Will 3D Printing Change the Future of Homebuilding and End Global Homelessness?

This 3D-printed home could be the dramatic solution we need to address affordable housing.

It is estimated that over one billion people worldwide do not have access to adequate and safe housing [1]. In the United States alone there are more than half a million people who are homeless and even more who struggle to find decent affordable housing [2]. As of September 2018, the average home in the United States costs more than $200,000 and takes three to six months to build [3,4]. In the construction industry, where the last innovation was the nail gun, breakthrough technologies are needed to address the issues of affordability and speed [5].

Proof of Concept

ICON, an Austin-based construction technology start-up, partnered with New Story, the non-profit bringing homes to underserved populations, to build the first permitted, 3D-printed home in America and unveiled the house at Austin’s South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in March 2018 [6]. The first house was printed on-site in about 48 hours and cost about $10,000 to make [7]. The technology behind the house is a proprietary 3D industrial printer named “Vulcan” which layers concrete to build the floor and walls [8]. The press has been overwhelmingly positive as the market seems excited to see innovation in an industry that has traditionally been slow to take advantage of new technology. As the team works to refine the process, their long-term goal is to print a house in less than 24 hours for roughly $4,000 [6].

Benefits

The benefits of 3D printing in construction are huge. First, the process is mostly automated and therefore requires significantly less labor than traditional construction. A typical home requires 20 to 25 different skilled laborers, while ICON and New Story report needing only two to four workers per home [6,9]. This is particularly beneficial given the shortage of construction labor in the United States since the Great Recession [10]. Second, unlike conventional building methods, the printing process produces almost no waste. Finally, 3D printing allows for more flexibility such that making changes to a building plan are as simple as sending a new digital design to the printer.

Challenges

While the potential of 3D-printed homes is exciting, there are still a few major concerns that need to be addressed. The biggest concern is the capital-intensive nature of 3D printing. The reality is that these large machines are very expensive, therefore sufficient volume is necessary to truly become cost-effective and warrant the investment. Another concern is around labor cost savings. 3D printing is generally expected to reduce the number of jobs needed, but the labor may be more expensive given the technical skills that are required to maintain and program the machines. Finally, the long-term durability of the structure is unknown. This last piece will require rigorous testing to see how the materials hold up over time.

It’s also important to note that there is some regulatory risk here as we don’t know what types of regulations will be imposed on 3D-printed buildings. It’s possible that new regulations could negatively impact both the speed and the cost of the process. More broadly, 3D printing has been hit with some recent controversy due to its applications in black market weapon manufacturing which could lead to regulations that impact owning and operating a 3D printer for other purposes [11].

What’s Next?

ICON and New Story are on a mission to end global homelessness and bring more homes to more people faster. They are hoping to bring their 3D printing technology to communities in El Salvador starting in 2019 and expand to other communities from there [12]. The number of start-ups offering 3D printing services for construction has increased dramatically in the past 5 years, so ICON and New Story should launch quickly if they want to capitalize on a first-mover advantage [13]. They are also up against large homebuilders with deep pockets who could copy their technology and beat them to market. The team has decided to prioritize helping communities in the developing world first, but they should not forget that they have a big opportunity to make an impact on affordable housing at home too.

What do you think it will take for 3D printing to become a widely used technology for homebuilding in the future? Would you purchase a 3D-printed home for yourself?

 

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[1] June Javelosa, “1.6 Billion People Lack Adequate Housing. Here’s How We Can Fix This,” Futurism, September 12, 2016, https://futurism.com/1-6-billion-people-lack-adequate-housing-heres-how-we-can-fix-this, accessed November 2018.

[2] The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “The 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress” (PDF File), downloaded from HUD website, https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/2017-AHAR-Part-1.pdf, accessed November 2018.

[3] Zillow, “United States Home Prices & Values,” https://www.zillow.com/home-values/, accessed November 2018.

[4] Margaret Heidenry, “How Long Does It Take to Build a House?” Realtor.com, December 6, 2017, https://www.realtor.com/advice/buy/how-long-does-it-take-to-build-a-house/, accessed November 2018.

[5] The Wall Street Journal, “The Future of Everything: Welcome to Your 3-D Printed Home,” September 12, 2018, podcast, https://www.wsj.com/podcasts/wsj-the-future-of-everything/welcome-to-your-3-d-printed-home/ab62a8a1-1d45-44a9-a08f-29a8019bae99?mod=foesummaries, accessed November 2018.

[6] Adele Peters, “This House Can Be 3D-Printed For $4,000,” Fast Company, March 12, 2018, https://www.fastcompany.com/40538464/this-house-can-be-3d-printed-for-4000, accessed November 2018.

[7] ICON, “Frequently Asked Questions,” https://www.iconbuild.com/faq, accessed November 2018.

[8] Mike Murphy, “You can now 3D-print a house in under a day,” Quartz, March 12, 2018, https://qz.com/1227301/sxsw-2018-affordable-3d-printed-houses-from-icon-and-charity-new-story-debuted-in-austin/, accessed November 2018.

[9] Mamta Badkar, “Why Companies That Build Homes Are Having A Hard Time Finding Workers,” Business Insider, February 20, 2014, https://www.businessinsider.com/why-homebuilders-cant-find-labor-2014-2, accessed November 2018.

[10] Laura Kusisto, “Young People Don’t Want Construction Jobs. That’s a Problem for the Housing Market,” The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/young-people-dont-want-construction-jobs-thats-a-problem-for-the-housing-market-1533029401, accessed November 2018.

[11] Source: CB Insights, “From Construction to Art, Here Are 25 Industries That 3D Printing Could Disrupt,” accessed November 2018.

[12] Andrea Powell, “HOW TO 3-D PRINT AN ENTIRE HOUSE IN A SINGLE DAY,” Wired, July 11, 2018, https://www.wired.com/story/icon-house-3d-printer/, accessed November 2018.

[13] Romain de Laubier, Marius Wunder, Sven Witthoft, and Christoph Rothballer, “Will 3D Printing Remodel the Construction Industry?” BCG, January 23, 2018, https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/will-3d-printing-remodel-construction-industry.aspx, accessed November 2018.

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8 thoughts on “Will 3D Printing Change the Future of Homebuilding and End Global Homelessness?

  1. I am not convinced 3D printing will become widely used for end-to-end homebuilding in the United States in the future. I think a core problem will be the need to deploy printers to one area and have them repeatedly print homes in that area. From my understanding, the economics only work if a machine sets up in one town and makes several hundred homes. I believe the problem here will be the municipality not wanting ICON to create a new neighborhood of low-cost homes. Unfortunately, low cost housing is not very popular in local municipalities as residents believe the addition of low-cost housing will hurt their own house value. If ICON is able to further diversify its offerings and add more upscale elements, they may be able to get past this impression.

    Personally, I think I would love to live in a printed home, especially at those prices! They look cozy and simple. To entice me further, I would want to know more about the environmental impact of these homes or if they had a 1-for-1 program similar to TOMs. Perhaps by buying a printed home in the US I could fund a home for someone elsewhere in the world.

  2. This is an interesting application of additive manufacturing, but I question how actionable the technology is in its current state. While the concept art appears to be a beautiful structure, the essay leads me to believe printer is making a concrete box. Based on my understanding of additive manufacturing, piping, wiring, windows, and doors could not be incorporated in the printing process so the printer’s finished product would be 5 concrete surfaces (4 walls and a floor) and a substantial amount of labor would still be needed. Based on this, I think the $10,000 cost would need to be substantially reduced before it could be implemented in the developing world. However, I think this article is compelling because this technology could be used for select portions of a home to reduce costs.

  3. In thinking through the questions posed, I question the applicability and viability of this idea. In my opinion, making an impact on the homelessness crisis would be extremely difficult. For one, this would require real estate and capital from the government (or some other willing body) to build such structures. Secondly, homelessness comes with a plethora of other extraneous issues (job stability, lack of government documents, social and family stability and support etc). While a home is a critical piece to the puzzle, in order to solve for homelessness at large, other key actions need to be taken.

    To the question about revolutionizing homebuilding more generally, I don’t know that additive manufacturing is the most efficient vehicle at this time. Given houses’ complex nature (utilities, basements etc) and the presumable lack of printers able to carry out this task (and at scale), I would guess that this is more of a niche market and will fall into the same category that ‘tiny homes’ are currently.

  4. Coming from San Francisco where homelessness is a huge issue, I think that construction is a top use case for 3D printing. However, I am curious to better understand the actual workflow of 3D printing a house (i.e. what raw materials are needed, where to rent/buy a machine, how long to transport it and set it up, etc.). It is hard for me to judge how realistic this use case is, and what the specific barriers to adoption are, without understanding the sequence of actions.
    In addition, a significant proportion of the cost to build a new house relates to the land’s acquisition cost, and that trend seems to get stronger through time as more and more people more to the ‘mega-cities’. So to conclude, which niche would you choose to launch 3D construction?

  5. I think that 3D printing has a place in the future of home building but I do not think that it will be revolutionary. The walls of the first house were printed in about 48 hours. Setting up wood molds and pouring concrete walls would take less than 48 hours for a house that size. You would definitely save on labour costs with 3D printing but you wouldn’t have the ability to “man-up” the project to reduce timelines. Finally, 3D printing does not allow for a lot of flexibility in making changes after construction. Pre-fabricated wood homes are much better suited to flexibility.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I didn’t mention this in the essay, but the 48 hours was with the machine operating at 25% speed. The goal is to get this down to less than 24 hours and the team believes that they can print even faster than that. Regarding your point about pre-fabrication, I agree that it allows for more flexibility post-construction, but it reduces flexibility pre-construction. My understanding is that you have to choose between a few fixed options for a pre-fabricated home, whereas a 3D-printed home allows for full customization.

  6. Great article. As a civil engineering myself I find 3D printing to be a very innovative approach to construction that may challenges the industry faces today. However, if the goal is to use this technology to tackle global homelessness, we should think about how it fits the reality of developing countries where this problem is more severe. As mentioned in the post, 3D printing is highly intensive in capital and in some regions of the world it may be just unavailable today. Also, the long term endurance of this structures is yet to be tested. Behavior of concrete structures highly varies depending on molding, setting and other conditions during the construction process. If the idea is to provide a long term solution to the poor, these homes should prove minimum standards towards fire, flooding, earthquake and other potential environmental hazards. Even just aging in a humid weather can end up corroding the structure of an entire building. In regions where wood is sufficiently available (and affordable), wooden structures remain one of the most convenient and efficient construction methods in terms of performance. Maybe 3D printing proves a better solution in desert or deforested regions?

  7. What a fascinating concept! It’s great to see an innovative technology, 3-D printing, being leveraged to alleviate a significant global social issue. Before executing this project on a mass scale, I would want to better understand the lifetime costs of the homes. It would be very troubling if the upfront cost of the house was reasonable, but then maintenance costs were significant over time. Such recurring costs may be even more difficult for people from a low-socioeconomic status to bear due to their unexpected nature. Significant issues could arise if a large number of these homes were built and purchased, but then deserted when families realize they could not afford the other recurring costs of owning a home.

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