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3D Printed Bricks

could be the building blocks of modern,
sustainable architecture

By Roberta Kwok

For thousands of years, people have built homes by shaping mud into blocks, drying them in the sun, and stacking them. Now, a design shop in Oakland, California, is upgrading the humble brick. Founders Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello are using 3D-printing technology to produce modular building components, inspired 
by earth architecture and other traditions, that are beautifully shaped and environmentally responsive.

Using clay and sand, the team at their Emerging Objects studio has designed blocks that can cool down rooms and even stabilize buildings when earthquakes strike. They are also working with unconventional materials such as salt and sawdust—techniques that could one day allow waste to be transformed into dwellings.

In 2010, Rael and San Fratello 
were experimenting with 3D-printing ceramics. The pair realized that, when they mixed clay with an organic material called maltodextrin, the resulting ceramic contained many tiny pores. “It becomes kind of a ceramic sponge,” says Rael. From the material, they created what they call the Cool Brick.

The Cool Brick is a 3D-printed ceramic object about six inches long, shaped like an elongated hexagon. In addition to being very porous, the brick resembles a small lattice with larger holes that air can blow through. When water is dripped onto the wall with a plumbing system or splashed on by hand, it is absorbed into the ceramic and then evaporates, cooling the air. Breezes blowing through the holes bring cool, humid air into the room.

The design is inspired by the irregular surfaces of earth architecture as well as by the use of ceramic jugs of water and lattice screens to cool buildings in Africa and the Middle East. “These techniques have been around, in this case, for centuries,” says Joshua Stein, an architect at Woodbury University in Los Angeles, who invited Rael and San Fratello to participate in a museum exhibition. People tend to have forgotten about the techniques with the advent of air conditioning, he says.

Some blocks can be arranged in different patterns to suit the building’s environment. The Picoroco Block, a cluster of small cones with holes at the ends, comes in three varieties—each with a different number of openings. In a hot location, builders can select blocks and orient them to make room partitions that let in ambient light and breezes but not direct sunlight.

Rael and San Fratello have also drawn on tradition to create the Quake Column. During the Inca Empire, masons cut stones to produce interlocking blocks that shifted and fell back into place during earthquakes. Emerging Objects followed the same principle to print blocks of sand that interlock to increase stability.

Waste materials present another set of architectural possibilities. The company transformed salt into the Saltygloo, a lightweight, igloo-like structure made of faceted panels inspired by the shape of salt crystals. The salt waste produced by desalination plants could similarly be turned into building material, Rael says. The team has also printed wood blocks from sawdust—and furniture from recycled rubber from used car tires.

The studio’s focus on modular components is a departure from other companies’ visions, in which entire houses are 3D printed all at once with a single, giant printer. Rael believes producing modest pieces with many small printers is more practical. If one printer breaks, the remaining machines can keep construction going. What’s more, the components are easier to transport and replace.

Projects such as the Cool Brick show that “high tech” doesn’t necessarily mean using new, synthetic materials, says Stein: “I think that it just changes our understanding of what a high-tech building could be.”


Roberta Kwok is a freelance science journalist who has contributed to Nature, New Scientist, Aeon, Salon, Science News, and other outlets.
Header Images: Porous ceramic Cool Bricks lower interior temperatures through evaporative cooling (left). The Picoroco Block Wall can be configured to let in the breeze and ambient light while blocking out direct sunlight (top right). The Quake Column’s interlocking sand blocks are inspired by Incan building stones that shifted and resettled in response to tremors (bottom right). All photos courtesy of Emerging Objects.
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