This summer, near Ravenna, the architect Mario Cucinella tested his first 3D-printed earth house. With warm terracotta tones and a domed, organic shape, it looks like something ancient desert populations could have built centuries ago. In fact, the primeval look belies the state-of-the-art structural engineering used to create a structure that Cucinella hopes will fight homelessness and displaced communities following emergencies or natural disasters.
Cucinella named his house TECLA, alluding to the interplay of technology and sound. Working with WASP, an Italian company specializing in large format 3D printing, Mario Cucinella Architects envisioned a house made of raw earth that could be built quickly. “I found this idea of combining advanced technology and using a material that is part of the history of architecture and humanity, a great combination,” says Cucinella. By using natural local materials, he also made sure that the buildings are environmentally friendly and biodegradable. “The aim was to meet the 2030 agenda in Europe of zero emissions.”
This summer, several local printers were busy building the 60 square meter prototype. The 3D printers built the dome structure in layers without the need for scaffolding. After 200 hours the house was ready. It consists of two round, bulbous shapes that are fused together, with curling outer walls.
Inside consists of a living area, bedroom and bathroom. The curved walls create built-in furniture such as seating and tables that were created in the printing process. There is a large round skylight in the living area, while gently undulating walls lead to the bedrooms and bathroom.
For Cucinella there are two key elements in its design; that it can be built quickly and inhabited almost immediately. Because he envisioned the earthmoving apartments as emergency shelters under conditions in which living space had to be created at short notice.
In 2016 the mountain town of Castelluccio di Norcia was devastated by an earthquake. Residents were forced to move to makeshift accommodations that were far from luxurious. “The emergency buildings are always a terrible place,” says Cucinella. This is the kind of situation he sees his printable homes to the rescue as he “just needs to send a printer”.
Since the structure is built of earth, it can be built almost anywhere with local soil. The 3D printers can create different shapes to adapt to the different climates and environments at the site. “If I design a building in a hot, dry climate, I have to protect the building well and make thicker walls to ventilate it,” Cucinella gives an example. This also means that because the walls are insulated, there is no need to install air conditioning or heating. There are LED lights and hopefully soon a system to collect and purify rainwater. And with the basic interior fittings created in the printing process, the residents can move in after a short time.
Cucinella also wants to fight homelessness problems with the quickly built, inexpensive houses. He sees potential for mass production where the apartments could become part of country towns and “a new local way of building to create sustainable and affordable homes for those struggling to own a property”.
The project was seen as a landmark example of carbon-free building for Build better now, a virtual exhibition at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow. “We have lost the knowledge about the climate-related design of buildings,” argues Cucinella. “For the past 50 years, buildings have looked the same all over the world.” He believes the COP26 could have an impact on changing architectural constructions to be more sensitive to climatic conditions and looking for solutions in the past. “If you are well designed, have an empathy for the climate and a good orientation, buildings can solve a lot of problems,” says Cucinella. “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.”
Likewise, the architect sees building maintenance as a fundamental aspect of architecture that we have lost. His 3D-printed earth house would be regularly serviced and protected, but “maintenance was always something to do with architecture” and can therefore take centuries. “Sustainability also includes the maintenance of buildings,” he says, “this makes you aware of your responsibility.”