Architecture students focus on concrete 3D printing to help revitalize Oil City


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The federally designated Oil Region National Heritage Area in the northwestern portion of Pennsylvania is where the modern petroleum age began in the 1800s. Oil City, Pennsylvania, is included in this area; however, the oil companies that supported the town’s economy and infrastructure in its early days have since moved away, leaving the town in search of a new identity.

“The smaller towns [in the areas surrounding Oil City] have been in steady decline since then,” said Selina Pedi-Smith, a community developer in the region. “I felt a responsibility to fix it.”

In her quest to help bring vitality back to the area, Pedi-Smith and her husband, Don Smith, reached out to José Duarte, Stuckeman Chair in Design Innovation and director of the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing in the Stuckeman School at Penn State, through a connection at X-HAB 3D, a concrete 3D-printing company. Duarte, who is co-leading Penn State’s efforts to use concrete to 3D print sustainable, affordable housing, seemed to be an obvious partner to help the couple explore how this technology may be applied to help revitalize the Oil City area.

Smith and Pedi-Smith identified a plot of land in Oil City to use as a case study and sponsored an upper-level architecture studio course taught by Duarte this semester to help visualize how the town’s community and economy could be bolstered by designing an urban community setting that features 3D-printed concrete homes.

The main challenge the students faced was designing a 62-acre area that features different housing options for residents that can be 3D printed using concrete, as well as public attractions and community amenities to complete their urban design projects.

Early in the semester, students met with Pedi-Smith and Smith to learn about the Oil City area, including the neighboring towns of Franklin and Emlenton, and split into teams to develop different design options for the site.

Pedi-Smith hopes that revitalizing Oil City will help people realize the importance of small communities by attracting tourists and workers to the town’s natural resources, such as bike trails and environmental scenery, with activities that will draw them to the area.

“[Pedi-Smith and Smith] were so open to us playing and letting our imaginations run wild, which was heartwarming,” said Grescia Aguilar, a fifth-year architecture student in the course. “This is being started by a couple who really wants to bring back the beauty of their town.”

“Bringing in this concrete printing will popularize the city and encourage people to move there,” she added.

The students presented their initial group designs to Pedi-Smith and Smith at their mid-term review on Oct. 26.

“I think [Smith and Pedi-Smith] were impressed by the variety of solutions that the students came up with and said that they wish they could use all of them,” Duarte said after the review. “It shows that each student can develop a design that is different from the others but equally interesting.”

Each group kept the town’s different demographics in mind with their designs, focusing on community engagement and tourism. Some groups included amenities that encourage community gatherings, such as libraries, gyms, playgrounds, museums, athletic fields and courts, community pools, museums and art studios.

Fifth-year student Cara Trettel and her group looked at the demographic they felt would want to live in concrete 3D-printed houses.

“We focused on ‘digital nomads,’ or remote workers, and took the approach of making a community for them that also has an agrihood component to it, which is a residential area centered around community farming,” she said.

The students aimed to revitalize the city by bringing out its best features and demonstrating an appreciation for the area’s natural beauty, while adding the futuristic appeal of 3D-printed housing.

“Resilient housing is very important, especially in a housing crisis that is continuously getting worse. We always need more houses,” fifth-year architecture student Trevor Klatt said. “Concrete 3D printing might not be the only solution, but it’s definitely a way of creating neighborhoods that can be very quickly and easily built.”

Students used concrete to 3D print certain elements of their housing designs and created small-scale models to demonstrate the layout of a housing area. They presented their final site designs on Dec. 7 to a jury of reviewers including Pedi-Smith and Smith; Andre Chaszar, architecture lecturer; Mike Fisk, technical fellow at the Marshall Space Flight Center from NASA; Frank Jacobus, professor and head of architecture; Dan Pawluczyk, architectural designer at SHRADERGROUP and a 2022 Penn State architecture alumnus; and Ute Poerschke, professor and associate department head for architecture graduate education.

Smith and Pedi-Smith said they will take bits and pieces of each project that was presented as they continue their efforts to revitalize Oil City.

“As these projects take shape and become a reality over the next few years or so, I hope we can show how you can marry quality of life, economic revitalization and environmental revitalization and have a healthy, equitable, resilient community,” Pedi-Smith said.

Co-instructors for the course were College of Engineering faculty members Sven Bilén, director of the doctor of engineering program; Nathan Brown, assistant professor of architectural engineering; Ali Memari, professor of civil engineering; and Aleksandra Radlinska, associate professor of civil engineering. Naveen Muthumanickam, a research engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory who graduated from Penn State with a doctorate in architecture in 2021, and Negar Ashrafi, also a 2021 architecture doctoral graduate, assisted with the course. Nusrat Tabassum, third-year doctoral candidate in architecture, and Gonçalo Duarte, fifth-year doctoral candidate in architectural engineering, served as teaching assistants.