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Last year, professionals at the Chicago office of architecture and design firm Perkins Eastman found themselves with a new, somewhat peculiar office mate: a 3-D printer.
Painted as potential design “disruptors” by professional services firm PwC and already being used by at least two-thirds of U.S. manufacturers in one way or another, 3-D printers have taken various industries by storm. Still, that doesn’t mean 3-D printers are intuitive to use, or that their application in senior housing is immediately obvious, according to Michael Schur, an associate at Perkins Eastman based in the firm’s Chicago office.
Confronted with this shiny new technology, Perkins Eastman’s Chicago office decided to tackle two birds with one stone: learn how to use 3-D printing software by designing and printing a product for use in senior housing. The results suggest how 3-D printing could increase customization in senior living design—for a price—while also perhaps changing the way that designers problem-solve issues like accessibility and usability.
“We thought, ‘What kind of problem can we ask ourselves that would relate to the [senior housing] work that we do?’” Schur tells Senior Housing News.
The product that the office ultimately settled on for their project? Door handles.
Schur and Joshua Bergman, a project architect at Perkins Eastman who’s also based in Chicago, chronicled the Chicago office’s six-month-long door handle experiment with its 3-D printer in a white paper titled “A Handle on Accessibility: Designing for a Future of Limited Mobility.”
If their experience is any indication, 3-D printing has a future in senior housing—and it may come sooner than many realize.
Why door handles?
Door handles may seem like an unusual choice for a senior living-oriented project, but their prominence in senior living can be underestimated.
“The door handle is one the few elements of a facility that all users routinely and unavoidably must engage,” Schur and Bergman write in the white paper.
To get started, the Perkins Eastman office was divided into six teams of three. Originally, the teams were planning to compete against one another to create the best 3-D printed door handle, but that ended up not being the case.
“Quickly, we realized this wasn’t going to be a competition at all,” Schur says. Instead, the teams collaborated with one another, which ultimately resulted in door handle designs that can be organized into three main categories: handles that adapt traditional handle forms, handles that rethink the handle form, and handles that rethink how a door can be operated.
The final door handle designs, which were printed on-site in the Chicago office, included a seed handle, a twist handle, a hand hold handle, a loop handle, a long handle and a crank handle.
The team members who worked on the project appreciated the instantaneous results that 3-D printing offers.
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“The introduction of 3-D printing into the design process gave teams the ability to nearly instantly evaluate their ideas and design iterations at a 1:1 scale through the lens of the end-user,” Schur and Bergman write in the white paper. “The power to physically construct complex forms directly from digital models and then test their success created a swift feedback loop that allowed teams to focus on tactility and user-performance.”
With the project wrapped up, Perkins Eastman is now deciding how to best make use of their findings.
“We have received some interest in pursing door handles further,” Bergman tells Senior Housing News. Does that mean senior housing residents will soon encounter these handles in real life?
“We’ll see,” he says.
Future of 3-D printing in senior living
Architects at Perkins Eastman’s Chicago office haven’t abandoned their 3-D printer since wrapping up the door handle project; in fact, they’ve done quite the opposite.
“We’re continuing to use it on a regular basis,” Schur says, adding that the firm currently uses its 3-D printer primarily for scale and model-making purposes.
That’s not to say 3-D printing won’t have a place in senior housing design.
“As 3-D printing technologies continue to advance, there are opportunities to leverage the ability to design and manufacture custom and one-off pieces and create more bespoke environments for seniors,” Schur says.
Still, 3-D printing may be an expensive venture.
“Inevitably, custom-designed hardware will be more expensive than mass-produced, off-the-shelf products,” Schur explains. “…That said, depending on the project, complexity of a design, use, and scale of a desired custom product, 3-D printing does have the opportunity to reduce price and labor costs associated when compared with more traditional methods of construction.”
Plus, having constant access to the advanced technology has changed how some people at Perkins Eastman view their jobs, and senior housing design in general.
“It’s sort of challenged us to look at senior living, the work that we do, in a different kind of way,” Bergman says. In fact, the 3-D printer is inspiring the architects to better understand senior living from residents’ perspectives, as well as their own.
“How can we use [the 3-D printer] to push the conversation of what design means, and what design means to us?” Bergman asks.
Written by Mary Kate Nelson
All photos courtesy of Perkins Eastman