Researchers from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed multifunctional and translucent facade elements that can be produced with a 3D printer. The technology permits complete freedom in architectural design and the easy realization of innovative design concepts. The new facade also integrates functions such as ventilation, insulation and shading.
The sample element, 60 centimeters wide and one meter high, is made of transparent plastic and makes a very intricate impression. Diffuse light passes through its surface. It’s almost hard to believe that this material can protect a building from wind and weather: This is one of the first functionally integrated facade elements from a 3D printer. Moritz Mungenast, research fellow at the Associate Professorship of Architectural Design and Building Envelope at TUM, initiated the project and implemented it together with his team.
"And not only is the facade element very stable, it’s also translucent and multi-functional," says Mungenast. For example, cells inside the element provide stability while at the same time creating air-filled cavities for optimum insulation. Waves in the material create shadows. Thin embedded tubes let air circulate from one side of the element to the other, ensuring the best possible ventilation. And the micro-structured surface provides for perfect acoustics. All these functions are scalable and can be adapted to accommodate individual requirements at no extra cost.
The secret of the wave
"3D printing opens up design possibilities that were unthinkable in the past. We can take advantage of this freedom to integrate functions such as ventilation, shading and air conditioning. This eliminates the previous need for expensive sensors, control programs and motors," the architect explains.
His team’s design study illustrates how a building using the new low-tech facade could look: Plastic surrounds the structure like an airy veil. The effect is strengthened by the wavy surface that gives the facade concept its name: Fluid Morphology. The shapes overlap like the ripples raised when several stones are thrown into a windless lake: The facade has large bulges, protruding at some points, receding at others. And it doesn’t have the same thickness at all points, with the variations creating an additional wave pattern.
"Design and function are closely interdependent," Mungenast explains. "For example we can arrange the waves so that they protect the facade from heat in the summer and let in as much light as possible in the winter."
Long-term tests under realistic conditions
But how much light really penetrates the new, printed facade elements, and where? How resistant are they to UV radiation and the stress of wind, rain and snow? How efficiently do they insulate? Long-term measurement of a complete 1.6 x 2.8m facade element in the solar station, a testing installation on the main building of the TUM in Munich’s Arcisstraße, is to provide the answers to these questions. Over a period of one year, sensors will collect data which the architects hope to use to improve their design before creating further prototypes made of polycarbonate, a material certified for use in facades.
Mungenast sees potential future uses primarily in special constructions such as museums, libraries, shopping centers and assembly rooms: "Special solutions are called for here in particular, and it doesn’t matter at all that the plastic facades from the 3D printer aren’t completely transparent like glass panes, but rather translucent. The penetrating light creates an entirely unique and thoroughly attractive atmosphere."