It is estimated that over one billion people worldwide do not have access to adequate and safe housing . 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 . 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 .
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 . The first house was printed on-site in about 48 hours and cost about $10,000 to make . The technology behind the house is a proprietary 3D industrial printer named “Vulcan” which layers concrete to build the floor and walls . 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 .
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 . 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.
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 .
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 . 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 . 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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 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.
 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.
 Zillow, “United States Home Prices & Values,” https://www.zillow.com/home-values/, accessed November 2018.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 ICON, “Frequently Asked Questions,” https://www.iconbuild.com/faq, accessed November 2018.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Source: CB Insights, “From Construction to Art, Here Are 25 Industries That 3D Printing Could Disrupt,” accessed November 2018.
 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.
 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.