From the towering Burj Khalifa to the manmade islands of the Palm Jumeirah and the Palm Deira, Dubai is known for its lavish wealth and ambitious construction projects. As such, the construction of a relatively small (2,000-square-foot) office building in the heart of the city should hardly be a matter of interest. But the way this building will be erected could revolutionize the way construction is delivered around the world.

The United Arab Emirates National Innovation Committee’s mission is to render Dubai the global center of architecture and design. Teaming up with the Chinese company WinSun Global, the committee intends to 3-D print the entire office building onsite.

This technology, while potentially revolutionary in its applications, isn’t new. Prior iterations of 3-D technology, most notably in China, printed walls and other components offsite and had pieces trucked onto construction sites. This is quite similar to prefabrication or modular concepts widely diffused throughout the United States today.

But the Dubai project will cut out any middlemen by using a 6-meter-tall 3-D printer. Among other things, this cuts down on transportation costs, as well as the number of subcontractors participating on the project. Costly design errors will be averted. Miscommunications among the general contractor and subcontractors will be avoided. According to project leaders, the entire project should only last a few weeks and will slash the cost of labor by up to 80 percent.

Elsewhere around the world, architects already are planning similar endeavors. MX3D, a design studio from the Netherlands, intends to build a pedestrian bridge over one of Amsterdam’s canals using a robotic 3-D printer capable of “printing” with
molten steel. In fact, the company’s printers can use a variety of metals as ink, including stainless steel, aluminum, copper and bronze. Because of the way these 3-D printers function (they print by extruding small amounts of metal at a time), the need for support structures is minimized, helping to shave costs even more.

Here in the United States, firms are planning to utilize the technology to design and build entire projects. A unique partnership in upstate New York between architect Adam Kushner and 3-D printing pioneer Enrico Dini seeks to use giant printers to produce entire estates—from the mansion to its adjacent swimming pool. All construction would take place onsite, eliminating the need for offsite facilities and allowing the owner to monitor progress on a second-by-second basis.

Making mansions from scratch is just the tip of the iceberg. According to Kushner, “If I can build a pool, I can print underwater reefs to repair bridges, piers and infrastructures.”

Whether or to what extent 3-D printing will displace conventional methods of construction delivery is anyone’s guess. What is not known presently are the challenges presented by 3-D printing. People have recognized the promise, but until more of these projects are developed and occupied, the shortfalls cannot be fully understood. 

Anirban Basu is chief economist of Associated Builders and Contractors. For more information, visit