Hitting ‘print’ on the office of the future

3D technology is radically changing how we think about the workplace

Outside of the corporate funhouse campuses that dot Silicon Valley, most offices look uniform, built from thin drywall boards and divided into rectangular sections.

They look like this for a reason: The alternatives are expensive. But as 3D printing—a computer-led manufacturing process in which products are often built layer by layer—moves out of hobbyists’ workshops and onto construction sites, prototyping and experimentation will have full reign over the built environment, and the office of the future will look a whole lot different.

In the modern office, walls themselves are no longer necessary to create division and hierarchy within an organization, as hot-desking and telecommuting replace designated space for employees. And 3D printing can help an architect design an office where walls can shift and move, allowing the architect to add more light or dampen sound where needed. Walls can become a gallery for art, or even the art itself. Imagine employees surrounded by wavy, translucent walls fashioned out of materials like sand, volcanic ash, or plastic—all printed to the exact specifications of the company occupying the space.

3D printing builds up objects layer by layer, unlike existing construction methods, which largely assemble objects piece by piece. This difference allows for new design techniques that would be too difficult and expensive to achieve with traditional materials. Austin, Texas’s WeWork University Park member Samantha Snabes, who founded the Austin-based 3D-printing startup re:3D, points to the classic assembly problem of building a ship inside a bottle: 3D printing could make the painstaking process of standing up miniature masts and rigging with tweezers irrelevant because, she said, “I can print a ship in a bottle by going layer by layer by layer.” In the last few years, architects have used 3D-printing technology to develop undulating, translucent walls, which were unveiled in Munich last year, and a matrix-based scaffolding system that allows for a faster and cheaper building process.

Even when buildings aren’t themselves 3D-printed, the technology is changing the way architects work. “The biggest gain is in prototyping,” Snabes said. Instead of spending days wrestling with a foam core to prototype a building design, 3D printing allows architects to easily model a physical version. Using 3D printers, architects can test different angling, coloring, and lighting, empowering them to experiment with designs that may have previously been too ambitious to perform with minimal risk of error.

These techniques could also change how companies think about the lifecycle of a workspace design. “We tend to think, ‘What’s the cheapest and most effective way we can build?’ and we don’t tend to think about, ‘How can these systems be disassembled and remounted?’” said Brian Ringley, a senior construction researcher at WeWork and a faculty member at Pratt Institute’s Graduate Architecture and Urban Design (GAUD) program. 3D printing allows objects to be made out of reusable materials like plastic, which could make reconfiguring an office layout as simple as cutting pre-existing walls or furniture into tiny pieces and printing them into something new.

Companies could even redesign their offices weekly. Say a startup has extra desks that were 3D printed with plastic. If employees request more private areas, a company could just chop the desks into tiny plastic pellets and feed those pellets back into a 3D printer to create a series of phone booths.

Although technology like that does not exist yet, it isn’t far off, according to Ringley. “Most recycling efforts at this stage are experimental,” he said, pointing to programs like ReDeTec, which uses recycled plastic to create twine or bowls.

At the moment, there is one 3D-printed office—the Office of the Future—and it’s located in Dubai. Unveiled in August 2016, it remains the only functioning 3D-printed office in the world—a network of boxy, interconnected rooms, each of which encloses a large window. Though the Office of the Future does not cater to workers in private industry—a government innovation arm, the Dubai Future Foundation, is the only occupant—the city aims to make 3D-printed buildings a regular feature of its landscape. In 2019, Dubai will require 2 percent of all new buildings to be 3D-printed, a figure that will increase to 25 percent by 2025. Soon, many workers in the United Arab Emirates will walk into a 3D-printed office each morning.

Part of the draw of 3D printing, especially for a city like Dubai, might be considered cynical: Dubai has long been plagued by accusations that it exploits migrant laborers for construction work, and 3D printing, which requires minimal human labor, offers a tempting, worker-free solution. The Office of the Future took only 17 days and $140,000 to build, a fraction of what an office building of its size might typically require.

The Office of the Future wasn’t printed in one go. Because there are not yet printers scaled to create an entire building at once, the construction team printed a series of panels that they assembled onsite. But in the future, entire buildings could be constructed using a method known as “contour crafting”: robotic arms and a computer-operated crane layer the material from the bottom up to build walls, then lower a roof on top. “It opens the door for architects to visualize their final outcome in a 3D environment,” said Hatem Al Khafaji, an architect on the project.

With 3D printing, ambitious styles could be mass-produced. Workers might start showing up to their jobs in buildings that experiment more with form—offices might have unconventional walls, transmit more light, or integrate new geometries into their design. Snabes, who focuses on consumer 3D printing, is seeing clients play with geodesic domes and hexagons, beams resting at odd angles, and even glow-in-the-dark materials. Maybe some office buildings will follow the lead of a design from the Dutch studio RAAAF, where chairs are scrapped for a maze of straight-edged, prismic tables that Wired compared to glaciers.

That’s not necessarily to say that 3D-printed buildings will have their own unique look. You likely won’t be able to identify which buildings were 3D-printed based on their architecture alone. “There is no real correlation between style and 3D printing,” said Filippo Lodi, head of innovation at the Dutch architectural firm UNStudio.

As the technology evolves, interest in 3D-printed architecture is growing. Last year, Saudi Arabia reportedly signed a contract with Chinese company WinSun to print 30 million square meters of material for construction. And as Dubai shifts to requiring that an increasing number of its buildings be 3D-printed, future workspaces will likely acquire unusual geometries, lighting systems, and wall designs. Drywall and right angles may one day seem like antiquated concepts. That potential, according to Snabes, “can help with personalizing to individual company needs.” A 3D-printed future will prioritize customization—and soon, companies may develop highly tailored office designs that reinforce the identity they hope to project both to their employees and the world.

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