Oct 25, 2021 - Economy

3D-printed houses poised to go mainstream

A rendering of a planned 3D printed housing community in Rancho Mirage, California.

A rendering of a planned 3D-printed, net-zero-energy community in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Photo: Mighty Buildings

3D-printed cement houses are about to take off, offering a cheaper, more efficient way to provide homes for those who need them — as long as they can be built in ways that don't worsen climate change.

Why it matters: Developers of 3D-printed homes think they can take on multiple challenges: the affordable housing crisis, the shortage of skilled labor and rising material costs.

  • At least one is also adapting its technology to mass-produce homes without releasing too much carbon into the atmosphere.

What's happening: A handful of companies are erecting new subdivisions featuring 3D-printed houses.

  • Instead of conventional materials like steel, aluminum and lumber, 3D-printed structures are built by a robot squeezing a cement mixture out of a nozzle, layer upon layer, like a soft swirl ice cream cone.
  • It's the same additive manufacturing process used to make everything from dental implants to airplane parts — just on a much, much larger scale.
  • Only a few dozen 3D-printed homes have been built, or proposed, so far in the U.S., but that's about to change.

What they're saying: "After years of R&D, the market is nearing a tipping point as companies are moving beyond pilots and demonstration projects," according to market researchers at Guidehouse Industries.

  • "Considering current tight construction margins and labor shortages, 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize construction," they wrote, adding that widespread adoption is still years away.

Where it stands: Among the early pioneers is Austin, Texas-based ICON, which has delivered more than two dozen 3D-printed homes in the U.S. and Mexico and just raised $207 million to expand.

  • The company prints homes on-site, using its Vulcan construction system, with a gantry-mounted nozzle that lays down the house's walls, layer by layer.
  • Its proprietary Lavacrete cement mix is "a closely guarded secret" that combines ordinary Portland cement with "advanced additives" for structural integrity.
  • The homes are designed to be energy-efficient and withstand extreme weather and earthquakes, ICON says.

Mighty Buildings, a competitor, offers an alternative that focuses equally on the housing and climate crises.

  • The San Francisco-based company aims to become carbon neutral by 2028 — more than two decades ahead of the rest of the construction industry.
  • "We make houses as tools to fight climate change," co-founder Sam Ruben tells Axios.

How it works: Mighty Buildings uses 3D printing to produce modular panels in a factory, then delivers them to the lot for assembly.

  • The panels are a synthetic stone made from a polymer composite and include a steel frame, insulation and even gypsum board, or drywall, for the interior walls.
  • With robotic tools, the panels can be milled for the desired look, like stucco or siding.

Mighty Buildings started out printing "accessory dwelling units" — small guesthouses that are one answer to the housing shortage.

  • It's now marketing 3D-printed home kits — similar to the Sears catalog's mail-order home kits in the early 20th century — for $349,000.
  • It is also partnering with a developer, Palari Group, to build two subdivisions in California.
  • Their 15-unit neighborhood in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs, will be "the first 3D-printed, net-zero-energy community," the companies say.
  • With built-in solar panels and storage batteries on-site, homeowners won't spend a nickel on electricity, says Ruben.

Yes, but: Construction is a major contributor to climate change. It takes enormous amounts of energy to produce cement, a key ingredient in concrete, the ubiquitous foundation of our built world.

The bottom line: It's too early to say whether 3D-printed houses will meet the test of time, says Henry D'Esposito, construction research lead at JLL, a real estate services firm.

  • "We've never seen one of these at 20, 30, 40 years old," he tells Axios.
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