A team at Cornell has worked to create a system of interlocking, ceramic bricks which are lightweight and don't require mortar.

The humble brick is the oldest manufactured construction product. Sun-baked bricks wrought from clay were used in the construction of structures more than 6,000 years ago, and about 4,000 B.C., manufacturers started producing brick in uniform shapes. Around that time as well, the sun-baking process was replaced with 'firing' in hot ovens to improve the durability of each brick.

Brick is, in some ways, critical to the evolution of society. The Pyramids, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China – all built with masonry construction methods – were built for the long haul.

Over those many years, masonry materials haven't changed all that much. But, now a team of designers and researchers have used 3D printing technology and geometric engineering principles to re-imagine what a "brick" can become. A team at Cornell has worked to create a system of interlocking, ceramic bricks which are lightweight and don't require mortar.

"The assembly logic is embedded in each part through embossing."

Their PolyBrick is hollow to cut down on the use of the clay powder material during post processing. The process was slow but allowed for a higher degree of accuracy and resolution.

Jenny Sabin

"PolyBrick is the first mortarless, 3D printed wall assembly. It will allow for the production of ceramic wall assemblies that are robust and high strength due to the novel implementation of highly complex and organic generative design strategies that are also simply and economically produced," says team lead Jenny Sabin. "3D printing allows us to build and design like nature does, where every part is different, but there is a coherence to the overall form at a global scale."

Developed by the Sabin Design Lab in collaboration with Cornell and Jenny Sabin Studio, the PolyBrick project included assistant professor of architecture Jenny Sabin, senior research associate Martin Miller, lecturer Andrew Lucia, and Nicholas Cassab.

The printed bricks are fired to decrease any possible warping and shrinkage. They are then dipped in a satin glaze and fired once again at a higher temperature to create a vitrified shell.

Sabin says printing the bricks is cost effective, requires very little labor and maximizes the efficiency of the process by using low cost materials.

"We found that increasing the number of print heads in use during the print build equates to faster build time. Although we experimented with several binder solutions with various alcohol bases, we found that using the ZCorp binder and allowing it to burn out during the first bisque fire resulted in more durable greenware printed parts," Sabin said. "The assembly logic is embedded in each part through embossing."

Sabin is among the vanguard in 21st century architectural practice and she's an Assistant Professor in Design and Emerging Technologies in the Department of Architecture at Cornell University.

Sabin is among the vanguard in 21st century architectural practice and she's an Assistant Professor in Design and Emerging Technologies in the Department of Architecture at Cornell University. She's also the principal of Jenny Sabin Studio, an experimental architectural design studio based in Philadelphia, and holds degrees in ceramics and interdisciplinary visual art from the University of Washington and a master's of architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.

The paper the team published, PolyBrick: Variegated Additive Ceramic Component Manufacturing, documents the use of algorithmic design techniques to digitally fabricate and produce nonstandard ceramic brick components for the mortarless assembly and installation for what the team calls the "first fully 3D printed and fired ceramic brick wall."

Sabin said care was taken to make certain that the end product fell within the scalar limitations of current print bed sizes.

PolyBrick essentially functions using tapered dovetail joints like those used in woodworking, and the tapered sides of the bricks are then oriented in walls to maximize the structural strength of the finished edifice.

Sabin and Miller say that each individual brick has "embedded intelligence at both the local and global scales." The system includes geometric manipulations and exchanges built into the algorithms connecting the individual components which allows this "aggregative system" to have the correct taper angle to ensure gravity does the work of locking each brick in place.

"I started working with 3D printing in 2009 when we were able to purchase our first ZCorp 510 powder-based printer," Sabin said. "I was interested in using the printer to rapid manufacture non-standard parts for larger architectural assemblies instead of representational models. Industrial and technological advances have shown us that ceramic production can be manual, mechanical and now digital. The plastic nature of clay offers a potent material solution to contemporary generative design processes in architecture, which frequently feature organic and natural forms of increasingly complex expression and ornamentation."