If You Print It, They Will Come

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3D Printing as the Future of Affordable Housing?  

The last few years, America has seen increased interest in prefabricated housing construction, with materials produced and assembled off-site. The most innovative style within this construction subgenre has been 3D printing. While somewhat new and untested, the model is proving to reduce construction time and costs, making it worthy of consideration for affordable home developers.

The cost of construction staples, like lumber and steel, are increasing drastically, thanks to a combination of inflation, tariffs and supply chain challenges. Labor prices are increasing, too, as the United States limits immigration, and our education system fails to produce workers with trade skills. In that context, 3D printing is an attractive technology, because it is less reliant on both labor and on the materials traditionally used by the construction industry.

The technology is increasingly mainstream: architectural heavyweights, such as Gensler and Arup, have participated in 3D printed projects. This year, the Texas Military Department announced it would build a barracks that will be America’s largest printed structure. But the technology is far from commonplace. Given the market realities, is 3D printing scalable or just a fad that will soon be forgotten?

How it works
3D printing functions, in fact, with robotic “printing” devices. Once a house is designed via computer programs, the devices receive the design. 3D printed homes typically use concrete, which is “printed” through nozzles attached to the devices. The printing itself can cover walls and foundations; other attributes are built conventionally, with some 3D homes featuring wood framing on upper floors.

As Boston Consulting Group explains, this technology is so beneficial “due to three main factors: the variety of suitable materials (notably, polymers, metals, ceramics and mortar or concrete); the almost limitless freedom of design; and the ability to fabricate complex shapes onsite or offsite, flexibly and inexpensively. Add to those characteristics the power of automated and autonomous production and you have a near-perfect match for the construction industry.”

The Boston-based firm Apis Cor states that, as of 2019, there are no standards for 3D printing, and a variety of materials can be used, but it hopes to establish a method not dissimilar to concrete masonry unit construction.

Another method, developed by New York-based S-Squared 3D Printers, is known as Autonomous Robotic Construction System. This method prints structures of between 500 and one million square feet, claims the magazine 3D Printing Industry. The article cites a 70 percent cut in construction time and expenses. S-Squared 3D Printers asserts it is capable of building a home for $9,000 – a dramatic reduction from standard construction costs.

Examples of 3D printed homes
One 1,500 square foot home near Richmond, VA is being funded by the Virginia Center for Housing Research and is viewed as a demonstration project for affordable 3D construction and sales. Five separate projects are currently planned in the state. The participants, which include housing researchers at Virginia Tech, project a sale price in the $200k to $220k range, a cut of $10 per square foot. That’s a 35 percent cut from Richmond’s median sales price, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Another recent project was in Tallahassee, FL. The home, also three bedrooms and two bathrooms like the Richmond equivalent, will cost no more than $200,000, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. One partner observed that the quick construction turnaround time can be advantageous in building homes for residents displaced by hurricanes.

A third example comes from Arizona, where Habitat for Humanity recently launched a 3D printing project of one house to be completed in the fall. In Arizona, the nonprofit claimed, 3D printing has the advantage of allowing work to continue through extreme heat, which slows construction currently. Adrienne Goolsby, the U.S. and Canada senior vice president, states, “While we have found success in building small 3D-printed homes abroad, at 1,700 square feet, this home represents Habitat’s entry into new, innovative space. It is the first of its kind in the U.S. and sets the stage for increased capacity through a solution that could be both sustainable and cost-effective.”

And in the Coachella Valley, a planned zero-net energy affordable complex is being built with 3D printing technology. The developer is Palari Group.

The 3D printing trend is not limited to the U.S. New Story is a project to build 3D affordable housing communities in Mexico. The developer, aligned with Austin-based ICON, which is building the Texas barracks, sees 3D technology as crucial to alleviating the global home shortage. In this case, the construction is earthquake- and water-resistant to protect against the region’s geographical challenges.

Weather conditions are not this extreme in most of the U.S., but the need for affordable housing is acute nonetheless, as readers will know. So, mass producing housing through 3D printing is promising. But the question remains, is it likely to pencil in the near term?

Boston Consulting Group is bullish on 3D printing. For one, the number of firms developing the technology has increased from 20 to 65 since 2013.

The analytics firm Markets and Markets suggests that COVID-related disruptions to the supply chain bode favorably for 3D printing. That said, it projects that aerospace and defense, not home construction, will be the predominant source of demand for 3D printing tech.

The first cost challenge is likewise salient here – 3D printing entails adopting a new technology and specialized knowledge that most contractors do not have. The cost of 3D printing technology ranges from just under $200,000 to $1 million. And thus far, the number of affordable projects remains low. But the conclusion of Richard Minfie, an engineer working on 3D printing projects, is that the technology is in its latency, but holds longer-term promise.

“Any established industry, manufacturing included, tends to move slowly, so lack of buy-in from major building manufacturers means that this looks unlikely to become a mainstream offering any time soon,” Minfie says. “We are on the cusp, though…We see this as a complementary, rather than replacement, technology in modern construction.”

Thus, 3D printing can be an additive component of affordable projects, even if it cannot yet on its own supplant conventional construction. Developers with the resources ought to consider adopting the technology.

This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content manager Ethan Finlan.