3D Printing of Churches?

by Erica Cottrill

3D printing is not your typical technology. It is still in development, but the opportunities are enormous, says James Theimer, principal architect of Trilogy Architects in Redding, Calif., a practice that includes churches as clients.  3D printing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes whereby an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. Today, material extrusion is the most common 3D printing process.  In general, 3D printing enables creators to produce complex and functional shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods.  According to Christopher Mims of The Wall Street Journal, “3D printing is now scaling up. All over the world, an impressive diversity of people and organizations, ranging from startups and hobbyists to construction and engineering firms, are successfully prototyping 3D-printed buildings. This technology is still nascent. It isn’t about to disrupt the approximately $10-trillion global construction market. It can’t instantly solve housing crises or radically shrink building costs.”  The benefits—that the technology could save energy, materials and time—are enabling architects to strive for widespread adoption.

Early ramifications for church design

According to Gino Beltran, vice president of marketing with Visioneering Studios Inc. in Irvine, Calif., “3D is still pretty experimental for architecture and construction. There are prototypes out there but I doubt we will see any of this tech in the non-profit space anytime soon. The cost will be higher to deploy simply because of how new it is. Additionally, the actual time test for this technology hasn’t been met yet – we’d like to see how it performs in real life for the next 10-20 years.” In addition, there is no one-size-fitsall approach. Designers use different software, print in different materials, and use different printer technologies.  “The implications are exciting,” Beltran continues. “3D printing allows for potential benefits in labor and material cost, construction disruption to traffic and surrounding sites, and the ability to duplicate multiple units quickly, if they are all the same prototype design.”  Architects have been experimenting with 3D printing for years but, with the exception of a few very large firms, everything that’s been printed is extremely limited in size, Theimer notes. And those architecture firms that are experimenting with full-sized buildings are doing so outside the United States.

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