A team of researchers at the Technical University of Munich developed the first functionally integrated facade elements with 3D printing. We interviewed Moritz Mungenast, research fellow of Architectural Design and Building Envelope at TUM.

Where did the idea for a 3D-printed facade element come from?

I am a professional architect and at the TU Munich a specialist for building envelopes with the focus on new technologies to maximize the climate comfort and at the same time to reduce the carbon footprint.  2011 I visited with a group of students the 3D printer manufacturer voxeljet and saw their biggest printer VX4000 with a printing chamber of 4m x 2m x 1m height. Since than I thought there must be a way to print façade elements. A Visit in 2013 at Dinitec in Pisa followed and supported the idea of printing in a bigger scale. In 2014  I started my doctoral thesis with the topic of a development of a 3D-printed building envelope and focused since than on the functional integration.

What 3D printing technology and material were used?

At this stage of the research project I tried to eliminate as many of the uncertain parameters of a production in scale 1:1. That is the reason why we used the printing process FDM, which is really cheap, reliable and suitable to print cells with air inside, which is essential to print insulation geometries. The material polycarbonate was chosen because it can be transparent and is already used as a certified façade material. For the fist prototypes we are using PETG, which is as well transparent, easier to print with the average FDM printer than polycarbonate.

Can you tell us something about the challenges your team encountered during the production of this prototype?

One of the main challenges was to get into the control of the complexities of the design and the integrated functions and to parametrically adapt them to different orientations. At the same time the size of the data and the restrictions of the FDM process had to be taken in account.

Which functionalities are integrated in the facade element?

The element has the following functions integrated: Sun-shading, insulation, structural optimization, ventilation and acoustic deflection.

Does 3D printing of facade elements also offer new design possibilities?

Yes, this is of course one of the key aspects besides the surplus the functional integration. As architects this is a new field to explore and is really one of our responsibilities and competence to test the potentials and to find new design forms. We are exploring this always hand in hand with the function. Benjamin Dillenburger at the ETH is exploring it in a more experimental way, which is absolutely necessary to push into new frontiers.

What are the questions that you want to answer in the real-life testing of the facade elements?

Are the geometries behaving according to the digital simulations? What is the light-transmission and u-value of the overall element? How suitable is the materiality-behavior of the production process of FDM to withstand the climate-conditions of the different seasons in Munich.

For which type of buildings do you think these facade elements are best suited?

For now, I could see the use of these elements in quite a big range of buildings where natural light plays a major role for examples libraries, museums, offices and so on.

Do you see a role for 3D printing in other parts of the building process as well?

The primary structure of buildings could be 3D-printed and optimized to the actual loads. My colleague at TU Munich, Klaudius Henke, is successfully researching on this topic with concrete. I think, even whole bridge structures will be possible and there is still a lot of further potential to be developed.

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Photo’s courtesy of Technical University Munich