3D printers may still be a novelty but they’re moving beyond a gimmick as growing numbers of projects experiment with the new technology as a faster, more sustainable alternative to traditional methods of construction.
And as start-ups compete to create new designs and cut printing times from days to hours, they’re becoming an increasingly viable solution to the global housing shortage.
Texas-based construction tech company Icon recently unveiled a model of a concrete house that can be printed in under 24 hours, at a cost of under $10,000. It has since partnered with housing company New Story to deploy a version of its printer to El Salvador to print about 100 homes for people living in slums.
“3D printing has taken huge steps forward in recent years and companies are really pushing the boundaries of what’s possible,” says Richard Sansom, project manager at JLL. “A key driver for recent developments has been the shortage of housing in numerous cities across the world.”
The technology involves using building-sized printers that inject layers of material such as cement onto a digitally marked framework to form the exterior and interior walls and roof. Additives to the cement help it solidify far faster, and the entire construction process can be completed in days instead of months, reducing waste material by up to 30 percent.
And while some buildings can be printed on-site, it’s often more feasible to mass print components that are shipped and assembled later. Furthermore, new 3D printing technology has moved beyond concrete to steel. A Canadian company, for example, has developed a 3D printer for the steel studs and panels required for building frameworks, cutting the assemble time from three to five weeks to three to five days.
3D printed buildings on the rise
Because 3D-printing offers a faster, more cost-effective way to construct buildings, it could be first adopted for civic housing initiatives. A 1000-square-foot home in Nantes, France was printed in 54 hours as a model for social housing, while the world’s first 3D printed housing complex is set to be completed next year in the Dutch city of Eindhoven.
“3D printing could have the most immediate impact in real estate sectors where the structures are homogenous and economies of scale can be realised, such as in student accommodation, hotels and affordable housing,” Sansom says.
In Dubai, where high levels of urban migration and a focus on luxury projects have led to a shortage of affordable housing, an ambitious government strategy aims to use 3D printing to construct a quarter of new buildings by 2025.
“Dubai is leading the market in 3D-printing construction – spearheaded by the government’s support for this new technology,” says Sansom. “The city is known for its innovative approach to architecture and this pioneering attitude is being used to find a solution to a genuine housing need.”
Building information modelling (BIM) systems are already commonplace in the Dubai construction industry, providing an existing digital framework for 3D printers to interact with. Other countries, such as the UK, are only now beginning to implement BIM practices.
“Led by public sector commitment, the use of BIM is increasing in the UK. However, it’s not yet as advanced as Dubai, where BIM models containing fully coordinated designs are commonplace,” Sansom says.
Adopting 3D printing for real estate
With a global skills shortage in construction, 3D-printing could revolutionise the industry – not only by reducing the number of people on-site, thus improving safety, but by increasing productivity as work can continue outside of typical hours.
“The key change will be in on-site working methodologies and demographics. Construction workers are quite commonly young and male – by removing the traditionally labour-intensive elements of construction, 3D printing would open possibilities for all people to be integrated into the workforce,” Sansom says.
Yet while the technology is progressing rapidly, the infrastructure for 3D printing construction is in its infancy, with safety and regulatory standards yet to be developed for commercial adoption.
“Designing a building to be 3D printed is still a challenge as most designers are unfamiliar with the requirements of the technology,” says Sansom. “Mainstream adoption, particularly in the UK, will also require the development of a solution for restricted city center sites.”
The future of 3D printed buildings
Today’s 3D printers most commonly use a modified cement, but future printers will likely work with a wider range of material, including locally accessible materials that would increase the sustainability of construction.
This could pave the way for 3D printing as a solution for shelter in disaster relief zones. “Transporting building materials long distances to disaster relief zones, typically hard to reach areas, can be a lengthy exercise. By using locally accessible materials, even sand, a portable 3D printer can be delivered to site and reduce the time required to build the urgently required homes,” Sansom says.
Down the line, 3D printing technology could facilitate the use of new shapes that aren’t accessible to conventional building methods, such as complex curved forms.
“Construction hasn’t evolved for decades. As the technology and infrastructure for 3D printing develops, homogeneity won’t be a requirement and 3D printing will provide far more architectural flexibility as well as precision,” Sansom says. “What’s required is a few pioneers that can produce a commercially viable model for 3D printed buildings, one that attracts industry attention and investment.”
Even skyscrapers aren’t out of reach. As Sansom says: “If someone can build a tall enough printer, why not?”
As cities around the world invest in the next generation of construction, 3D printing technology could eventually meet the global need for affordable housing – and improve the sustainability of the built environment.