Printing a Solution to the Global Housing Crisis

Non-profit New Story will employ additive manufacturing to provide affordable housing in underdeveloped and disaster-struck regions.

 

The level of disruption that the real estate construction industry is seeing from additive manufacturing has scaled significantly from 3D printing design models to actual homes. New Story, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit dedicated to building affordable housing, has recently integrated this technology into its construction process and created a 3D printer that is projected to build a house in a day for under $4,000 [6]. It unveiled a prototype in March 2018 to be used in its plan to build 100 homes in El Salvador next year [2, 6].

New Story has built more than 2,000 homes over three years in Mexico, Haiti, El Salvador, and Bolivia; an average home with a simple standardized design costs about $6,500 to build over 13 to 20 days [5]. Additive manufacturing is compatible to its construction process as it can flexibly process a wide range of printing materials that comprise a building structure, reduce construction time and material use by producing precisely with speed and scale, and requires little human involvement [1]. Replacing traditional construction machinery such as cranes with 3D printers also achieves significant reduction of equipment cost and output waste [2]. These features address labor and resource shortage issues behind the global housing crisis, through which 1.6 billion people will not have adequate shelter by 2025, as well as environmental issues around wide-scale construction [2, 3]. With its ability to output complex structures in less time, 3D printing also enables developers to prioritize the design element of construction and create homes that are more customized to their environment [1]. This feature makes 3D printing especially impactful for disaster relief housing; whereas previously the required turnaround time resulted in building temporary shelters, developers can now provide longer term solutions that prevent future home loss in the event of natural disasters.

Key concerns for 3D printing construction as New Story aims to scale its process into building affordable living communities are in institutional acceptance of this construction method and in the compatibility of the 3D printing method with all aspects of building a home. 3D printing needs to ensure that it complies with or is integrated into regional building codes, which vary widely, and convince tenants and developers of its durability [1]. It also must ensure structural stability during the printing process, which outputs material in molten form and requires them to cool or settle; printing materials specific to construction must continue to be developed in order to produce a comprehensive living structure, such as reinforced concrete or walls with piping and wiring [2]. The use of standardized components and provision of structural reinforcement in the traditional construction practice are currently more viable than 3D printing [4].

New Story aims to address these concerns in the next stage of its R&D by comprehensively testing finished homes with disaster scenarios as well as optimizing the on-site printing process through experimentation [6]. Furthermore, it is in the process of systematizing feedback collection from constructed houses to provide process management and quality control for future building projects [6]. In the long term, it is sourcing credible building partners that could educate governments and communities about the safety of 3D printed structures and incorporate the process into building codes for wider implementation [6]. New Story should continue to launch joint ventures with other companies developing 3D printing construction technology to disseminate its innovation, reducing the production cost of the printer itself, and iterate with engineering improvement and additional features. Currently, the innovation process for this technology is disjointed; various startups are creating printers with distinct purposes, such as mobile, multi-axis robots with a mounted printing nozzle that enables it to navigate the construction site and build larger homes without significantly increasing the size of the printer [1, 4]. Given the rapid development of additive manufacturing and the need to address critical concerns before scaling its use, incorporating an open innovation approach that encourages access to the latest technology would most efficiently optimize a new standard of building equipment. More impact could be achieved in the real estate industry when developers compete over design rather than execution ability.

As 3D printing better enables the realization of complex architectural blueprints, we could think about creative city planning design that innovates solutions to major issues around current living spaces. Once 3D printing expands into wider scale real estate development—as showcased by the creation of the “Office of the Future,” a 3D-printed commercial building in Dubai—we may also have to address this innovation’s impact on the construction labor force, whether it could be more additive to manual construction work than significantly replace it, and the new skillsets that workers would need to add value once 3D printing eliminates the more manual aspects of construction [3].

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[1] de Laubier, R., Wunder, M., Witthoft, S. and Rothballer, C. (2018). Will 3D Printing Remodel the Construction Industry?. [online] https://www.bcg.com. Available at: https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/will-3d-printing-remodel-construction-industry.aspx [Accessed 12 Nov. 2018].

[2] Jones, K. (2018). The Promise of 3D Printed Buildings | ConstructConnect.com. [online] ConstructConnect.com. Available at: https://www.constructconnect.com/blog/construction-technology/promise-3d-printed-buildings/ [Accessed 12 Nov. 2018].

[3] Marsden, R. (2018). Why 3D printed building is more than a fad. [online] The National. Available at: https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/comment/why-3d-printed-building-is-more-than-a-fad-1.714548 [Accessed 12 Nov. 2018].

[4] Mims, C. (2018). 3-D Printed Buildings Are a Tech Twist on Ancient Construction Techniques. [online] www.wsj.com. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/3-d-printed-buildings-are-a-tech-twist-on-ancient-construction-techniques-1522580400 [Accessed 12 Nov. 2018].

[5] Peters, A. (2018). This House Can Be 3D-Printed For $4,000. [online] www.fastcompany.com. Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/40538464/this-house-can-be-3d-printed-for-4000 [Accessed 12 Nov. 2018].

[6] New Story. (2018). Press Kit – New Story. [online] Available at: https://newstorycharity.org/press-kit/ [Accessed 12 Nov. 2018].

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4 thoughts on “Printing a Solution to the Global Housing Crisis

  1. Thanks for so clearly outlining the benefits of utilizing 3D printing for housing/construction, as well as the new value it will create (i.e. innovation as it relates to home design and customization.) You also hit the nail on the head with the main hurdles to surmount for this trend to take hold and diffuse: regulation, trust, and consistency of quality/durability.
    I agree this application of 3D printing begs macro questions around the future of how we will live and how we will work. Could New Story lead to people being more transient, or more communal? What jobs could 3D homes in turn create?

  2. 3D printing for houses could definitely contribute to start addressing the housing deficit in several geographies and especially in developing countries with vulnerable communities. Perhaps an important set of questions related to the impact that this can have is the following: How to make this technology available to communities?, how to find people with the necessary skills to operate the technology in far places? and how to avoid that by trying to contribute with houses to vulnerable communities, people in the communities end up being negatively affected by an important loss of construction jobs?. In my opinion, figuring these aspects out will help with the impact and scalability of the technology.

  3. Thank you for sharing this – I think there is a lot of potential for transient housing not only in disaster areas but also areas where land rights may be uncertain. An example of this will be the shanty towns that grow in developing nations such as the favelas in Brazil. New Story’s (and 3D printed housing in general) may be a solution where displacement does not necessarily equate having to start completely over which can be a game-changer for city planning for these vulnerable populations.

    The main challenge I see is linked to this issue of access for communities, both in terms of pricing and physical access. Focusing on the physical access aspect (given that pricing should come down with scale), taking the extreme example of disaster zones, access to impacted areas may be extremely difficult. With this the question becomes how modular and transportable these houses can be to increase accessibility and flexibility, which I think may be a question New Story also faces as it scales even further.

  4. Thanks for the read. I’m struck by the psychological challenge you mention, where there is a perception that 3D-printed houses are of a lower quality. This is not something I had previously considered, so it is interesting to think through potential remedies. Companies typically employ advertising to address perception issues, but I doubt a non-profit such as New Story would use limited funds for such a purpose. This opens up a couple new questions: How do other non-profit organizations attempt to make perception changes? With limited funds, where is the line where a dollar invested in perception-change advertising outweighs a dollar spent on R&D?

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