If you print it, they will come

Amsterdam-based architecture firm DUS is creating a full-sized 3D-printed house — and welcoming the public onsite throughout the process. Two of the firm’s partners, Hedwig Heinsman and Hans Vermeulen, spoke with us about the project.


How did the Canal House project come about?

Hedwig: Three years ago we were invited to do an invited competition for the interior of the Dutch delegate’s lounge in the United Nations building in New York. In the end, Rem Koolhaas won, so we didn’t! But it did lead us to think about the idea of open design, and that we could have all the designs in the lounge available to download for everyone.

So this was the start. There wasn’t yet much discussion about this technological revolution, or even social revolution. So we thought maybe we should just try to build a really large 3D printer ourselves.

Hans: We thought, “We’re architects; what does it mean if you can really 3D print buildings?” Then we found out that there was no big printer on the market yet, so we were like, “Let’s build one ourselves.” So we did, with a bit of help from a lot of partners.

We were in Amsterdam, so we chose the canal house as a typology. We thought the project was combining housing, living, working, storage, and innovation around the world, and in a similar way the canal house in Amsterdam had related to these issues in the past. The canal system was part of the global network from where the ships were sailing all across the world.

Traditional canal house.

Traditional canal house

In comparison, with the internet, every city can be a global hub. The internet is the waterways and the ships are maybe the 3D printers, you can say.

So we’re fascinated by what the new social networks can actually mean for the way you make buildings in the city. There will be huge changes in the upcoming five or ten years if you introduce large-scale production techniques available for everyone. If Facebook can connect a billion people to the internet, we should connect them to the act of making.

What we’re talking about is a third industrial revolution

What we’re talking about is a third industrial revolution. We can start to think about how to house seven billion people in a humane and sustainable way. We can talk about recycling, urban mining. You can think about how we can use the knowledge of the crowds, use the internet for local solutions. And create local products, so you don’t need container ships to send them; you produce locally with local materials. That’s a big sustainable impact.

But we’re also aware that you have to show it, make it concrete. So we thought, “Let’s build a house with the big printer and show it to a broad audience.”

So the house is currently finished?

Hedwig: We had a public opening of the construction site two months ago, and then we celebrated the start of the research project. Then we printed the first cornerstone of the house, which was 2 x 2 x 3.5 meters. Now we have about 10 of those on our site: the first elements of the first room.

But in contrast to how you normally open a site when a building is done, we’re constantly open. So while we’re building, there are visitors walking around, listening to the audio tour and seeing how we’re testing.

Hans: That’s actually a big challenge; the design isn’t yet finished. The design is in constant process of updating. So it’s like a beta version we have now, and then by the feedback loops from research we’re updating the design as well.

Hedwig: So it’s like also expectation management, because we don’t have a full house yet, but you can see the process of designing and building on all sides.

Hans: And people love it!

Hedwig: Yeah, most people really like it a lot.

Hans: We’re not alone in this project. Along the way, we organized quite a lot of cross-sectoral partnerships. We’re working on six research-and-do teams, as we call them. One is working on the further development of the big printer, which we call Kamermaker; “room builder”, translated. The second team is working on sustainable materials with Henkel from Germany; that’s one of the global leaders in adhesive technologies.

The third team is construction techniques. How do you actually construct if you start to use digital fabrication, and how can you also secure the regulations and the safety measurements? That’s where we talk with Arup.


Then the fourth one is the idea of downloadable architecture. It’s all scripted designs, parametric designs, so you can download it and personalize it before printing: total customization, actually, instead of the mass-production, standardization which comes from the big factories. Of course, it’s also about the revenue mode of the architect. What if you had four million downloads instead of a one-off fee for one building?

The fifth theme is smart building. How can you integrate data sensors and energy in printing houses? For example, we want to develop a material that is actually a solar panel. So you can print solar panels, it’s actually a parametric design, and you can script your facade in such a way that it has the perfect angle towards the sun.


Hans (third from left) and Hedwig (fourth from left) with models

The sixth one is the global solutions. What does this technique mean for mega cities like Rio or New York or Tokyo?

Hedwig: Yeah, or in refugee areas or disaster areas or slum areas. What if you put local printers there and print using local materials?

We’re not so much only a place for 3D printing, but for testing new ideas for living, new material use, new typologies, new technologies, and how can we integrate that in the house. So it’s also a kind of growing research. It also might even morph into, dare I say it, something else than the canal house? No, let’s not say that yet! [laughs] But it’s an adaptive project.

Interview edited and condensed.

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