Building the First 3D-Print Canal House: Co-founder of DUS Architects, Hans Vermeulen
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
DUS Architects was founded by Hans Vermeulen, Martine de Wit, and Hedwig Heinsman. DUS won the prestigious Amsterdam Awards for the Arts 2011. In addition to their artistic and internationally oriented work, DUS was praised for being socially committed. The public architecture firm is also the founding partner of the OPEN COOP, a cooperative for the knowledge-based industries, and a “do-tank” that actively solves societal problems. One of the spinoffs is Amsterdam Electricity.
DUS is currently leading an international team of partners in “research and doing,” connecting science, design, construction, and community by 3D-printing a canal house in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The U.S. President, Barack Obama, visited the 3D-Print Canal House, in March 2014.
Have you anticipated the feeling of living in a plastic house?
[Laughs.] Good morning!
Well, that’s how you wake up. You wake up in a plastic house! In a plastic bed and plastic kitchen.
We are not saying that everyone should live in a plastic house. We are also testing new combinations of wood fiber, and with foam concrete filler. We print what we can test. One of DUS Architects’ first rules is learning by doing, or research by doing.
You do a lot of temporary projects. What is the goal of these short-term projects?
Fun. That’s a very important one. Especially in Holland, architecture is quite a long process, often a struggle. With a temporary project, we cut short the regulation process. For example, the Bucky Bar [a dome bar made entirely out of red umbrellas that caused a spontaneous street party with 300 people in the cold winter]. The project taught us not only to go into the online world. The offline world becomes an important place in its most essential meaning, maybe even more important. It is often that we don’t know what we will learn.
It’s more how you organize the social structure or the community living within those physical borders. What we learned was that the residents, once they became organized as a group, entered the power structure of how we make cities. The residents’ representatives negotiated with the municipality and architect to discuss how they wanted to live.
For example, elderly people now share a guest room. Younger residents share a bigger kitchen or living room. Parent with kids share the gardens. Residents also share a workshop space and movie theater.
There are all kinds of mechanisms being constructed within the online social networks, which can be applied in the physical world. The sharing principle and the way you organize yourself—those are the most powerful tools for instigating social interaction within your neighborhood.
Have you seen anything you’d consider an exemplary housing model in the world?
This concept of a wider range of how you can live together in the 21st century is quite an interesting model. We did analog customizing as architects, with the client, the corporation, and the community. Online, you can create customization tools. As an architect, you can offer people designs and then customize or contextualize because it’s biometric rule-based design.
What is your general view on housing besides customization of residents’ requirements?
There is still a very large group of people in the world who cannot afford a humane way of living. I think that’s one of the main challenges we have as a global society. As an architect, I’d like to come up with global solutions.
Would the 3D-Print House be one of them?
This could be one of them. It also democratizes production. What you see here in Holland—but everywhere in the world—there are only a few entities that have access to housing production. The Internet opens up information. If you have people having access to production via printers, fax labs, or networks printers, then you have a totally different power structure of generating a city.
Let’s talk a little about the OPEN COOP.
We started with six partners, and there’s now a group of 18 companies. The power of a coop is that people could organize to be stronger as a market player. At the same time, they can work together with the bigger companies to upscale ideas into the world. One of the spinoffs of OPEN COOP is Amsterdam Electricity.
Apart from electricity, is OPEN COOP going to fulfill more day-to-day needs?
A water concept is part of OPEN COOP. There is a biological food company. We are looking into the possibilities of starting a house coop. We are trying to learn how a new housing project operates in a not transparent and difficult housing market.
For the 3D-Print Canal House, how does a global leader in adhesives ends up working with one of the biggest Dutch contractors, nonprofits, and the government?
The creative industry has power in complex processes. We can connect market innovations to the larger public and show the potential of what’s already being invented within companies. This is a visionary project that doesn’t harm companies, so we generate a platform for them to actually start testing in the open.
Where does the desire to build come from?
I think I want to reorganize our environment, and connecting and repurposing an object, for me, is also building. The power of design is that it is a communication tool.
When you make this [3D] printer, and you have this idea of using waste, then it’s an easy step to say let’s go to, for example, Mumbai and start using the plastic they already are collecting; and start to rebuild slums. That is one of the solutions the printer can bring. However, it doesn’t make sense to drop this thing without creating the community first.
What is needed for social impact?
It’s finding the balance between being personal and finding scale. I think that’s quite important because being personal is that people project it to their own life. To have a social impact, you have to let it grow—that’s the upscale, and that’s where the markets come in. They have the power of upscaling things, but they don’t have the power to be personal.
That’s what you see in old domains, in healthcare, social housing, the financial sector, still, with current relations, is that the upscaling became the problem. However, people should not romanticize self-organizing systems [such as a coop] because it is quite difficult to find a balance. We call it the quest for communal personal gain.
What can people do to support their communities?
Well, first they can do more than they think they can. By doing, you can start to understand more about systems and what is your position in it. Electricity, for example, is a low-interest product for the consumer, but on a global level, we’re making war because of it, so it’s really awareness.
So, what’s next?
What we learned from the 3D-Print Canal House is that we can take design and make it sharable, scalable, and downloadable. It is a personal design for a global community. That’s the power of this technique. You can go from mass production to mass customization, and bring production back into the cities closer to the people with rethinking resources: How can we use waste streams into building materials?
It is the third industrial revolution connected to the social revolution of the Internet. That’s what we tried with this project, and that’s actually your role as a designer and as an architect.
The interview is part of Impact X.