Building a House? Press Print

Can you build a house in a day? A house that is sturdy, energy efficient, inexpensive, and just flat-out cool? In 2021, the answer is yes. 3-D printing technology has come of age and in numerous pilot projects across the world, houses are being printed, finished, and occupied.

Printing houses is done with industrial-size 3-D printers that use gantry systems or robotic arms to extrude the printing materials. Building materials include plastic, concrete, synthetic stone, and hempcrete (a mixture of concrete and hemp that increases the strength of the concrete). Different technologies can print different sizes of homes, but printers exist that can print two- story buildings (including the foundations, floors, walls, roofs, overhangs, stairs, etc.) Some of the technologies print in a factory and transport to the homesite just as manufactured homes are today. But most of the house printers build on site. Typical printers can print 600-800 square feet but can be moved so that they can print adjacent segments and build any size home.

Not all components of a home can be printed. Some 3-D printer technologies can only print walls and floors. But later models can print foundations, floors, walls, stairs, and roofs. Windows and doors must still be added. Channels are printed within the walls, floors, or ceilings for plumbing and electrical. Cabinetry and finishes must be added later. However, the basic home itself can be printed typically within 24 hours. A final home can be done within a month and at a fraction of the cost of standard building techniques.

The greatly reduced time and cost to build a home are the most touted advantages of 3-D printed homes. Some companies are advertising that they can build a home for $10,000 and are trying to get that price down to $4,000. And have you built a home recently? How long did it take (how many months?) Can you imagine building a completed home in one month? It is possible.

Printed homes are more stable and can be better insulated than typical homes. Using materials like extruded hempcrete or synthetic stone may also provide better sound insulation within the home. And there is much less construction waste when a house is 3-D printed. Overall, 3-D printed houses are more efficient in time, require less labor, are more efficient for energy, and waste less material.

Beyond those advantages, however, 3-D printing brings a lot more flexibility to home design. As long as the design is structurally sound, anything can be printed. Curved walls or stairs— easy. Unusual shapes—no problem. You could even channel your inner Frank Lloyd Wright and print fixed furnishings like beds, seating, cabinets, or bookcases. The projects I’ve seen so far don’t go that far, but imagine the additional savings on furnishing a house if you could print basic and necessary items.

3-D printing could aid in the country’s affordable housing crisis. The U.S. (and really the world) are in desperate need of safe, affordable housing. If you can build an 800-square-foot house, possibly including basic furnishings like beds and shelves, for $4,000, it would be possible to provide housing for millions more people than we can with alternate technologies. This technology may be a better fit for areas where land is relatively inexpensive. When land is the major cost of housing, as in many cities, not being able to build tall structures would prevent 3-D printing from being a viable affordable housing technology. But in most areas of the country, 3-D printing could be the go-to technique for affordable housing.

Printing apartments and stacking them may be a possibility for denser populated areas. Even today, hotels are constructed by building the rooms in a factory and transporting them to the hotel site where they are stacked like Legos. 3-D printed rooms or apartments could be combined in much the same way and would be even less expensive than the current methods.

Also, 3-D printing opens up all kinds of design options that just cannot be easily built using alternate technologies. Houses could become works of art, perhaps even abstract works of art. Of course, architects have always tried to innovate in their designs. But the majority of homes and buildings are rectangular boxes because they are cheaper and easier to build. When 3-D printing becomes a standard approach for buildings, it will be not only possible to create striking designs, but those designs will be roughly the same cost to construct as the boxes.

Taking design capability a step further, why couldn’t software be created to allow people to design their own homes? As long as software could enforce structural integrity using some sort of algorithms (probably the same calculations that architectural engineers would use) for the design of wall thicknesses, weight and stress of overhangs, etc., anything goes. 3-D printing could launch a renaissance of architectural design. It may also spawn numerous eyesores, but so did the 1960s and 1980s.

A few cautions. Building standards have not caught up with the idea of 3-D printing. Your structures will have to comply with existing building regulations. And many jurisdictions may require you to pause for inspections of various sorts. We would hope in the near future that specific plans could be pre-approved for compliance so that printing multiple houses of the same type might actually have fewer inspection concerns.

As a real estate investor, especially if you are a developer, you should be looking into 3-D printing technologies for your unique development. Even today it may be possible to construct beautiful structures at half the cost and a tenth of the time. Get an edge on your competition by reducing your cost while simultaneously creating unique designs.

Steve Streetman is a real estate consultant specializing in deal structuring and the use of cryptocurrency. Look for his book “Cryptocurrency and Real Estate: How Bitcoin and Blockchain Will Transform Real Estate Investing” available on Amazon early in 2021.