3D-Printed Earthen Home Merges New Tech With Ancient Material

This experimental structure shows how low-tech can be used in conjunction with high-tech.

Casa Covida 3D printed adobe house by Emerging Objects exterior

Elliot Ross

The use of earth in building structures has been around for a long, long time – likely at least 10,000 years. Today, earth-based structures house approximately 30 percent of the world's population, and range from simple, hand-made earthen buildings, to more modern- and conventional-looking homes that might use rammed earth techniques in conjunction with other sustainable and renewable materials like bamboo. Wherever it may be, no building material is more local and sustainable than using the earth beneath one's feet.

Of course, just because earth-building techniques are old, doesn't mean that they are obsolete or outdated. In fact, a number of designers and researchers are now exploring how these ancient methods might be combined with newer tools like 3D printers. California-based Emerging Objects is one such studio experimenting with novel ways to use 3D printing, whether it's manufacturing structures out of salt, ceramics, or earth. Co-founded by the architect duo of Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, it's an outgrowth of their design firm, Rael San Fratello, and the pair recently unveiled this intriguing project that has been 3D printed out of adobe – made out of soil mixed with straw, sand, and other organic materials. Here's an in-depth video interview about the project from Architectural League NY:

Dubbed Casa Covida – which refers to both the global COVID-19 pandemic and the Spanish word for cohabitation – the experimental structure is intended as a prototypical house for two, and was 3D-printed in the desert of San Luis Valley, Colorado, using a three-axis SCARA (Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm) that extruded out an adobe mix of sand, silt, clay, and water.

Casa Covida 3D printed adobe house by Emerging Objects exterior
Elliot Ross

The structure consists of three parts. The first is a central space that is entered via a wooden door, which can be either open or closed to the elements thanks to an inflatable pink roof that can be deployed during rain or snow, or if the occupants want to keep the heat of the fire from escaping. According to the firm, the roof has been deliberately made to look "like a blooming cactus" as a nod to the dwelling's desert location.

Casa Covida 3D printed adobe house by Emerging Objects exterior
Elliot Ross 

Inside the central space, besides the main hearth we have two earthen benches, called tarima.

Casa Covida 3D printed adobe house by Emerging Objects central space
Elliot Ross

The custom-designed earthen cookware seen here was also 3D-printed by the firm using locally sourced micaceous clay, and is based on similar pottery forms from the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico.

Casa Covida 3D printed adobe house by Emerging Objects central space
Elliot Ross

Off to one side, we have another adobe addition that serves as a sleeping space, which includes a platform made from beetle kill pine (basically wood reclaimed from trees that have been killed off by mountain pine beetles – a big problem in Colorado).

Casa Covida 3D printed adobe house by Emerging Objects sleeping room
Elliot Ross

The textiles seen here were made by local artist Joshua Tafoya.

Casa Covida 3D printed adobe house by Emerging Objects sleeping room
Elliot Ross

On the other side of the central area is a bathing space, which features a metal soaking tub embedded into the ground, and surrounded by river stones.

Casa Covida 3D printed adobe house by Emerging Objects bathing room
Elliot Ross

Looking up from the tub, there's an open view of the sky above.

Casa Covida 3D printed adobe house by Emerging Objects bathing room
Elliot Ross

According to the firm, the smartphone-controlled SCARA robotic printer used in this project is lightweight enough that only two people are needed to operate it. In addition, the firm developed design software for the project, called Potterware, which other designers can download and use.

Casa Covida 3D printed adobe house by Emerging Objects 3D printed pottery
Emerging Objects

Casa Covida may be an experimental prototype for now, but Rael points out that the goal here is to ask vital questions about the limits of advanced technology and materials, and the possibilities of reviving ancient techniques and materials in a modern context:

"In some ways, for me at least, this is a return to a particular origin. [..It may seem that we're] taking the most primitive materials and combining them with the most sophisticated technology. [But] I actually see that in reverse: I see that mankind has been developing the use of mud for 10,000 years -- it's actually our most sophisticated material. And the way it works thermally, and the way it performs, and the way that it works environmentally is extremely sophisticated. The [robotic arm] is a crotchety, weird thing that's always breaking down -- that's only existed for two years. It's the least sophisticated technology we have for making a building. So the way I look at it is that we're returning to a higher level of construction system by simplifying."

To see more, visit Rael San Fratello, Earth Architecture and Emerging Objects.

View Article Sources
  1. Niroumand, Hamed, et al. "Earth Architecture from Ancient Until Today." Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 89, 2013, pp. 222-225, doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.08.838