Digital Building Technologies (DBT) is a team at ETH Zürich that researches additive manufacturing and computational design within the architectural realm. Through the use of various digital fabrication tools, they aim to challenge traditional methods of construction and instead adopt more efficient and sustainable strategies. Their newest innovation is the use of 3D-printed foam from recycled waste for lightweight insulated walls.

Continue reading below
Our Featured Videos
Diagram showing process of creating 3D-printed Airlements

The new project is called Airlements and seeks to create customized building components without the use of molds through large-scale additive manufacturing technology. In doing so, it cuts down the costs, labor and material resources that are typically required for these bespoke parts. In fact, the corrugated textures created by the 3D printer increases the strength of the building components once they are dry.

Related: How using 3D-printed foam can cut down concrete waste

Hand touching 3D-printed foam element

The project uses one material that is controlled to adopt various properties. This is a cement-free mineral foam by FenX. It has a lower carbon footprint than typical concrete or plastic foams. Additionally, the material can be manipulated to increase density and porosity. This increases insulation and structural strength where required, without additional resources such as energy for heating or multiple materials. Furthermore, since only one material is used, the 3D-printed components can later be reused or recycled down the line.

Close up of 3D-printed foam element

Airlements consists of a two-meters high assembly of four 3D-printed foam components. Each of the parts weighs roughly 25 kilograms, allowing the wall to be assembled by one person.

Woman gazing at and touching fully assembled Airlements project

Each of the four building components took less than an hour to print and was left to harden in the fabrication lab for one week. The environment was controlled so that temperatures ranged between 68 to 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit (20 to 28 degrees Celsius). Meanwhile, the relative humidity was between 20% to 70% at any given time. Using this method, no energy-intensive processing was required. This is a new development compared to previous experimentation with cement-free mineral foams.

Person stacking 3D-printed foam elements

If need be, the hollow core can be filled with mineral foam to create a monolithic system. This would allow for the addition of reinforcing materials or infrastructural installations to increase the possible applications of the structure. For future iterations, the team at DBT aims to focus on increasing Airlements’ load-bearing capacity and improving the fabrication precision of their additive manufacturing technology.

+ Digital Building Technologies, ETH Zürich

Images via Patrick Bedarf and Hyuk Sung Kwon