A team of researchers from the University of Virginia (UVA) discovered a way to create soil structures with the help of 3D printing. The technology currently uses cement-based materials to build houses, but Ehsan Baharlou, assistant professor of architecture at UVA, created wall prototypes using soil.
“This is a development of a type of material that, first of all, is printable, and second of all, can be a structure by itself,” he says. “After that, it can provide enough nutrition for the growth of different kinds of seeds.”
With the popularity of living walls and rooftop terraces in modern landscape architecture, the ability to create green structures using a soil-based material would allow designers to build into the design rather than on top of it.
In 3D printing, structures are created by laying down multiple thin layers of a material to create a three-dimensional object. For the research project, soil was mixed with an additive to make the material. Seeds were placed in between each layer as the 3D wall was constructed. The result was a wall that sprouted greenery within four days.
The team used local soil to keep the project sustainable. If the technology is made widely available, structures could be built anywhere using the resources from the surrounding area. It would eliminate the need to transport material to a site and help reduce the emissions associated with design and construction.
"Why we're doing it is completely related to the amount of carbon emission [generated] & how we are going to have to develop a system to be negative carbon emission."
Chemical additives are not added to the soil so that the material can be used again or returned to nature. This type of circular and bio-composite construction can transform how the landscape industry sources and uses materials.
As the research continues, we could see a future where retaining walls are made of the soil around them and grow their own plants.
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Ehsan Baharlou, Dr.-Ing. Assistant Professor of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia