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The room with 260 million surfaces: 3D printed architecture is here


October 8, 2013

Two Swiss architects 3D print an intricate room in artificial sandstone containing 260 million surfaces
(Photo: Hansmeyer / Dillenburger)

Two Swiss architects 3D print an intricate room in artificial sandstone containing 260 million surfaces (Photo: Hansmeyer / Dillenburger)

Image Gallery (40 images)

Thinking big is apparently no challenge for architects Michael Hansmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger. They've created a 3D printed room using algorithms to design its intricate cathedral-like interior. Assembled from 64 massive separate sandstone parts printed out with a huge 3D printer, the room contains 260 million surfaces printed at a resolution of a tenth of a millimeter. The 11-ton room took a month to print but only a day to assemble. The fabrication methods the duo used to print the room will, they believe, open the door to printing architecture, freeing architects to create new unimaginable buildings and also restore old ones.

Hansmeyer and Dillenburger, both computational architects at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's architecture department in Zurich, wrote algorithms to completely design the complex geometry of the 16 square meter (170 sq ft) room . Dubbed "Digital Grotesque," their modern take on a medieval grotto was made with a new type of 3D printed sandstone, infused with a hardening resin to increase its structural stability. To print out the sandstone parts that made the room, the duo used a massive Voxeljet 3D printer, about the size of a large room. "It can print a single piece that weighs 12 tons, yet at a layer resolution of 0.13 millimeters," says Hansmeyer. "This combination of scale and resolution seemed unreal to us at first."

The scale of machines, high material costs and the structural weakness of 3D printed materials is the reason why architects have up to now used 3D printing technology only to make prototypes or small scale models. The sand-printing technology the duo employed finds use in industrial applications, but with the addition of their innovative methods, it can now be used to create huge prefabricated sandstone bricks strong enough to build with.

"The limiting factor for the project was no longer the size of the printable space, but instead the logistics of how to transport and assemble such large elements," Hansmeyer tells us. "Otherwise, it would have been impossible to build the entire project out of just 64 printed pieces."

The weight of each of the 64 printed elements was reduced by making them hollow and using an internal structural grid to give them stability. Additional constructional details to help the bricks align with each other and to make the room to solid as a whole were directly integrated into the bricks and printed too."We added truncated cones to allow for stable stacking and ensure alignment, and we created horizontal shafts through the elements to facilitate transport," Hansmeyer told us. "There was no need to use a different material or a different system."

A close up of the software generated geometries (Photo: Hansmeyer / Dillenburger)

"No cost for ornament. No cost for individuality..."

Before he printed the room, Hansmeyer fabricated a series of columns out of plastic. As 3D printing technology hadn’t matured to its current level, these columns were materialized as layered models. Each column is made of 2,700 laser-cut slices, 1 mm thick, assembled on top of each other. The 3.2-m (10-ft) high room is their first architectural high-resolution 3D print using the sandstone printing process. Both the 3D printed columns and room are incredibly detailed containing millions of surfaces. "Architectural details can reach the threshold of human perception," says the Digital Grotesque website.

They're impossible to draw or construct by hand, which meets Hansmeyer's goal of creating entirely new structures that defy imagination using customized algorithms. "What kind of forms could we design if we could free ourselves from our experience, from our education," Hansmeyer asked the audience in his TED talk last year. "What would these unseen forms look like?"

Abstracting natural cell division processes, the algorithms they created fold the surfaces of a single cube repeatedly to create intricate buildable forms. It takes the computer about 35 seconds to create a structure with 16 million surfaces, evolving both the overall form and the microscopic detail. Since it wasn't possible for existing CAD software to process the grotto's geometry containing 260 million surfaces, specialized algorithms were developed to convert it into printable data that was streamed layer by layer to the 3D printer.

Hansmeyer believes that the additive manufacturing process will open up a new role for architects as designers of processes to create structures, instead of designing structures and think in terms of bits rather than bricks. The project Hansmeyer says held quite a few surprises.

"One of the most astounding things is that it costs exactly as much to 3D print a plain box as it does to print the most elaborate form conceivable," says Hansmeyer. "Not only are the costs identical, but the amount of time required is the same as well. And it doesn't cost more to print a different form each time i.e. there are no advantages to standardization. The implications of this are huge. There is no longer a cost for complexity. No cost for ornament. No cost for individuality."

The duo’s vision is to now 3D print an entire house. Digital Grotesque is currently on display at the FRAC Centre in Orléans, France.

Check out a video on Digital Grotesque below.

Source: Digital Grotesque via Beautifuldecay

About the Author
Lakshmi Sandhana When Lakshmi first encountered pig's wings in a petri dish, she realized that writing about scientists and imagineers was the perfect way to live in an expanding mind bubble. Articles for Wired, BBC Online, New Scientist, The Economist and Fast Company soon followed. She's currently pursuing her dream of traveling from country to country to not only ferret out cool stories but also indulge outrageously in local street foods. When not working, you'll find her either buried nose deep in a fantasy novel or trying her hand at improvisational comedy. All articles by Lakshmi Sandhana

I imagine this would be a really good boon to the stage set industry. You could design intricate sets hopefully with less cost, and more speed?


il futuro è già arrivato!

Fulvio Crema

My personal, subjective and rude opinion: Not pretty. And while technologically impressive, it's actually kind of lame.

Even average stone masons have way more feel for shapes and expressions than whoever went crazy with his CAD software to make this thing.

And the "impossible to make by any other means" thing: Alright, we get it. 3D printers can do that. Now get over it. And no, bigger is not better.


this is brilliant and would love to see it up close and the production stages.

Graham HomeMaintenance


I believe the point was to generate extremely complex surfaces in an architectural setting. And bigger is better, if there is no significant loss of resolution. As most industries have yet to really embrace the significance of 3D printing, I think it is essentially required to pound it into people's heads until they realize "Wow, this is actually significant, and is changing the world". Sometimes a slightly different aspect of this changes peoples perspectives. Why don't we all live in Frank Lloyd Wright houses? Oh yeah, all that hand crafted customized brickwork (depending on which Wright home you want to replicate) required huge labor input. Hmm, maybe if I could design my brick pattern, and send it to my local architectural print shop, I could have whatever custom stonework I like. Would this have an impact on the architectural industry? I think so.

We are used to the constraints of mass production. It is infinitely more expensive today to make 1 off designs because making one of anything bears the entire design cost, and all of the tooling costs, and all the ...

3D printing enables a totally different different cost model. Mass production theoretically amortizes the entire production cost over a huge number of parts, eventually driving the end cost down to a small incremental amount above the bare material cost plus margin. Therefore all consumer goods MUST be mass produced to be economical.

These new technologies are extremely disruptive. Now you still have to amortize the cost of the 3D printer over its lifetime production, but consider the implications if I can now design a custom stone walkway that is curved. I don't need to start with rectangular blocks, cut them to fit, make compromises related to practicality. The current norms are all based on bending to the needs of the manufacturing process, and these emerging technologies will change EVERYTHING. I can't wait.


Transporting the result to site seems ridiculous. Transport the printer, and print on-site - now that makes sense.

Sandstone also seems silly. Here's a material that's both beautiful, and at least an order of magnitude stronger than concrete: " Composition for the production of artificial marble or granite ": Expired US Patent 5280051

Made, I must add, from ordinary sand too.


Just think! You could design the entire house room by room, adding things like cornices, shelves, alcoves, kitchen benches (just paint with epoxy for waterproofing and no dust) and all that fiddly stuff! The popular stone or marble-look would be there as you print!

The Skud

My first thought is that this technology would be fantastic to repair cathedrals or create some of those amazing intricate Hindi temples.

But that's just predicated on what these gentlemen created--the possibilities just seem limitless.

But I think the statement: "There is no longer a cost for complexity. No cost for ornament. No cost for individuality." WILL encourage architects, artists and designers to push some boundaries. Which is exciting despite BeWalt dour reaction.


Download a 3D scan of a famous room and line your loungeroom walls with it.


It looks like the main 'big head' room in the Prometheus film. The artist Giger could have a lot of fun with this!

Maybe they should think about painting it to give it more depth. A bit of gold leaf would make a lot of difference.


This has the potential to allow for rapid prototyping and construction of more stabilized buildings in earthquake-prone areas.


No one has mentioned the obvious - how long would it take to dust a room with this level of detail !!!


amazing!!! completely amazing


@ Leofingal - couldn't put it better myself!

Utterly stunning. Anything is possible with this technology.


Next step

3D printing AND adding color. We then can make wooden (look and feel alike) structures without cutting trees

Vincent Bevort

I like the concept, though this design is a little too H. R. Giger for me.

Doug Maidens
This mode of construction will quickly eliminate almost all other methods of building and displace tens of millions of workers in the US. Usually people fail to catch the entire concept. For example conduits for wire can be printed into the structure. Water supplies can be printed in as well. Items like toilets, cabinets and bath tubs can also be created by this process. It also goes without saying that a lot of smaller products like lamps or even fenders for a car can be printed. We need to prepare society for this type of sudden change. Jim Sadler

The age-old craft of the stonemason has now been replaced by technology. Sad, but the possibility to create sculptures of materials like reclaimed concrete will open up amazing new opportunities.


"And it doesn't cost more to print a different form each time i.e. there are no advantages to standardization".

It took them one month to print a single room, whereas with standardized elements an entire house can be built in a day -- the question is whether standardization is deemed to profit to a few or to the crowds.

Imagine a spherical house instead: no architecture needed, just a figure, i.e. the radius of the sphere!

A sphere can be built from stereotype polygonal bricks so simple that they can be injection-molded, with a typical cycle time of less than one minute per brick...

And consider the huge advantages of a sphere, such as the smallest surface of all volumes, several times greater stiffness at a fraction of the thickness versus a same-size plane surface, it's easy to make it rotate on top of a slim stem with almost no footprint, it only needs a single large window following the sun, and on arrival of a storm, it just turns it's back on it; plant the stem into a carrot-type foundation, make it telescopic to cope with vertical seismic waves, and allow for a ball joint at its basis for horizontal shaking; make the stem retractable for buoyancy of the sphere in case of flood... and once covered with vegetation, don't confuse this tree-house with a leaf-tree from a distance!

And, hey, why not print the whole ultra-light-weight sphere on a turntable to cancel all printer-head idling movements?

These young graduates should remember the IBM fellow status which generated two Nobel prizes near the very same city where they're living, i..e. combining the skills of a junior graduate with the wisdom of a senior scientist (BTW, I'm 71... and I've just started to build my revolutionary rotary-wing aircraft prototype).

Keep away from universities, my sons, or you'll get locked-up inside cathedrals built from government-formatted bricks of sterile knowledge -- as sterile a Higg's boson...


Quite an interior and some individuals will find such constructs with complex surface desirable over simple drywall or wood.

The material mentioned has a plastic binder, as does the one from christopher above making the material suitable for interiors only as the sun with rapidly weaken and degrade the pseudo granite/marble.

The creators (not the article reporter- strangely called an "author") are quoted saying ".........There is no longer a cost for complexity. No cost for ornament. No cost for individuality." Begs the question and is utterly false. Of course there will be costs to design and individualize such interiors along with the need for building engineers to vet. Don't believe me? Well computer art has freed up everyone from materials, and cost for media, paints, washes, brushes yet good art still requires artists and individualized art still requires arts collaborating with individuals.

An enjoyable article and helps show the range of 3D printing being done. Still not good enough resolution for a mold. Still unsuitable or usable for sand casting.


The design reminds me of a program called Mandelbulb. You can see examples on You Tube. It is a 3D version of Mandelbrot. I do find it a bit disturbing, but I don't know why.

the finish looks more like marble to me. Could plastic particles be used instead of sand? It would be much lighter.


Good example of Gauche, and for the same reason.

The extravagant styling of Gauche/Baroque architecture with no actual function looks like, and is created with the same unbalance as, cancerous tumors. Geiger is similar, and for the same reason; he is aiming for a look, not proper bio-kinetics.

That flourishing of style over beauty, form or integrity is evidence that the designer is correct; detail and customization are no-cost, because that is what leads to that unbalance. In tumors, the growth is costly, but the cells don't know any better.

The same thing occurred in Medieval European cathedrals, as often occurs in many religious buildings, because the devotees work essentially for free. And once the roof is up, what's really left to do but add facade and color? Notice, for example, that the 'room' in the article doesn't seem to have a roof, even though that's the essential defining function of a room!

Tommy Maq

There is no longer a cost for complexity. No cost for ornament. No cost for individuality." Totally wrong . I'm guessing that it would cost far more to print a simple block than make one and take far longer . While this would be good for one off items it would still be far more expensive than mass produced products . It's a good technology that's going produce cool stuff just not cheaply or for most people . If they wanted to do a cool demo like this why didn't they actually design something themselves ? Why have the machine design something so darn ugly .


I think this is a terrific start. If you have read the recent articles of the dual 3D cameras that are capable of exactly matching Van Gogh's, Remabrants, or Renoir's paintings, even the original pigment colors you can imagine using those Camera's to connect to a CAD and 3D printer to exactly replicate pricelss sculptures or take the liberty to add architecture and enhanced settings around these sculptures or modern art design in various different mediums.

Could use powdered marble, sandstone, various metals or even precious metals as accents for a modern replication. Obviously, had sanding, finishing and tweaking and/or painting could be an exciting application especially for the affluent. Those of us whom are not "walking banks" there are likewise benefits for smaller versions.

Love this medium and new exciting technology...very nice work folks. Keep on moving forward and pressing the envelopes of creativity and design.


Granted the demonstration piece is fugly but it would allow for construction of baroque architecture without breaking the bank.


Impressive technology: 3D printing is spectacular and this is just the beginning. Print a new femur, anybody? But I agree with posters who found it too Giger-like. Surely there's a more aesthetic way of demonstrating you can print 260 million faces than making something that looks like you've been swallowed by a monster. Yuck! I too file this in the "Just because you can..." Dept. Now if they want to print a giant size interior of a cell...or a room-size chambered nautilus-like dwelling, anything in fact more pleasing than this nightmare of gothic vomitus, I'd be more impressed.


I think there is still a misconception among 2/3 of the comments. It isn't about what you can do today, but what the implications of this for tomorrow. Obviously the time per cubic meter of material is higher for this than injection molding, but that is because this is the infancy of the technology. Over time, this technology will become faster, more accurate, and more flexible. People are often blinded by the near term shortcomings, and not see the future coming. Give it time, eventually everyone will have a multi-material fast 3D printer, and it will be relatively indistinguishable from "replicators".

Does anyone remember when decent desktop printers started becoming available in the 80s? They were slow, and low grade, and like $500. Now, you can buy a laser printer for under $100 with print quality like a printing press, but not have to print the same page over and over again to get economy of scale. In fact, you can buy a print on demand book for the same price as a book printed by a major publishing house, and they will deliver it to your door. There is no significant difference in cost between a one-off print job and a print job of 1,000,000 copies. That kind of technology shift is disruptive.

Right now the resolution is not as good as injection molding, but when it is, you have to ask if it makes sense to make a hugely expensive injection molding system and custom dies (not cheap by the way) to make something that costs the same as something you can print from a $300 desktop printer. There will still be mass produced items, but the benefit to the universe is the ability to make 1 or 50 of something, and not require 1-5,000,000 iterations before the cost per unit becomes palatable.

I personally work for a company which builds between 20 and 50 precision instruments in a year. We have no economy of scale because you don't get to amortize the cost of customization over a large number of units. It would never pay off to make custom molds, and we never achieve the economy of scale that our customers have in all their high volume processes. There are many companies like ours out there where the ability to manufacture something in 20 hours that could be used in production would be a huge savings over buying a custom set-up on a 5 axis machine tool and paying for all the set-up time and machining time, plus the material that was turned into chips, oh and takes 10 weeks to get to my facility...

This is a revolution, whether people recognize it or not. I know most readers here buy consumer goods, but there are a lot of small volume manufacturers out there and this is going to change everything.


Methinks Gaudi would have found this method much to his liking. And the cathedral would have been completed decades ago.

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