This Giant Contraption Can Print a House

Inspired by wasps’ nests, an Italian company is printing inexpensive houses for the developing world

Looking down into the Big Delta. (WASP)
smithsonian.com

Industrious mud dauber wasps can build their homes almost anywhere. They make single-chambered, urn-shaped nests out of layered tubes of mud, which they chew and spit back out. Inspired by these dwellings, an Italian company, cleverly named World's Advanced Saving Project, or WASP, has devised a way to quickly and cheaply 3D print a house, in one fell swoop. 

To do this, the company has built the biggest 3D printer in the world. Called BigDelta, the hexagonal device stands 40 feet tall and 20 feet wide, and has three arms that manage the nozzle that releases the printing material. The printer can pump out a 10-foot tall house in one week. Despite its size, the contraption is quick and easy to set up and deploy in emergency situations. The company, after all, hopes to provide housing, costing just a few thousand dollars, for the world’s poorest populations and for people whose homes have been destroyed by wars, floods and other disasters.

The printer extrudes a mix of dirt water, hay and rocks (or whatever is convenient) into clay-like triangular shapes. It then stacks these bricks to create a one-room, dome-like structure that is designed to be durable and low maintenance. WASP director Massimo Moretti says that using readily available and close-to-free materials is key to building sustainable housing. Part of the company's goal is to build what they call “zero-mile homes,” or houses built from materials sourced on site.

WASP has been working on different ways to use 3D printing and sustainable, readily available materials since 2003. They've created a small-scale printer called the Power Wasp, which can mill wood and metal and be used in the developing world. The BigDelta has been in the works since 2012. Last year, they brought a 20-foot-tall version, capable of printing structures 10 feet in height, to the Rome Maker Faire. And recently, in Italy, the group debuted its latest version—the first to build a house big enough to live in. The igloo-like structures are 20-feet wide at the base. WASP will be doing demonstrations at events around the world.

Moretti and his team are not the first people to try to 3D print a dwelling. Last year, China-based WinSun Decoration Design Engineering built 10 3D printed homes in less than 24 hours, and for about $5,000 each. But they assembled the houses from a number of separate pieces, all printed from cement and construction waste. There have been piecemeal 3D printed house projects in the Netherlands, too, but the WASP project is the first to print a house on site in one big piece.

The current BigDelta printer is a prototype. A production model is still a few years off, says Moretti. But he and his colleagues are motivated by United Nations predictions that by 2030, the population will be growing so quickly that there will be a global need for 100,000 new housing units a day. Here’s hoping the printer is ready by then.

About Heather Hansman
Heather Hansman

Heather Hansman is a Seattle-based freelancer who writes about science, the environment, tech and people, and how they all interact. Her work has appeared in Outside, Popular Science and Grist.

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