3D Printing to the Sky

3Diligent helps Rainier Square Tower rise in Seattle

Once it’s completed in 2020, Seattle’s Rainier Square Tower will be the second tallest building in the city, at 850 feet, adding a distinctive sloping silhouette to an already iconic skyline. The design, which was reportedly inspired by Minoru Yamasaki’s neighboring 1977 construction, is based on a complex system of steel plates, rather than a traditional concrete and rebar core. This creates a dramatic curve that will preserve the view of the Yamasaki building, as well as echoing the shape of its archetypical tapering concrete pedestal base. Designed by prominent Seattle-based architecture firm NBBJ, the tower will house luxury apartments, offices and retail space within its distinctively curvaceous facade, which has been compared by more imaginative observers to a quarter pipe or a high-heeled boot.

To achieve this gracefully sloped appearance, NBBJ partnered with Walters & Wolf, a design firm specializing in cladding services for a variety of construction types and materials, as well as California-based 3D printer 3Diligent, to create a 3D printed cladding system. 3dilligent was tasked with creating 140 custom 3D-printed aluminum nodes of varying dimensions to form the building’s cladding, creating an air- and water-tight layer that protects the interior of the building and gives it its distinctively fluid aesthetic. This creates an undulating curtain wall, which lends the building a cohesive angle as it bends between the fourth and fortieth floors. The nodes will connect the square-cut pieces of the aluminum curtain wall, accommodating a unique angle for the non-structural cladding to connect to each floor of the building.

“It’s cool to be a part of something that is such a landscape or skyline making design,” said  Cullen Hilkene, CEO of 3Diligent, who oversaw the printing of the components. “A lot of the 3D printing that we get to do is very much behind the scenes and hidden from the world. There’s a lot of cool stuff that’s going on that people don’t necessarily know about. It signals some of the potential that is starting to be realized in the world of 3D construction.”

In fact, the tower’s design would have been extremely difficult to realize without the use of 3D-printed cladding. Due to the sloping design of the tower’s facade, the cladding for each floor had totally unique specifications, requiring the extreme amount of structural reliability and dimensional accuracy that are a particular strength of the 3D printing process. “There are opportunities to really push the boundaries of what’s possible with architecture now that we can reliably fabricate components with 3D printing that weren’t possible or plausible before,” said Hilkene. “And I do think that really stands to open the door to some very exciting innovation in the architectural space, at the very least from a design standpoint.”

This use of 3D printed components as such a major part of the construction of a skyscraper facade is revolutionary because it will be so visible—a tangible reminder for all Seattle residents of how far the industry has come in the short time it has been in existence. “I would like to think that this example can serve as inspiration to architects, to builders, to anybody, to say there are more opportunities here that we can and should be exploring,” said Hilkene  For him, the tower is a symbol of the possibilities that 3D printing holds: ”I don’t see any reason why 3D printing won’t have a growing presence in the market, especially in statement buildings like the Rainier Tower.”