Download, print, build your Martian home in 24 hours

  • 16 September 2014
  • From the section Business
3D printing houses on the surface of the Moon using concrete made from the lunar surface Image copyright Contour Crafting
Image caption If you build it: The Contour Crafter could 3D print housing on the surface of the Moon using concrete made from lunar rock

Imagine opening the curtains in the morning and instead of grey skies and rain, looking out at a rust-coloured rocky panorama.

The year is 2045. You have woken up on Mars.

If you build it

Colonising Mars could happen sooner than you think. Elon Musk plans to build a city there. Nasa wants to send people by 2035. Then there's the Mars One mission, Big Brother for the slightly suicidal.

Image copyright contour crafting
Image caption Dr Behrokh Khoshnevis wants to build customisable houses cheaply - and fast

But before we indulge in Total Recall-esque fantasies, it's important to note that building a Martian settlement is a massively ambitious undertaking.

"Taking one kilogram of material like brick to the moon or other planets costs between $100,000 to $200,000 [£61,000 to £122,000]," says Dr Behrokh Khoshnevis of the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering.

"So thinking about creating lunar bases and Martian bases, you should really come up with ways of building huts with the material that is there."

Which is precisely what he is working on for Nasa.

Dr Khoshnevis is the man behind a construction technology called Contour Crafting. It involves effectively 3D printing concrete buildings, layer by layer, using a giant robotic printer, in as little as 24 hours.

Image copyright contour crafting
Image caption The printer works on prototype lunar project buildings
Image copyright Contour crafting
Image caption Where the heart is: Is this the shape of Martian or lunar housing of the future?

Beyond a Martian pied a terre, the technology will have more prosaic applications, building homes here on earth.

The Contour Crafter can print both straight and wavy lines, with walls designed with an internal cavity system for insulation and extra strength. The building can be printed to incorporate necessary utilities.

Dr Khoshnevis says the first uses for this type of construction are likely to be in emerging markets, where there's a high demand for quick, cheap and safe housing, as well as emergency disaster accommodation.

In developed countries, adoption could be slower.

"[It took many years] before [the jet engine] was used ... for commercial airliners. And many years for non-commercial airliners. They wouldn't allow it because of it being dangerous, too dangerous, it produced too much noise and a lot of other concerns. But eventually it took place," he says.

The technology has limits - it won't be replacing materials such as glass, steel or wood anytime soon.

"[But if] you can build cheaper, faster, and better with the cementitious material approach, there will be less demand for wood," says Dr Khoshnevis.

"So it is not going to make everything in construction obsolete, but certain kinds of buildings will be definitely built this way and not with the old method."

Image copyright contour crafting
Image caption Despite being "printed", the walls built by the Contour Crafter are over three times as strong as an ordinary wall
Image copyright contour crafting
Image caption You will be able to choose/design your dream home, download the CAD (computer assisted design) file, and then build it using this robotic printer
Image copyright contour crafting
Image caption How the Contour Crafter works

Build it yourself

Can't wait for the Contour Crafter to print off your dream house?

Not to worry. The Wikihouse project provides free downloadable plans for your very own DIY home - yours for less than £50,000, and built in a matter of days.

Image caption Wikihouse co-designer Sarah Gold: "The idea is that anyone can build this"

"Wikihouse is a construction system that is digitally manufactured," says Wikihouse and 00 design studio designer Sarah Gold.

"You have essentially a sheet material that's CNC [computer numerical control] cut and milled, brought to site and put together with a peg system.

"So you don't need any traditional construction skills to be able to put the mainframes up. We construct the frames, raise them, peg it together and then you start to assemble your insulation membrane."

The modular system is open source, and released under a creative commons license.

Image copyright Margaux Carron
Image caption The WikiHouse is open to the public during the London Design Festival, at the Building Centre in the West End
Image copyright Margaux Carron
Image caption The building uses a low-voltage DC lighting and power system, with USB, ethernet and cigarette lighter ports
Image copyright Margaux Carron
Image caption Wikihouse estimates that it is possible to build your own 2 bed/75m2 house for under £50,000

Wikihouse 4.0 is a two-story dwelling, and apparently the first open-source digitally cut house that is fully inhabitable. A concept house has been built for the London Design Festival, in cooperation with the Building Centre and construction services company Arup.

Image caption A DC cigarette lighter port used as a power socket

Arup's involvement includes a smart home system that can be controlled from your phone, low power DC electrics and smart LED lighting.

The ventilation system, designed by David Polson of Arup, is constructed from 3D printed parts (made with a printer that Mr Polson printed and built himself) and old beer cans.

"You get people's imaginations going about what this could be used for, because it's quite disruptive in ... how quickly you can put these structures together, also the cost of them," he says.

"It's lowering the time and skills needed to put it together. It's lowering the threshold to construction and being able to make things yourself."

Co-founder Alastair Parvin says the idea for Wikihouse grew initially from the housing crisis.

"The first angle was about housing, about asking why a developed, quite wealthy country, has such a bad housing crisis, not just in terms of quantity but also in terms of quality."

Image caption Wikihouse co-founder Alastair Parvin on the roof of the concept house in London's Store Street

He and his co-founders began to wonder what impact technology like the internet and digital manufacturing could have.

"This quote we used to love using a lot is John Maynard Keynes, "It is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits."

"That's the revolution we've seen across the web over the last few years, the power of YouTube to take us from consumers of films into producers of films, the power of Wikipedia to go from consumers of knowledge to produce knowledge, and all that's happening now with things like 3D printing, the same disruption is moving into the real world."

Lewis Blackwell of the Building Centre agrees that until recently the construction industry has escaped this type of upheaval, but that's changing.

"It's a beginning perhaps of an unpicking of the professional structures in the industry," he says,

"It starts to demystify the industry, it maybe ups the expectation of what you want from a professional person because actually you can do more yourself."

Image copyright Margaux Carron
Image caption The house is engineered to slot together without the need for screws
Image copyright Wikihouse
Image caption The plans are downloaded for use with a CNC machine - you can take them to a CNC centre to have them cut

Grand designs

If speed is not the issue and a more sophisticated design ethic a priority then Paperhouses could be for you.

The open source platform is currently registering users, before launching a series of downloadable design sets by top architects. The plans can be customised to taste and are also free.

The difference here is that unless you're a professional, you're unlikely to be able to build these yourself.

Image copyright PAperhouses
Image caption The Folk House is a design by Spora architects - you can customise the blueprints and download them for free from Paperhouses
Image copyright PAperhouses
Image caption Be the envy of your waterlogged neighbours with this floating house for building on the flood plain by architect Carl Turner, which will be featured on the site in October

The start-up plans to link users with local building contractors.

"The site will be a forum where initially you can share ideas and in the future you will be able to manipulate models," says Paperhouses's Joana Pacheco.

"More than customised, which speaks to a modular language, these projects are open to iteration. The ideas are available in a non-proprietary way and sharing is the ultimate goal of the project.

"One can share ideas online or share actual built prototypes."

The project has met with some opposition.

"Architects have very strong positions on the issue," says Ms Pacheco.

"While some embraced the idea in a heartbeat, others felt this project discredited their art and profession.

"The support for the idea has not been a matter of how old or young the architects are, how large or small their practices are, but rather how receptive they are to the idea that their work is open."

Ms Pacheco remains undaunted however.

"Consider for a second the leap forward that happened with the printing press and later digital media - and imagine the creative explosion that can begin when the actual body of work is interactive and has unlimited memory."

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