Just outside Ravenna, architect Mario Cucinella trialed his first 3D-printed earth house this summer. With warm, terracotta tones and a domed, organic form, it looks like something ancient desert populations could have constructed centuries ago. In fact, the primeval appearance belies the state-of-the-art building technology used to create a structure that Cucinella hopes will combat homelessness and displaced communities after emergencies or natural disasters.
Cucinella has dubbed his house TECLA, referring to the interaction between technology and clay. In collaboration with WASP, an Italian company specializing in large-scale 3D printing, Mario Cucinella Architects envisioned a quick build house constructed from raw earth. “I thought this idea of combining advanced technology and using a material that is part of the history of architecture and humanity was a great combination,” Cucinella says. By using natural local materials, he also ensured the builds are eco-friendly and biodegradable. “The goal was to match the agenda of 2030 in Europe of zero emissions.”
This summer, multiple on-site printers busied away constructing the 60-square meter prototype. The 3D printers built up the domed structure in layers, without any need for scaffolding. After 200 hours, the house was complete. It consists of two round, bulbous forms merged together, with rippling exterior walls.
Inside consists of a living area, bedroom and bathroom. Emerging from the curved walls are fitted furnishings like seating and tables created during the printing process. In the living area, there is a large round skylight, while gently undulating walls lead to the sleeping quarters and bathroom.
For Cucinella, there are two key elements to his design; that it can be constructed swiftly and that it can be inhabited almost immediately. This is because he has envisaged the raw earth dwellings as emergency accommodation in conditions where housing needs to be provided in a short time.
In 2016, the hilltop town of Castelluccio di Norcia was devastated by an earthquake. Residents were forced to relocate to temporary housing, which was far from luxurious. “The emergency buildings are always a terrible place,” Cucinella says. This is the kind of situation where he sees his printable houses coming to the rescue as he “only needs to send a printer.”
Because the structure is built from earth, it can be constructed almost anywhere using local soil. The 3D printers can create different forms to adapt to the different climates and environments at the location. “If I design a building in a hot, arid climate, I need to protect the building well and make thicker walls to ventilate it,” Cucinella gives as an example. This also means there is no need to install air conditioning or heating because of the insulation provided by the walls. There are LED lights and hopefully soon a system to collect and purify rainwater. And with the basic interior furnishings generated during the printing process, occupants can move in after little delay.
Cucinella also wants to use the rapid-build, low-cost houses to combat problems of homelessness. He sees a potential for mass production where the dwellings could become part of landscaped towns and “a new local vernacular way of building creating sustainable and affordable homes for those struggling to own a property.”
The project has been chosen as a pioneering example of zero-carbon construction for Build Better Now, a virtual exhibition at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow. “We have lost the knowledge of designing buildings related to the climate,” Cucinella argues. “In the last 50 years, buildings look the same everywhere in the world.” He thinks COP26 could have an impact on changing architectural construction to be more sensitive to climatic conditions and look to the past for solutions. “If you design well, have empathy with the climate and good orientation, buildings can solve a lot of problems,” Cucinella says. “When Marco Polo went to Persia in the 13th century, they offered him an ice cream because they had designed a special building that was empathetic with the climate.”
Similarly, the architect considers the maintenance of buildings to be a fundamental aspect of architecture that we have lost. His 3D printed earth house would need regular maintenance and protection but “maintenance was always something related to architecture” and with it, can last for centuries. “Taking care of buildings is also part of sustainability,” he says, “it makes you more aware that you are responsible.”