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I have to admit — the concept of 3D printing is baffling to me. How a printing machine can make materials required for medical needs, technology advancements or building construction seems straight out of a science fiction novel. But for those of us in the business of disrupting business, it’s important that we understand the implications of 3D printing for our clients and for the future of our own work.

3D printing is a relatively new phenomenon — by definition, it is a “process for making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many successive thin layers of material.” Say what?? Basically, you create a digital model of the object you intend to create. Then a special printer uses an “additive process” — laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Mind. Blown.

Just this week, we learned about the world’s first 3D-printed apartment building in China. The building is livable and aesthetically pleasing. This project raises so many questions in the face of sustainable building design. Is 3D printing safe for building occupants? Is it resilient? Does it meet all code requirements? Are the materials recyclable? Does it have a shelf life? How does one customize, upgrade or renovate? How does an architect design to 3D printing specifications? How does this change the role of the building engineer and contractor?

According to the CNET article, 3D printing “saves between 30 and 60 percent of construction waste, and can decrease production times by between 50 and 70 percent, and labor costs by between 50 and 80 percent… And, using recycled materials in this way, the buildings decrease the need for quarried stone and other materials — resulting in a construction method that is both environmentally forward and cost effective.”

However, another report indicates that 3D printers use excessive amounts of energy and the “zero-waste” myth may only be true for designs that don’t print support material, such as steel frames or wood. And this waste cannot be recycled in today’s environment — but that could also easily change depending on the timing and evolution of recycling processes and infrastructure.

The largest impact in determining whether or not some types of 3D printing are environmentally friendly is the amount of usage (running the printing machine 24 hours/7 days a week vs. 2 hours/2 days a week) — which can be said for any facility using traditional manufacturing processes for any material.

As the future unfolds we’ll continue to learn more about how we will adopt 3D printing into more sustainable building construction. All things considered, the pros outweigh the cons, and in a society where we want unique solutions and customization, and behavior has shifted toward environmentally friendly needs/wants, it’s only a matter of time before this becomes mainstream. And it will impact all aspects of building — from the materials to construct the foundation and framework, and from the guts of wiring, plumbing and insulation, to the amenities that make it more comfortable.