By using 3-D printers to build lightweight but strong plastic frameworks for conventional building materials such as concrete, builders may soon be able to create complex structures with unorthodox shapes and contours that would be difficult or even impossible with today’s construction methods. And better yet, they will be able to fashion intricate, customized interiors and exteriors at no additional cost.

That forecast came from R. Platt Boyd IV, an architect turned 3-D printing entrepreneur, who was a speaker at ULI’s 2016 Fall Meeting in Dallas in October.

In 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, a printer takes a blueprint contained in a digital file and then uses it to create a solid object by spraying layers of plastic or another material.

Boyd’s two-year-old Chattanooga, Tennessee–based startup, Branch Technology, is pioneering a next-generation variation of the technology called cellular fabrication, which mimics the structural characteristics of living cells in plants and animals.

In biological cells, the material inside combines with the cellular boundary to create structural strength, Boyd explained. It is possible to do the same thing by 3-D printing a matrix from carbon fiber plastic composite, and then filling it with conventional building materials on site to make panels for a structure.

Boyd’s company has developed a 3-D printer that consists of a 12-and-a-half-foot-long (3.8 m) robotic arm, mounted on a 33-foot-long (10 m) movable track, which can create large panels for construction.

A 3-D printed structure to be displayed at this year's Art Basel fair in Miami. (Brett Widness)

A 3-D printed structure to be displayed at this year’s Art Basel fair in Miami. (Brett Widness)

The matrices built by Branch’s printer weigh only a few pounds, which would make it easy to transport them from a factory to the location where a building will be erected.

“You can build large panels and instead of having to crane them in place, a couple of people can pick them up and install them on site,” Boyd said.

Even so, the printed framework would be able to support thousands of times its own weight. A 2.5-pound (1.1 kg) framework might be able to handle 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg), according to Boyd.

Combining 3-D printing with other materials would eliminate many of the major downsides of conventional construction. For many years, buildings have been fashioned largely from raw materials that must be trucked to a building site at great expense and then shaped to fit the design. In the process, large quantities of the stuff are wasted, costing the construction sector more than $100 billion in materials and labor annually.

But in addition to eliminating those costs, Boyd said that using cellular fabrication would enable builders to create customized, complex interior details and facades at no additional cost—making the 21st-century equivalent of a medieval cathedral feasible for the price of a staid, no-frills office tower.

“Manufacturing complexity is free, with the same materials cost,” he said.

As a result, Boyd said, builders “would be free of the constraints that require us to make cookie-cutter boxes.” Instead, “you’d be taking a Frank Gehry–level of design that’s $1,000 a square foot [$10,764  per sq m] to build now, and making it accessible to architects for $200 a square foot [$2,153 per sq m].”

A switch to 3-D printed construction might also spur technology-oriented venture capital firms to invest in the innovation-starved construction industry—something they mostly haven’t done up to this point, Boyd said. Such investors are more likely to place their bets on industries where new inventions, processes, or modes of doing business can disrupt existing economies by creating a cheaper or more effective alternative.

New construction is “eight to 10 percent of GDP—it’s an incredible, $125 billion opportunity for them,” Boyd said.

Other visionaries have proposed using 3-D printing and digital design in other ways. James Benham, founder of JBKnowledge, a Bryan, Texas–based construction technology solutions company, said in a January/February Urban Land article that he envisions that networked mobile robots and drones equipped with 3-D printers essentially would swarm over a construction project, building the structure from multiple angles at once. In addition, because 3-D printers have the capability to print conduits and wiring inside objects, builders eventually may be able to construct plug-and-play houses and buildings without the need for electrical subcontractors, Benham said.