How might architecture aid in solving the housing crisis and help build a more sustainable future? West of Ravenna, Italy, in the small town of Massa Lombarda, Mario Cucinella Architects has completed a prototype for a home that aims to do both, by combining some of the newest technology with the oldest housing materials. The dwelling, called TECLA, is the first 3D-printed home made from clay, and its founder, Mario Cucinella, hopes that its program design can become a viable option to house people who lack adequate housing due to financial issues or displacement.
Over the past few years, a number of 3D-printed homes and communities have been conceptualized, promising quick build times and low construction costs, from a 400-square-foot home printed in 24 hours in Russia, in 2017, to an entire neighborhood printed in Mexico two years later. In the US the first printed home to hit the market – a one-story,1,400-square-foot space in Riverhead, New York – was listed for $299,000 in February, Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, a series of two- to four-bedroom residences will be ready for move-in later this year.
But while previous structures have been built using concrete or synthetic materials like plastic, TECLA – whose named is both derived from writer Italo Calvino’s fictional city of Thekla, and an amalgamation of “technology” and “clay” – was built from soil found at the site mixed with water, fibers from rice husks and a binder, the last of which Cucinella notes is less than 5% of the total volume. Cucinella believes this approach can be replicated in different parts of the world, using whatever local materials are available, and could be particularly helpful in underserved rural areas, where industrial construction materials may be harder to come by.
Printing with clay does have its drawbacks. It’s a much slower process than quick-drying concrete – the design can be printed in 200 hours but the clay mixture can take weeks to dry, depending on climate, according to Cucinella – and it also has height limitations (all-clay skyscrapers are not in the future).
However, the program’s flexibility of using available soil and its ease of construction means that TECLA could be well-suited to provide housing in many different countries. In 2015, Habitat for Humanity estimated that a staggering 1.6 billion people lack adequate housing, and UN-Habitat – the United Nations program for human settlements and sustainable urban development – estimates that by 2030, 3 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population, will require access to accessible and affordable residences.
“You can build this kind of house in many more places when you are not dependent on some specific product,” Cucinella explained in a video interview.
Tradition meets new technology
Building homes from earth, Cucinella pointed out, is not new. Adobe – made from a mix of earth, water and organic material – is one of the world’s earliest construction materials, known for its durability, biodegradability and natural insulation.
“The challenge was really using an old material in the history of architecture with new technology to find a new shape of house,” Cucinella said.