Nowadays you can use 3D printing for producing pretty much everything. Vegan meat1, fancy shoes2 or even a wall-climbing robot.3 …Wait…a what? Anyway, what if you could print your house? That would be a life-changer, right? The winner of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge4 developed a living environment for Mars. So, what about on Earth?
NASA’s challenge was trying to boost construction technologies and create sustainable housing solutions for our planet and beyond. AI SpaceFactory’s winning project, Marsha5, is a vertically oriented egg-shaped 3D printed structure. Made of basalt and renewable bioplastic, its configuration is optimized to resist the difference in pressure and temperature between the interior and exterior Martian environment.
But what if you’re not willing to relocate 34 million miles away?
Good news! You can now buy a hot off the press house without going on an interstellar trip.
SQ4D6 is ready to build the first 3D printed house for sale in the US. You can customize it and they’ll print it scan by scan in a couple of days thanks to their Autonomous Robotic Construction System (ARCS). You can get 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a garage, for a total of 1,400 square feet. All for about $299,000, which is half the price of a similar sized house in the same area.7 The real estate agent for the property, Stephen King, said he will be…haunted…by potential buyers. Okay … not that Stephen King. But speaking of haunted houses, what if I told you 3D printing could give birth to a living house? Not sure how I feel about that.
But before getting to that, how did 3D printing start? We need to go back to the early 1980s to find a Japanese lawyer, Hideo Kodama8, who laid the very first…layer…of 3D printing technology. Kodama developed the rapid-prototyping9 technique, which is the ancestor of 3D printing. A few years later Charles Hull put his…print name…on stereolithography (SLA), which was the first 3D printing technique.10
But how does SLA work? Basically, a UV light hits a liquid acrylic-based photosensitive material (photopolymer) which then turns solid. The process is also called light curing or photopolymerization. I’m kind of surprised I can pronounce that.
In general, 3D printing, a.k.a. additive manufacturing, creates a three-dimensional object layer by layer starting from a digital sketch. This concept applies to all 3D printing processes, but based on which technique you go for, the raw material and the layering process might change.
During the 1990s, the development of two further technologies, selective laser sintering (SLS)11 and fused deposition modeling (FDM)12, …heated up the 3D printer nozzles race… These are currently the two most widely used 3D printing techniques13. Also, the printer company Solidscape improved precision in additive manufacturing by introducing the ‘dot-on-dot’ process, which was based on polymer jetting.14
By the end of the following decade we see 3D printing becoming more accessible to designers. In 2008, people could use an online 3D printing market called Shapeways.15 You would send through your design and they would print it out and send it to a specific address. A sort of 3D printing ecommerce. Just a year later, MakerBot invented DIY 3D printing.16 They provided an open-source kit for creating 3D printers and products.
But when did 3D printing hit the housing business? In 2013, DUS Architects started a research project inspired by Amsterdam canal houses.17 Using mostly bioplastic as a raw material, the architecture studio printed out some kind of LEGO blocks and stuck them on top of each other. They used the FDM technique to build their eight-square-metre micro-house. Although this seems to be the first house ever 3D printed in the world18, it’s still under construction.19
In 2014, the Chinese company, Winsun, churned out 10 houses in 24 hours by feeding recycled materials to a 3D printer20. Each of the small homes was priced at $5,000 because of the low labor needed to build it. Which sounds crazy, but that’s not the craziest part. What if you could print out a house that fixes itself? Believe it or not, that’s a real project from the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).21 …You’ve gotta love government agency acronyms… With their Engineered Living Materials (ELM) program, researchers are exploring the potential of living biomaterials that could quickly grow, self-repair or adapt to the surrounding environment. Bone, skin, coral, mushrooms. You name it, they print it. The project’s aim is two-fold. First, in the short-term, the design of scaffoldings as a growing support for living cells. Secondly, in the long run, incorporating structural features into the genome of biological systems so that they can be self-supportive. Recently, the researchers developed a method to create a living brick that breathes in CO2 and spit out calcium carbonate, a compound used to produce cement.22
DARPA research merges into the 3D bioprinting field. Just like normal 3D printing, its bio-equivalent is a layering technique. Except the ink is biological material … like from a human patient. Besides living cells, bioprinters need a sort of glue that acts as a growing support for the living material.23 This technology has already been used to create blood vessels, skin tissues and organs.24
Next on the…printing queue…a 3D printed bio-cottage?…sounds like a blue cottage cheese…
But has anybody ever lived in a 3D printed house? Yep. A French family was the first in the world to make the move in 2017.25 A four-bedroom property was built with curved walls to minimize humidity and included digital controls for disabled people. Short of windows, doors and roof, builders…or should I saw printers…got the framework out in 54 hours. Its construction cost, £176,000, which was 20% cheaper than a standard house of a similar footprint. The homeowner was quoted as saying:
“We lived in a block of council flats from the 60s, so it’s a big change for us … It’s really something amazing to be able to live in a place where there is a garden, and to have a detached house.”
What’s the true potential of 3D printed houses?
Faster delivery, more flexible design, lower cost, more sustainable. From an environmental standpoint, 3D printing minimizes waste since components are printed on-demand and with high accuracy. To add to that, it may be a more eco-friendly solution than traditional construction when using natural materials that can be recycled, like mud26 or bamboo27. In that case, the printed structure would be near-zero waste.28 Just like the world’s first 3D-printed net zero energy community that the company Mighty Buildings is creating in Palm Springs, California. Using their 3D-printed panels, made of a non-silicate light stone material and steel, they print only the essential components. This saves up to 5 lbs of waste per sq. ft. compared to traditional home construction.29 They’ve said each of the 15 homes will save 2000 kg of CO2 emissions.30 The low-carbon houses will get their energy from solar panels and homeowners can opt for Tesla Powerwall batteries and EV charging points. The cheapest house sold for $595,000 and covers a surface of 1,450-square-feet. Did I mention that they also come with a swimming pool?31
Altogether, building and construction sectors emit nearly 40% of all energy-related CO2 emissions.32 Concrete production plays a big part in this. Making conventional Portland cement accounts for 8% of global carbon emissions.
When assessing the impact of 3D printing vs building with concrete, the data is a little controversial. Based on one study, using a contour crafting technique saves 7 tons of raw material waste and about 80% of CO2 emissions compared to a conventional concrete process (CCP).33 On the other hand, a recent life cycle assessment (LCA) shows that when using recycled concrete for 3D printing you end up with a higher environmental impact compared to traditional methods.34 It’s because 3D printed concrete buildings are more cement-thirsty.
But what about the process itself? It’s great that you can get a 3D printed house pretty fast, right? But you need additives to speed up the layers hardening process. Apparently these could pollute indoor air.35 Also, when feeding plastic to a 3D printer, the melting process releases Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)36.
When looking at the price tags, the economic impact appears to be positive. UK research found 3D printing can save up to 35% off of a standard house’s price. The big reason is from the lower amount of material and labor needed.37 That’s why 3D printed houses could help meet the demand for social housing. And this is already starting to happen.
Two companies, ICON and New Story, joined forces to provide affordable homes to 500 low-income families in the Mexican town of Tabasco38. ICON also partnered with Mobile Loaves & Fishes to print a Community First! Village in less than 27 hours for homeless people.39
Although being a good potential solution for cheap shelters in developing areas, 3D printing could be a problem for countries that have a lot construction workers or a low labor cost.40 Remember SQ4D and their quick and cheap 3D printed house? Well, it took only 3 people to complete the project. If you compare that to a residential home built the usual way, it would take up to 32 workers.41 But the labor reduction could go even further than that. An Austrian architect combined robotics with Building Information Modeling (BIM) to design the Museum of Contemporary Art and Planning Exhibition (MOCAPE) in Shenzhen, China. With this advanced 3D printing technology, he said the number of workers needed on site went down from 160 to only 8.42 Which is … again … crazy.
It seems 3D printing has already passed proof of concept. Even though there are still several challenges to overcome, 3D printed homes hold a lot of promise for readily available and cheap housing in the future. So, how fast will private 3D homes spread on the market?
Remember the first one for sale in the US? Well, ICON has got the second one…in press…already. Actually more than one. They’re building a housing complex in Texas and pricing each of the homes at $450,000, which is just about the average house price in the same area.43 44 Even though they constructed the second floor the old fashioned way, the company 3D printed the first floor using their Lavacrete material, a special concrete they claim is more resistant to weathering. Thanks to the thermal properties of Lavacrete, the first level has got better insulation value,45 which is why ICON claims the 3D printed floor is more energy efficient and disaster-proof than standard construction.
But Dubai is ahead of the…printing queue… In 2019, its municipality hired Apis Cor, one of the 3D printing construction leaders, to design the world’s largest 3D printed building ever, with a height of nearly 10 meters and a footprint of 640 square meters.46 The Russian company completed the office space in two weeks and used a robotic-arm construction 3D printer. The Emirate State has also…printed a clear roadmap…to drive 3D printing adoption. They committed to use the technology for creating 25% of their buildings by 2025.47
The market agency Business Wire predicted the global market for 3D printing construction to grow at a CAGR of 247.1% from 2021 to 2023, reaching a value of $114.4 million.
But there’s another reason why we could build our hopes on 3D printed homes. One of the main limitations for projects so far has been complying with local building regulations.48 But in 2019 two companies, Sunconomy LLC and Forge New, joined forces to develop the first fully approved 3D home technology in the US.49 A year later, the German company Peri designed a residential building that got the all clear from the local government.50 They built their two-story house with a COBOD 3D printer that takes just 5 minutes to raise 1 m² of a double-skin wall.
A new chapter yet to be printed
So, will 3D printing change the way we live? Clearly, the technology seems to be appealing for a low-carbon construction in the future. And the lower labor requirements makes it a more affordable option compared to standard housing. It’s true that not many projects have achieved full compliance with building codes yet, but 3D printed homes are springing up like mushrooms … perhaps they will be made of mushrooms?