Three-dimensional printing has proven useful at model scale, but what about at building scale? From 2011 to 2013, architectural designer Brian Peters tested the waters with Amsterdam-based Dus Architects on the groundbreaking 3D Print Canal House project and KamerMaker printer, which is cranking out room-size modules at 1:1 scale. Now an assistant professor at Kent State University and the founder of DesignLabWorkshop, in Kent, Ohio, Peters is tackling full-scale printing one clay brick at a time with a modified desktop 3D printer. Building Bytes is a project that goes beyond using new tools to make old products. Instead, it follows the additive logic of the printing path—rather than the conventional molding or extrusion process—to make bricks that are otherwise impractical or impossible to make.
On his conventional fused deposition modeling (FDM) printer, Peters replaced its plastic extrusion system, or print head, with an air-pressure nozzle that delivers a homemade liquid clay mixture stored in reusable plastic cartridges. Layer by layer, a brick emerges from a linear bead. Each brick takes about 15 to 20 minutes to print, a day to air dry, and then 12 hours to fire in a kiln at roughly 2,000 F. To date, Peters has designed and printed four types of bricks: honeycomb, interlocking, ribbed, and x-bricks. Like all craftsmen, he continues to finesse his work to account for the performance of the material in reality.
Behind the fabrication system is a backlog of trial-and-error encounters with wet clay and the machine. Peters experimented with numerous variables, including the rate of extrusion, clay viscosity, brick height, and the depth of overhang or the transition between layers, which affects stability and slumping during printing. He adjusted the ceramic recipe to have different drying times, shrinkage, and viscosity. “It has to be able to print smoothly,” Peters says. “One thing you want to avoid is air bubbles, which can lead to a minor explosion while printing. But if it’s too liquid, the brick will collapse while printing.”
Juror Gerardo Salinas praised Building Bytes’ reinvention of the brick as a variable module with the potential to “do mass customization in a very clever way.” As juror Mimi Love pointed out, the result is “not an extruded piece of clay anymore, but something that can vary in all three dimensions.”
Using Rhinoceros 3D software and Grasshopper, Peters developed each brick geometry by first scripting a wall and then subdividing that wall into modules, which became the bricks. When the wall profile changes, the individual bricks automatically update.
Currently, Peters is printing 12- to 24-inch-tall bricks. Alongside the one-off prototypes, he has built stacked formations of 15 to 30 full-scale bricks and small-scale models of complete wall forms to suggest how the bricks could be laid. While his program already incorporates data such as material cost, print time, and a labeling system to indicate brick placement in the wall plane, Peters ultimately wants his system to engineer the geometry and mass of each brick according to its load bearing. He is also exploring different joint details, mortar types, and interlocking parts.
The jurors were more enthralled by the potential of Building Bytes’ process than by the aesthetically striking output. “It’s the system that is the real merit of the entry,” Salinas said. The jurors were more enthralled by the potential of Building Bytes’ process than by the aesthetically striking output. “It’s the system that is the real merit of the entry,” Salinas said. Juror Bill Kreysler was initially skeptical of the project’s innovation since “clay has been extruded through a die for hundreds of years.” Yet, he said, the project “does allow for objects that are refreshingly new, based on an understanding of the material. And that’s important because the more informed designers are about material properties, the more they can open doors to new ideas.” —Gideon Fink Shapiro