Faster, cheaper, greener. 3D printing may reshape the world canvas for good. Or at least…on paper…like all wonderful inventions, it’s been hyped up over the last few years. But what if I told you that Italian architects designed the world’s first 3D-printed house out of dirt1…yep, dirt. Clearly, the hype hasn’t bitten the dust yet. Let’s take a closer look at what this means for the future of building sustainable homes and if they are all they’re cracked up to be.
I’ll get to the dirty house in a minute. Not exactly a compelling sales pitch, is it? Anyway, before that, let’s quickly get our printheads around what 3D printing is. A very quick recap: since the Japanese lawyer, Hideo Kodama2, developed rapid-prototyping3, a lot of ink has been spilled. After years of technological advancements, selective laser sintering (SLS)4 and fused deposition modeling (FDM)5 are now the state-of-the-art 3D printing techniques.6 Regardless of the method and the raw material you use, the general principle is roughly the same. Based on a sketch, the 3D printing machine uses the so-called additive manufacturing process to create the real object in a multi-layer manner. You might be asking yourself, “how does the printer make this magic?” As for SLS, the 3D printer solidifies a photosensitive powdered polymer by hitting it with a powerful laser light. FDM-based machines melt thermoplastic polymeric filament that becomes solid once it cools. That’s how the very first 3D-printed house was created in 20147. In that case designers mostly fed bioplastic to the printer. After that, many other 3D-printed homes joined the printing queue. If you want to get into more details, you can find a link to my previous video in the description.8 It’s time to dish the dirt on the Italian 3D-printed clay-made house.
A dirt-made house for a cleaner Earth?
Mario Cucinella Architects (MCA) came up with an original 3D printing concept. Well, they copied it from mason wasps to be honest, but I guess insects can’t sue you for violating a patent. The Italian architects crafted a beehive-like structure out of locally sourced clay. To do so, MCA used a 3D printing technology developed by a company called WASP… I know, they’re not buzzing with originality. Jokes aside, how does that work? WASP developed a software package that allowed the simultaneous control and operation of two printing arms. The company claims this software is the first of its kind anywhere in the world.9 After mixing raw earth from that location with water, the two 3D printers squirt out 350 layers of clay in a wave-like manner to ensure structural stability. They also add rice waste to the goop to increase its insulating properties. When it’s complete you have two interconnected dome-shaped units, including an open space living room and an en-suite bedroom. On top of that, WASP machines can print furniture like tables and chairs as well. Creating a cupola was a smart choice as it lets you build walls and roof in one go. Also, the 3D printers spit out the domes one section at a time.10 While limited to one floor only, this modular approach makes the habitat horizontally scalable.
The group named their method TECLA, linking technology and clay.11 And no, the pottery scene in Ghost has nothing to do with it. The idea is that by building this house no waste is generated, and at the end of its life, it fades away into the ground without a trace.. It makes sense when you consider that 3D printing minimizes construction waste12 and that you can make clay easily disappear. And that’s massive in terms of emission reduction compared to other 3D-printed homes built out of concrete13 or plastic14. Not to mention that using on-site raw earth, you completely remove the emissions released when transporting building materials from elsewhere. The project partners envisioned the two-cupola dwelling as a self-sustaining hub. Besides the earth-friendly walls, TECLA is surrounded by sustainability. Outside, you have a little lake collecting rain and gray water. This goes through a phytodepuration process before flowing inside the house. Aiming to make an off-grid unit, designers included a dedicated structure provided with solar panels that generate clean energy.
The TECLA ideators want to take this idea global. WASP put together a kit15 to assemble the whole infrastructure and they can ship it around the world in a container.16 So, what about the cost? While the startup hasn’t disclosed TECLA’s price tag yet, it spent around $1,000 to print 30 meters of wall for their first 3D-printed home in 2018.17 Just like clay, you can model TECLA to adapt it to different climates. And you could use a wide range of locally available natural building materials. Thanks to its flexible and climate-resilient architecture, TECLA could tackle the global housing crisis. According to Cucinella, this type of dwelling would make most sense in isolated, rural areas where construction materials are difficult to obtain..16 Dwellings could be built just about anywhere, assuming the self-production kit can be delivered there.
The paper trail of 3D printers jamming
I know the most eco-savvy of you might be interested in inking a contract already, but hold your pen for a moment. First, let’s dig in a bit. TECLA walls can be 3D-printed in about 8 days. However, clay doesn’t dry as fast as quick-drying concrete. It can take weeks to dry in the most humid regions.16 Speaking of timelines, be wary of whoever fawns over you promising to deliver a 3D-printed house within 24 hours. I learned this the hard way. In my previous video I mentioned a Chinese company 3D printing 10 houses in 24 hours. To accomplish this feat, they used four machines, not one. 18. Also, the 24-hour window doesn’t include the time to install…windows…and all the other components, it’s just the walls.19 Same story for the 3D-printed dwelling that hosted human beings for the first time.20 The French studio’s 3D printers built the main skeleton of the house in 54 hours. But, again, it took 4 more months for workers to place windows, doors, roof and appliances by hand. Remember the $1K figure mentioned earlier? That’s covering just the walls of WASP’s 3D-printed creation. However, when you look at the Fibonacci house recently 3D-printed in Canada, walls accounted for only 6% of the overall outlay.21
TECLA’s still in its early stages and needs to go through structural and thermal testing before being scaled up.16 So, it’s tricky to have an accurate price at the moment. In fact, as mentioned by COBOD’s CEO22, you need to 3D print at least 10 houses to provide a more reliable estimate. 3D-printed houses are often advertised as the cheapest option on the market, where the low-cost claim is based on what you save in terms of raw materials and labor. However, these costs change around the world22, so 3D-printed houses will be cheaper in some countries compared to others. Things get even more muddy when you get some…bad press…or too-good-to-be-true press I should say. Respectable publications reported that ICON would have 3D-printed a house for as low as $4,000.23,24 However, when interviewed by the youtuber Jarett Gross, ICON’s founder labeled that figure as a mishap.25 Nobody from the company team ever leaked that quote to any journalist. Instead, $450,000 is the more realistic price tag that ICON put on a housing complex developed in Texas26, which I covered in my previous video on 3D printed homes. This is below the average price of standard houses in that area.27 Yet, the company 3D-printed only the first floor, while they used stick framing19 for building the upper level. You may see why $450K is an underestimated figure. Keep in mind this was the first home on the market, so, don’t take that price as gospel. Remember the learning curve?
To the next point: surely a house made of dirt must be green, right? Well, while being touted as a zero-waste paradise, TECLA is actually not. Like any other 3D-printed house, it’s got its feet of clay. That’s because WASP’s 3D printers can’t gush out fenestration, finishing, plumbing, electrical wiring, and other household appliances out of clay yet. Some components must be finished after the 3D printing is completed. Cucinella & Co. envisage their housing system as part of a low-density eco-city. Ironically, this sprawling effect comes at an environmental cost.28 For instance, inking the natural landscape with fragmented human settlements gets in the way of wildlife.
Living remotely requires transportation, which means added air pollution unless you can afford an electric vehicle with a long range.29 On the other hand, your emissions get lower in denser cities. People living in Toronto’s low-density suburbs emit up to 2.5x more GHG than high-density urban residents.30 Another study found that doubling US cities’ density would drive down travel emissions by 50%.31
How about TECLA’s social impact? Well, we would need a lot of clay. As of 2005, the United Nations (UN) counted 100 million homeless people across the world. And around 1.6 billion live in poor state houses.32 Which will be 3 billion by 2030 based on the UN-Habitat. Just put that into perspective, this is nearly half of the world’s population.33 To alleviate the housing crisis,we’re pressed for time and we’d need to churn out 96,000 affordable homes every day. That’s what I call a long printing queue! Even if WASP nozzles were to go to full blast we’d need to read the small print…carefully. Let’s pick a country like Kenya, for instance. Nicholas Patel, who runs a construction company in Kenya, turned down the hype on the feasibility of 3D-printed housing in the African continent. First, you need to factor in the carbon footprint and costs of shipping WASP’s kit all the way to Africa. Then, you would have a lot of local challenges, such as lacking or poor infrastructures, legal issues, and the need for security 24/7.19 Looking at the bigger 3D-printed picture, 3D printing may have a negative impact in countries having a lot of low-paid construction workers.34
What’s in the press for the future?
Because of its potential in reducing waste and emissions, 3D printing could play a key role in the decarbonization of the construction industry. On top of that, this automated building process could knock down execution time and expenses. Even with these advantages, the technology is still in its infancy and cost reduction expectations are still to be confirmed. TECLA is clearly one of the most sustainable and versatile 3D-printed houses unearthed so far, but it’s still a long way before 3D printers could produce an affordable and truly zero-waste home. There’s many baby-steps involved in bringing new technologies like this to market.
- “World’s First 3D-Printed House Made Of Local Raw Earth.” 20 Dec. 2021↩
- “History of 3D Printing: It’s Older Than You Think – Autodesk Redshift.” 31 Aug. 2021↩
- “Rapid Prototyping: An Overview – eFunda.”↩
- “Guide to Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D Printing – Formlabs.”↩
- “What is FDM 3D printing? | Hubs.”↩
- “Most used 3D printing technologies worldwide 2021 – Statista.”↩
- “First 3D Printed House to Be Built In Amsterdam | ArchDaily.” 2 Apr. 2014↩
- “This 3D Printed House Changes Everything – Explained.” 4 May. 2021↩
- “3D printed house TECLA – Eco-housing – 3D Printers | WASP.”↩
- “Mario Cucinella Designs a Giant 3D Printed Wasp’s Nest of a House.” 5 Mar. 2020↩
- “TECLA – Mario Cucinella Architects.”↩
- “Conventional Construction and 3D Printing: A Comparison Study on ….” 1 May. 2020↩
- “Environmental and economic assessment on 3D printed buildings ….” 1 Jan. 2021↩
- “Additive Manufacturing: Possible Problems with Indoor Air Quality.”↩
- “Maker Economy Starter Kit – WASP.”↩
- “Is this 3D-printed home made of clay the future of housing? – CNN.” 12 Apr. 2021↩↩↩↩
- “Wasp 3D-prints eco-homes from local raw earth for $1K – YouTube.” 26 Dec. 2021↩
- “Chinese company uses 3D printing to build 10 houses in a day.” 23 Apr. 2014↩
- “Debunking LIES about 3D printed concrete houses – YouTube.” 9 Jul. 2021↩↩↩
- “The world’s first family to live in a 3D-printed home – BBC News.” 6 Jul. 2018↩
- “Good, Bad & Ugly | FIBONACCI 3D printed house in Canada.” 6 Dec. 2021↩
- “Henrik Lund-Nielsen CEO & Founder of COBOD | Automated.” 12 Feb. 2021↩↩
- “3D Homes That Take 24 Hours and Less Than $4,000 to Print.” 12 Mar. 2019↩
- “Affordable House Can Be 3D Printed for $4,000 in Less Than 24 ….”↩
- “$4000 3D Printed House -DEBUNKED- Myth BUSTED! – YouTube.” 16 Apr. 2021↩
- “USA’s first 3D-printed homes hit the market for $450k – New Atlas.” 8 Mar. 2021↩
- “Austin TX Home Prices & Home Values | Zillow.”↩
- “The Characteristics, Causes, and Consequences of Sprawling.”↩
- “Electric Cars With the Longest Range | News.” 14 Jan. 2022↩
- “Comparing High and Low Residential Density: Life-Cycle Analysis ….”↩
- “(PDF) The influence of urban form on GHG emissions in the U.S. ….”↩
- “Affordable Housing, Inclusive Economic Policies Key to Ending ….” 10 Feb. 2020↩
- “Housing | UN-Habitat.”↩
- “A Review of 3D Printing in Construction and its Impact on the Labor ….”↩