Cutting-edge 3D printing pushes construction boundaries in an Oakland cabin


A gabled cabin covered in 3D printed plant pots

The 3D-printed Cabin of Curiosities is a research endeavor and “proof of concept” investigation into the architectural possibilities of upcycling and custom 3D-printed claddings as a response to 21st -century housing needs.

This exploratory project is an output of Bay Area-based additive manufacturing startup Emerging Objects, founded by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, who are professors at the University of California Berkeley and San Jose State University, respectively. They also co-founded the architecture studio Rael San Fratello, whose work primarily focuses on architecture as a cultural endeavor.

A gabled cabin covered in 3D printed plant pots
Color variation is achieved using different upcycled and innovative 3D-printable materials invented by Emerging Objects, including recycled chardonnay grape skins from Sonoma, cement, sawdust, and coffee grounds. (Matthew Millman)

The Cabin of Curiosities is exemplary of Emerging Objects’ work, which dives deep into the material science of additive manufacturing while utilizing open-source tools and standard off-the-shelf printers.

An all-white cabin interior
The interior displays 3D-printed curiosities, from ceramic vessels, material experiments, and studies. Color changing LED lights, which illuminate the interior through the 3D-printed bio-plastic interior cladding, set a playful mood. 3D-printed furniture and accessories include a pink Picoroco Lamp, coffee table, Coffee-Coffee kettle and cup, and a chair. (Matthew Millman

Due to a housing emergency in the Bay Area, the Oakland City Council eased restrictions on the construction of secondary housing units, or backyard cottages. The new rules promote more rental housing by easing parking requirements, allowing homeowners to transform existing backyard buildings like sheds and garages into living spaces, and relaxing height and setback requirements.

Thusly located in a residential backyard, the one-room gabled structure brings together a collection of performative tile products, from interior translucent glowing wall assemblies to exterior rain screens composed of integrated succulent planters and textural “shingles” that push the boundaries of how quickly one can mass produce 3D-printed architectural components.

Wall condition where planters meet exterior cladding
A corner detail shows 3D-printed ceramic "seed stitch” tiles overlapping on the facade corner. The “planter tiles,” which hold succulents and air plants, face forward. (Matthew Millman)

Over 4,500 3D-printed ceramic tiles clad the exterior of the building. The firm is committed to focusing on upcycling agricultural and industrial waste products, and at times its custom materials sound more like tasting notes from a nearby Napa or Sonoma wine. Grape skins, salt, cement, and sawdust, among others, have been integrated into Emerging Objects’ products to create variety among the tiles.

The project integrates two types of tiles on the exterior: a “planter” tile on the gable ends, and a shingled “seed stitch” tile wrapping the side walls and roof. The planter tiles offer 3D-printed ceramic shapes that include pockets for vegetation to grow. The seed stitch tiles, borrowing from knitting terminology, are produced through a deliberately rapid printing process that utilizes G-code processing to control each line of clay for a more “handmade” aesthetic. No two tiles are the same, offering unique shadow lines across the facade.

A cabin exterior clad in knurled tiles
Over 4,500 3D-printed ceramic tiles clad the majority of the building. The calibrated inconsistencies and material behavior make each tile unique. Ever changing shadows transform the cabin’s surface throughout the day as each seed stitch tile is gently curved to receive the sun and cast shadows. (Matthew Millman)

The cabin interior features translucent white Chroma Curl wall tiles, made of a bio-based plastic derived from corn. These tiles offer a customized relief texture inspired by the tradition of pressed metal ceilings, which historically relied on mass production through mold-making.

A cabin interior at night awash in purple light
At night, the color shifting Chroma Curl skin gives the space a dreamy atmosphere. The pink Picoroco lamp is a night light, and the walls reflect a midnight blue. (Matthew Millman)

A white cabin interior
The 3D-printed bio-plastic interior cladding resembles traditional pressed metal ceilings. (Matthew Millman)

It might be too soon to tell, but the 3D-Printed Cabin might be our generation’s version of Muuratsalo, Alvar Aalto’s classic house circa 1953 which experimented with textured material and architectural form through its construction. “We’re building this from our kitchen table, printing parts and testing solutions in real time,” said San Fratello.

The cabin is a departure from other investigations in 3D-printed dwellings, many of which are unlivable and not aesthetically considered. “These are not just investigations into testing materials for longevity or for structure, but also a study of aesthetics. We see the future as being elegant, optimistic, and beautiful,” said Rael.