In July 2020, strange shapes started rising up out of the ground in Massa Lombarda, a small town near Ravenna in northern Italy. Over 200 hours, spread across several months, large machines with specialised nozzles squirting clay dug up from a nearby riverbed into a series of sinuous curves, rising finally into an elegant dome: the first 3D-printed house made entirely from raw earth.
The project, called TECLA, is a sign that 3D-printing may finally be fulfilling its potential in the construction industry. The technology has had a bumpy journey through the hype cycle – it was going to transform consumerism and upend industry. We were all going to have a printer in our homes, churning out spare parts for our household electronics when they broke down. In construction, they were going to solve the housing crisis – churning out cheap homes on any available plot of land in a matter of hours.
But, while the technology has been used for a handful of construction projects – a bridge in Amsterdam, a family home in Nantes, France – it’s been hampered by the requirement for sophisticated and expensive materials to feed the printers with. Where TECLA differs is in its use of raw earth – you could, theoretically, ship a printer to a remote area and start printing without needing any additional materials.
The project grew out of a collaboration between Italian 3D-printing firm WASP and architect Mario Cucinella, who wanted to pair a very old construction material – humans have been building dwellings from earth for thousands of years – with a new technology. “It’s combining this evolution in technology with a basic material you can find anywhere on the planet,” he says. “A combination between high tech and local material.”
The printer, called “Crane WASP” uses two synchronised arms simultaneously, with software helping to avoid collisions. Each unit has a printing area of 50 square metres, and can build independent housing modules in a few days.
The house has an area of around 60 square metres, comprising a “living zone” with a kitchen, and a “night zone”. The furnishings are also partly printed from local earth, and are integrated into the structure. Each dome is capped with a glass skylight to allow natural light into the space – but in different climates, the design could be tweaked to enable more efficient heating or cooling, rather than using the same design everywhere as has been the case with many modern buildings. “Construction is a paradox,” says Cucinella. “We all talk about sustainable buildings, but buildings are not sustainable.”
Slowing down climate change was a big driving force behind the project, Cucinella says: the construction industry accounted for 38 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, whether from the manufacture of cement or the transportation of heavy materials around the world.