about my house getting a virus and dying.
      Though as far as end-of-world scenarios go, this would be cooler than robots taking over! "Rise of the Duplex's"!
      Or hearing that burglars have developed new techniques for break in like tickling doors until they LOL.
      I do support this concept though. I dearly want to be able to strangle my computer at times and get a living response.

      January 8, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  40. larry f

    Using nature as inspiration in design and building is not a new idea but I like where Ms Oxman is headed. Whether practical or not it's our job as humans to be curious, remain motivated and continue to look forward. Another thoughtful episode of Next List if only to make us think.

    December 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  41. Doodlebug2222

    Opps.. the mesh, the holigrams for the interior – a way of decorating that would be unique. A waterfall on your wall, or the forest.. something better than static non-moving ... things.

    December 9, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
  42. Doodlebug2222

    Alot of negativity here, but we have to keep thinking outside the box and exploring -everything- to see if there is any current or future potential in it.

    For example, I can see a day where holograms are used to decorate the interior of homes, and sure why not, the exterior of buildings. Maybe even not something separate from the building itself aiming up at it, but part of it.. maybe in a mesh.

    I remember when heated floors came out, and of course being able to collect sunlight and use the energy later. We need to touch and taste things – weigh them – decide what fits now, what might fit later..

    Technology has taught us alot about ourselves and led to communicating to and with the world in a way we never thought possible. Let the dreamers dream, because maybe some of what they are reaching for... they some day grasp.

    December 9, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  43. yawn

    Management material.

    December 9, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  44. BoredToTears

    I fell asleep 10 seconds in after thinking what an arrogant BS artist you are.

    Just as relevant – I see everything as inspired by snack food, in a neopocolyptic existence of self loathing and want. But unique in that I want it all to be for sale or to the benefit of ants – Nature's true architects.


    December 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • jo

      AGREED TO THE MAX....... hahaha thought the EXACT same thing..

      December 9, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Reply
  45. a famous brony

    I giggled when she said "the moon is the limit" because this is kind of the perfect system to build structures on mars.. using the frozen water and dust to make concrete, smelting down the iron, and fabricating facilities robotically before humans ever step foot on the planet.

    Interesting stuff, you first think "wow, this is silly and unpractical" but then you realize that pushing the boundaries of a technology is what evolves technology.

    December 9, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  46. MomWiz

    I read this because of the headline, but it didn't follow through! Reads like a college essay, although I'd be interested to see an example of something that could "grow after it's printed".

    December 9, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  47. Jr

    Sorry, I may have clicked the wrong link. Was this an advertisement or something? This woman clearly has some significant self-love going on. "Here's video of me looking at nature" "Here's video of me looking at an old church." "I see the world differently" Yeah, you see yourself as the center of it.

    December 9, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  48. Joe

    If you have enough confidence and good looks there is no limit to the nutty BS you can spout.

    December 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  49. cleareye1

    I guess this thinking has been around for a long time, in a crude form.

    December 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  50. gdoulaso

    Thanks for a very interesting and intellectual piece. Greatly appreciated!

    December 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply

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