Set at the base of Dubai’s Emirates Towers, local landmarks that indicate the emirate’s financial district, is the world’s first fully-functional 3D-printed building, designed and masterplanned by UAE-based architecture firm Killa Design. A community project, the ‘Office of the Future’, inhabited by the Dubai Future Foundation, was an experiment in building innovation and team work – and now stands as an example of what computer controlled fabrication in construction can achieve.
The brief from the Dubai Future Foundation had required the building demonstrate Dubai’s culture of innovative building technology, explained Benjamin Piper, partner and design principal at Killa Design. He said, “Once we understood the constraints of the technology, we developed a mini-masterplan for the site using a series of so-called ‘cassettes’, which were 3D printed structural members that we could use to assemble the building complex.”
Made of a special concrete mix, the project’s material was extracted and purified from fine natural stone with the addition of high-quality cement and fibre additives. According to the architects, this provided a much higher strength material that’s stronger than common concrete application. Resistant to cracks as well as being water proof, the 3D-printed concrete solution still allows air permeability, and improves heat preservation and low carbon pollution.
The entire structure was manufactured using a 3D printer that measured 20 feet high, 120 feet long and 40 feet wide. Its features included an automated robotic arm that implemented the printing process (lasting 17 days), and was installed on site in two days. Though subsequent work on the building services, interior and landscape design took nearly three more months, the 3D printing technology cut back on labour costs by 50% in comparison to traditional construction projects, and wastage on site was minimised, reducing the overall environmental footprint of the space.
Protected by surrounding vegetation that slumps in the sunlight, the Office of the Future is a low-rise modular complex that almost appears as though it’s emerging from behind the planted palm-trees onto the main road. At its entrance, is a metallic hand in the shape of the three-finger salute, coined by the country’s leaders to signify winning, victory and love. A stark contrast to the tall skyscrapers and monumental buildings that mark the centre of the financial district, the office’s divergence from the general design of its neighbouring buildings empowers its presence, despite the actual size of the project – 250 metres2.
“We were keen to push the envelope – both literally and figuratively – to make use of non-uniform curvature as a demonstration of how the printing of such forms is no more or less costly than printing a conventional building,” said Piper. “The aim was not to fit into the surroundings at all, but rather to be a stand-out demonstration project showcasing what’s possible with new building technology.”
Arguing that the office is more of an object in a landscape setting, Piper added that the design of the building itself was intended to respond to the local context of the UAE – particularly in terms of its solar protection. The office features an 800mm-thick insulation zone and 2m-cantilevered overhangs on the windows. It was also inspired by the Emirati tradition of using natural coral in construction.
Perhaps equally experimental as the construction method was the framework within which the architects, client, suppliers and contractors worked together. Labelled a ‘community-build project’, the volunteer team worked with a minimal budget to deliver the project in a very short time frame. The team was primarily motivated by the opportunity to work with new building technologies on a high-profile project that, once completed, would be unveiled by Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai His Highness His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
“As a simple analogy, I would say that most traditional architectural projects are like classical music: the score is written by the design team and the contractor performs as the orchestra,” Piper said. “This project was more like jazz, where the designers, consultants and contractors had the opportunity to improvise and jam creatively with each other during a ‘live’ building project. In the end, I think the team produced some quite interesting results because of the unique process through which the project was designed and built.”
Radiating around a tree-shaded café courtyard – landscaped by Cracknell – the office complex hosts a partnership lounge and gallery for exhibitions, events and workshops, as well as a space for team brainstorming and design work. A series of openings throughout the project bring natural daylight far into the space, while allowing visitors and staff to remain connected to the outside environment. Designed to facilitate a mix of creative interactions and reflective work, the building layout allows for flexible usage.
Since recently completing the Office of the Future, Killa Design has been getting a number of enquiries for upcoming 3D-printed buildings in the UAE and abroad. According to Piper, the use of such technology is most relevant where unusual forms are required.
“3D-printed buildings have the potential to allow what would traditionally be seen as separate building systems to be brought together as a unified and integrated design creating an architecture that’s more efficient, intelligent and beautiful,” Piper said.
Images courtesy of Killa Design