In January, the big-name architects behind 1 World Trade Center rolled into the International Builders Conference with researchers from a small lab in Tennessee. They brought with them a most unusual building, a white tubelike structure that looked something like the convergence of an Airstream and a fish. It had ribs and gills and a slick black SUV like a Jeep. It looked like a Conestoga wagon from the future.
They called it the Additive Manufacturing Integrated Energy Structure, a mouthful more easily called AMIE 1.0. The unusual design, which was a collaborative effort five years in the making, expresses several intriguing ideas about fabrication methods and energy use. It’s one of the largest carbon fiber structures ever created with a 3-D printer—a method that resulted in very little waste—and shares energy with the SUV, which also was 3-D printed. The project offers a glimpse at how architects think we might live off-the-grid in the future.
AMIE is the result of a collaboration between the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture and Design, and architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The goal, says Phil Enquist, a partner at SOM who oversees the firm’s urban planning group, was to explore “larger urban applications around energy.” Additive manufacturing—aka 3-D printing—was top of mind. “We were really intrigued with it because the whole idea of 3-D printing is that eventually you can design a building, and print it in a way that you have no waste,” he says. Compare that to modern construction projects, he says, where “you can have 20 or 30 percent of material waste that all goes into a landfill.”
3-D printing has become increasingly common in small-scale applications, but architects and engineers are still figuring out how to use the technology for things like houses and infrastructure. China’s WinSun Decoration Design Engineering Company made headlines last year when it 3-D printed a five-story apartment building. Joris Laarman, a Dutch designer known for 3-D printed furniture, plans to tackle a bigger, more ambitious project in Amsterdam with a footbridge using additive manufacturing techniques.
3-D printing at this scale is fraught with challenges. One of the biggest issues is strength. In a traditional building, multiple materials work together to provide ample support; what appears from the outside to be a brick building rests upon a concrete foundation and relies upon steel reinforcements. When 3-D printing a continuous structure, large sections of unreinforced plastic can crack under loads that a traditional building would support safely.
The AMIE project addressed the strength issue by printing the structure in pieces. The tube-shaped building is assembled from C-shaped modules 3-D printed from carbon fiber-reinforced plastic and strengthened with steel rods. Joining two C-shaped modules together forms a ring-shaped segment, which, when aligned with other segments, gives rise to the final structure. This modular system enabled the team to distribute loads safely throughout the pavilion.
But the 3-D printed building is only half the story. From the beginning, Oak Ridge scientists Johney Green and Roderick Jackson saw AMIE as a chance to reimagine how we produce, store, and consume energy. Their plan: Connect two of the biggest energy sinks that people encounter on a daily basis—their house and their car—with an “integrated energy” system. In other words, they wanted the building and the vehicle to be capable of passing electricity back and forth.
That’s exactly what the AMIE project does. Both the building and the SUV can generate and store energy. The building powers its lights and appliances—it comes complete with faucets, a refrigerator, and induction stovetops— with rooftop solar panels. When appliances aren’t in use, energy is stored in the building’s battery. The vehicle sports a battery, too, but also has a gasoline-powered generator. The SUV and the building are connected by an inductive charging pad that is activated when the car parks above it. When necessary, the car’s battery and generator can supply energy to the house—and vice-versa. And if both are powerless on a cloudy day, the house can tap into the power grid.
Jackson likenes AMIE to a living organism. “Your body self-regulates,” he says. “It knows when to send blood to different parts of the body when it needs.” AMIE does something similar, coordinating the flow of energy with a computer loaded with energy-monitoring algorithms. Jackson calls it AMIE’s brain. “If the building needs to, it uses energy from the sun to meet its needs. If it doesn’t, or if we’re about to see clouds in the next four hours, it can store it—in the battery, or in the vehicle.”
When the SOM and Oak Ridge designers put their concept to the test, the wireless, bi-directional energy system worked—at least, in a controlled setting. AMIE is very much a prototype, but it’s in a similar league, conceptually, as Tesla Energy’s battery system, or Snøhetta’s “plus house” in Norway. Each is, in its own way, a pilot for a new model of living that doesn’t rely on a centralized power grid.
Enquist, Green, and Jackson want to see integrated energy concepts applied on a larger scale. Enquist points out that power plants in cities always have excess energy on hand, to accommodate for peak loads—those times “when everybody comes home from work and turns on lights, ovens, and televisions.” Accounting for these spikes is less efficient than supplying power on an as-needed basis. Then there’s the reverse scenario, when communities don’t have enough energy at their disposal. “If you look at the 2 billion people in the world without reliable access to power, that’s a problem,” Jackson says. “Even in the U.S., where we have more reliable systems. Sandy, Katrina, [other natural disasters]—they remind us that the systems we have may not be as resilient as we think.”
This hints at SOM and Oak Ridge’s big-picture plan: designing AMIE 2.0, with high-density urban environments in mind. Enquist says that project would look at building an entire community, instead of standalone units. All of this—and the fate of AMIE 1.0—depends on continued funding from the Department of Energy. If that comes through, Enquist says, “I think within a year we could be printing actual houses that you could be living in.”