Deena El-Mahdy is an Egyptian architect and Assistant professor at Architectural Engineering Department at the British University in Egypt. She contributed to many projects related to additive manufacturing techniques in construction. Deena was shortlisted in Tamayouz Excellence Award for Women in Architecture in 2019. Her research focuses on material science, additive manufacturing techniques, and robotics in construction where she is trying to establish a hub that can flourish the economy in the MENA region with international institutions’ collaborations.
Deena, could you let us know about your background and your journey to Additive Manufacturing (AM)?
I am an architect and assistant professor at the British University in Egypt, and I have been teaching since 2010. I graduated from Cairo University, faculty on engineering, Architectural Engineering department in 2010 where I obtained my MSc. and Ph.D. from the same university in 2013 and 2018 respectively.
In early 2012, I attended the first digital fabrication workshop that changed my way of thinking through looking at things differently. I started to study material sciences and how to reuse and recycle the materials to decrease waste in construction.
I was exposed to different rules in nature where I studied deeply the behavior of the organisms and the logic beyond them. Revisiting nature introduced me to the biomimicry approach which is depending on mimicking nature and the organisms through their dealing with the surrounded environment and adapting with. This offered an inspiration tool and technique that can be reflected in architecture.
My passion for photography, especially in insects, and the curiosity beyond them allowed me to discover a lot of similarities between their behavior in constructing their colonies comparing to our building techniques. These similarities enabled me to explore different way of sustainable building methods in which they follow. Through exploring ants, termites, bees, and wasps which they are depending on natural earthen materials available in their environment, I started to realize the similar ways they follow during the construction with the 3D printing. Both techniques were about addition where the materials are added layer by layer. I can say that photography took me deep inside approaching the Additive Manufacturing. Accordingly, my study started to focus more on the sustainable approaches the insects follow through their building techniques and eco-friendly materials they used as vernacular architecture. By this exposure, I followed the wasp’s technique in producing the materials in which the 3D printing mechanism is mimicking wasps’ behavior. From this perspective, I tracked the same method trying to merge the available materials and new computational techniques that would provide a lot of material and resources. Since then, my research became more focusing on additive manufacturing especially 3D printing in which this method allows using the minimum amount of needed materials and less waste generating complex forms where my message is following the concept of ” The concept of Think Globally and act locally”. I found a passion through attending and learning new ideas where I have attended more than 22 hands-on workshops related to digital fabrication, materiality and robotic construction where I believe these techniques can change the way we follow in our construction in the future.
Let’s dive in deeper: How do you believe additive manufacturing could help construction?
Due to our harsh environment and the decrease in the temperature especially in the arid region, it is being hard in some countries to keep working with the same efficiency with local craftsmanship without the use of technologies. The new construction investments, especially in the desert areas, started to get increased with the need for saving much time, effort, and transportation as well. After my visit in 2015 to New Gourna at Luxor constructed by the architect Hassan Fathy, I was shocked by the huge damages and the industrial materials that have been hacked this area. After interviewing some locals, most of them raised that they need a new typology and a different language as the one in the city. Being exposed earlier in the digital manufacturing and fabrication techniques, I could not ignore the importance of these tools which can help in generating new complexity easily with the respect of the materials and context on their site in both the design and construction phase. Putting in mind the quote said by Hassan Fathy, “Build with what is beneath your feet”, which means respecting the local environment and the materials available with the technology available in this era as I see it.
I started to focus on sustainable local materials to generate new architectural forms out of clay.
After two years of experimenting with different materials such as salt, sand, clay, algae, earth, etc., my visit to Siwa ended up focusing my research and practice on SALT trying to develop and revive the Kerchief with new techniques. This material was used in construction in Siwa Oasis where the buildings remain until now, where it become stronger during the crystallization and solidification of the salt particles.
To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing?
In developing countries, the integration of digital fabrication and AM in the industrial sector are not going fast where the same techniques from the second and third industrial revolution are still used. Although the world now is using digital advanced techniques, I started to see the feasibility of integrating such techniques in construction through sharing in different competitions and business models related to real estate companies and firms to present the feasibility and the possibility of these techniques. It may take a long time, but I believe that keep spreading the advantages of these techniques can make a change.
One of the achievements in additive manufacturing during my PhD. was generating SaltBlock which was a developed of a traditional construction technique called Kerchief used in Siwa Oasis in Western desert. Although it still needs more development, it was a state of art developing traditional techniques through the merge of the new additive manufacturing techniques.
After receiving Tatweer Misr Innovation Award in architecture in 2018 on my business model project titled “3D printing the construction waste”, the company requested the estimated budget to purchase the printer and allow me to try the prototype in one of their projects. I felt that I have more responsibility concerning convincing the real estate companies and firms to try the AM which can solve a lot of problems regarding the construction techniques, especially in our arid region.
The academic career allowed me to be exposed to integrate new interactive techniques in teaching to engage students in hands-on workshops using sustainable materials. The output allowed them to think differently highlighting the concept of “make to learn” which proved that the new education methodologies and processes can fill the gap between academia, industry, and practice.
What are some of the challenges of manufacturing with sand and salt and how can additive manufacturing help tackle these challenges?
Salt is a natural mineral that has been used as a traditional material building technique centuries ago especially in Siwa Oasis in the Western desert in Egypt. This technique is called “Kerchief”, a salt-based traditional and eco-friendly material (salt rock mixed with clay). The nature of Siwa and its typology where salt-lakes are found there, people started to use this salt as the main material in construction. After I visited Siwa Oasis in 2016, I found that the Kerchief is being replaced by concrete, limestone, and other industrial materials. Although they are still using it, they would prefer to develop the construction of their buildings with more durable materials such as concrete, fired bricks, and limestone where they can have more vertical floors as in cities. Besides, the old-skilled labors are only the one who knows the state of the art of this technique and the new generation refused to use and build with it.
Accordingly, I tried to focus on solving this problem by providing a new technique that matches the tectonic and digital age we are living in and can be accepted by the new generation to facilitate the process of this technique which consumes a lot of time and effort.
I decided to develop and revive this technique with 3D printing to enable the locals to be more skilled using the same material in a different way to generate more durable blocks. The availability of salt and sand on-site allows easily to generate 3D printed blocks through the merging of additive manufacturing techniques.
As part of my Ph.D., I had developed a basic 3D printer prototype that matches the nature of the materials to generate the Salt-block. Some challenges were faced during the binder selection and the scale of the prototype which is still needed to be mass-produced.
Do you have any (fun or not) story about your career to share with us?
when I start to introduce the concept of 3D printing in my talks, I always start by stating that wasps used 3D printing techniques before humans did. A silent moment is spread over the audience staring at each other for a moment trying to accept what I am saying. 😀 But when presenting a step by step stating this fact and how it is going, it lights up a lot of ideas inside the audience and open up a huge gate to dive deep inside the insects’ world.
Another story, when I started to develop the concept of salt architecture, which is not familiar to others, people started to make fun and commenting that if they can take salt from the walls to cook with. I start to introduce them to one of the traditional techniques that already being there in our country for centuries ago, and they started to realize how creative our old generations were.
Have you run into any challenges from being a woman 3D Printing?
For me, I can’t see a difference between women or men who have a passion for something. The passion and the love of experiencing are the DRIVER and always push us to what we want to achieve. The only obstacle that can prevent anyone to reaching their dreams is to think about gender and the women are hardly can achieve something. Unfortunately, the majority are looking to women in that way, but proving by work and achieving your target is the only LANGUAGE that could be used to argue with them.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela
Architecture taught me how to serve the community and the need of the humans whatever the gender is, poor or rich, young or old, the only language there is serving HUMANITY. And I have been learning a lot of lessons out the wall of the schools and university when I started to be in direct contact with the community.
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you?
You can use any type of material without causing any waste to generate whatever complexity of forms you want. Different computational programs now make an easy way to compute the amount of material needed for each part which save a lot of materials. One more thing that the value of the 3D printing in construction increased once it cares more about sustainability.
What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
One of the most impressive use of 3D Printing is the possibility of printing and constructing home in less than 24 hours. What impressed me when the researches started to move from theory and labs into a reality where different applications in construction and architecture lately started to be seen on a big scale. Our field is more about multidisciplinary approaches not specified for designing forms only, but it includes all different issue especially the materials and structures as well.
For example, the work of Philippe Block group where he started to use different computational techniques to compute the tension and compression needed to generate multiple structural forms through using the power of stones as a material. Ronald Rael tested different materials in 3D printing such as sawdust, salt, rubber, plastic, etc. Gramazio & Kohler Research group at ETH Zurich started to generate a robot that can move easily out of the lab in a different harsh environment. Alexandre Dubor, Edouard Cabay at IAAC in Spain started to use local materials such as clay in reaching and testing different complex forms with a real scale. Finally, the first 3D printed bridge that was built by IAAC at Madrid was one of the shifting in the industry.
What do you consider game-changing technologies in Additive Manufacturing?
Digitalization and dematerialization of traditional and local materials will be the game-changing where different complex forms can be generated easily. Also producing one to one scale into the site directly is considered one of the game-changing in the AM industry.
As known that the advantages of the AM can generate complex forms in a fast way, however, I believe that techniques and technologies came to be a TOOL to simplify the construction process but not to replacing either the role of craftsmanship or architects in designing and controlling the process. At this point, it is important to be aware and make use of the traditional methods and start to find solutions to combine them with digital manufacturing methods that can develop the traditional ones putting eye first on the community that will use it and the context itself. And I think this will lead us to this question; why tomorrow’s architecture will use yesterday’s materials?
Where do you think the industry will move to in the next 10 years?
Additive manufacturing and robotic construction will be involved in the construction industry more than this on a big scale in more sustainable way. NASA had launched the competition of “building a 3D-printed habitat” for deep space exploration on Mars. This competition taught a lot of designers how they should respect the environment and use the available materials in the site itself. Thus, they will not worry about transporting any materials from Earth, but only the tool itself.
I think this push will shift the construction industry techniques on Earth and beyond the space, which will be the future of construction, and I can still put it under the umbrella of vernacular architecture when it comes to building on moon or Mars. 😊
What advice do you have for women looking to get started in 3D Printing?
I advise each one not to follow her dreams but to CHASE them. You should be updated, read a lot of articles, papers, conferences, participate in competitions, attend workshops as much as you can, start applying for funds and grants and try to surround yourself with people who speak the same ideas.
And Keep in mind that there is a big difference between teaching and learning where you can find your passion after knowing this difference.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with Additive Manufacturing?
3D printing now is involved in different fields such as; architecture, construction, medicine, fashion design, food industry, product design, etc., the issue is that women can integrate and test their field with the use of different techniques.
Favorite 3D tool? … Umm, maybe WASPS & robotics
Favorite moment in your day job? … The gift of the day to me is to find a small insect, as it is for me a way of learning and exploring after chasing it and capturing hundreds of pictures then going back to search for the secrets behind it. 😊
Also, I love listening to people when they speak about their passion with their sparkle eyes. ^_^
What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years? Start using 3D Printing it in the construction industry on a large scale.
Another inspiring woman you’d like us to interview? Ebtissam Farid, Associate professor in the Architecture department, an inspiring architect and my role model.