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In the Future: Design Through Bytes, Not ________

The inherent contradiction between “sustainable design” and creating more stuff — whose relative necessity and functionality may vary from person to person — is a difficult issue for TreeHuggers to reconcile sometimes. While our favorite designs sure look good and offer a greener alternative and lighter carbon footprint [www.sundance.tv], does the benefit of owning them and having more stuff outweigh the materials, labor, emissions and energy expended to get them to us? Maybe; maybe not, but any way we can reduce any (or all) of these is a good thing. Looking toward the future, we think the answer may be on the horizon: 3D printing and downloadable designs.

The concept of downloading designs and then “printing” them in your own home is quite simple, though much more complicated in practice. The idea exists in a few different formats, but is essentially this: a designer dreams up a new product; publishes and helps distribute the plans; we buy them and either 1) contract a local manufacturer to build it or 2) gather the materials and build it ourselves. Think of it like IKEA without the roof-rack or the trip to the big store; using flat-packed designs; most everything could be (at least mostly) constructed from a flat sheet of plywood.

Most designers (and the population at large) aren’t really quite ready for this, so we present option #2: 3D printing. Technology is coming [www.treehugger.com] to allow three-dimensional objects to be “printed” (meaning fabricated, really) in your home from designs downloaded from the internet (or on something like a CD or DVD, direct from the designer). Intriguing, no? Right now, the technology can only do simple, solid plastic forms, but Cornell University has made a machine that can “print out” in silicone, plaster, Cheez Whiz and Play-Doh. Until the technology becomes more flexible (and cost-effective), we’re limited to our current printing capabilities; since this usually involves inkjets or lasers, downloading designs is pretty well limited to what we can print on paper. Fortunately, there are a handful of designs out there that can give you an idea of what can be done.

1) Having this pinhole camera [www.treehugger.com] is as easy as downloading the design, printing the PDF, following the instructions, loading the film, and pointing and clicking to your heart’s content.
2) Foldschool furniture [www.treehugger.com] follows the same idea, though on a slightly larger scale. Designer Nicola Enrico Stäubli says, “Mass culture is run by superficiality and ecological absurdity. The mindset of foldschool is to restore design to one of its original missions: to provide a product at an affordable price through a smart manufacturing process.”
3) Why stop with a camera and furniture when you can download and print a whole house [www.treehugger.com]? Well, a scaled-down replica of a house, at least, but still an impressive bit of design and architecture considering it’s made from the same stuff TPS reports are usually printed on.
4) ReadyMech [www.treehugger.com] is a series of smart, fun designs that you can download and assemble yourself, if you don’t want to wait around for robot-built house. Maybe not as functional as a house, but still a great example of how to short-circuit the entire expensive production, transport and sales process that consumes so much energy.