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3D-Printed Houses: Faster, Stronger, Cheaper?

Jason Hook

Head of Sales and Marketing

Oct 19, 2016 7:11:00 AM

3D printing is one of the most talked about emerging technologies of our time. Some have even dubbed it the beginning of the third industrial revolution. It is said to be able to create faster, stronger and cheaper houses, but does it live up to the hype?

Below we explore the history and current state of 3D printing, and discuss what obstacles are facing the technology.

 

What is 3D Printing?

Originally invented and patented in 1986 by American Engineer, Chuck Hall, 3D printing is a technology that uses laser light to link molecules (a group of atoms) into polymers (lots of similar molecules bonded together), turning them into solid shapes. 

3D printing constructs objects layer by layer. The first step is just like how an office printer places ink on top a piece of paper in your desired shape. But then 3D printers keep going, adding more and more layers on top, creating a solid 3D object. 

What this means is that shapes can be made rapidly without moulds. And there’s no waste. This is a huge change from traditional practices, such as milling, where shapes are cut from materials and the excess is discarded.

 

What are the Benefits of 3D Printing?

There are five main benefits of 3D printing technology when it comes to building houses:

1. Lower cost – 3D buildings have the potential to dramatically reduce the cost of materials and labour. One house in China was successfully built for less than $5,000. This may prove especially important in the developing world to assist in alleviating poverty. Further, as the technology becomes increasingly popular, the price of purchasing a 3D printing machine and its spare parts should decline.

2. Speed – The speed at which a 3D-printed house can be built is astounding. A traditionally constructed house usually takes around 6-7 months to be completed. Chinese construction company HuaShang Tengda built a two-story, 400-square-metre house in a month, with smaller, less intricate designs taking significantly less time. Considering that another Chinese company, WinSun Decorating Design Engineering, managed to build 10 full-sized houses in a day, building speed is only likely to increase further in the future.

3. Strength and durability – Strength matters for all builds, but this is especially important in regions which regularly face extreme weather and natural disasters, leading to numerous (hopefully preventable) fatalities. And unfortunately, these areas are often inhabited by poorer nations. 3D printing has advanced to the point of designing concrete-based houses which can withstand hurricanes. Further, the two story, 400-square-meter house from HuaShang Tengda mentioned earlier is said to be able to hold its own against a 8.0 Richter scale earthquake.

4. New shapes and design possibilities – The architect will no longer be constrained by traditional practices. The opportunity to use curvilinear structures (curved lines) rather than the usual rectilinear (straight lines), means that the design game has changed. Instead of being bound by rectangular forms because it offers the strongest structural integrity to the building, architects can really experiment with buildings, meaning that owners can have a house that is truly individual. Researchers are also looking into its use for constructions in space.

5. More sustainable – Under the increased global pressure to ‘go green,’ the building industry has sought many avenues for more environmentally sustainable materials and practices. 3D printers now operate with a lot of environmentally friendly materials, but there is still work to be done in this area. However, one great sustainability leap forward comes via architects from DUS in Amsterdam. They managed to print a canal house using bioplastics made from 80% vegetable oil.

 

What are the Obstacles of 3D Printing Houses?

There are four main issues with the technology as it currently stands:

1. The printers are expensive – The printing machines can cost several million dollars each. Since the technology can deliver incredibly important housing cheaply, hopefully there will be enough competition in the industry to bring down the cost of the printers and builds to maximise accessibility.

2. Some materials are toxic – A researcher at the University of California found unsafe levels of toxicity in some materials used for 3D printing. There is caution that printers need to operate in well-ventilated places. More research needs to be done in this area.

3. The surface quality may be rough – Currently the end result of these houses isn’t quite as smooth as we expect from homes. However, researchers are looking into this further, and there is likely to be an improvement in the near future.

4. Potential legal issues – Deciding who is responsible (e.g. the printer manufacturer or the building company) should there be a problem with a build may prove to be a tricky legal issue. There may also be intellectual property concerns over designs as they can be easily copied and reproduced. The law will have to adapt to this new technology and ensure proper regulation is in place globally. 

Although it can already produce houses that are on the whole, faster, stronger and cheaper than traditional constructions, future research should see 3D printed houses become more accessible and effective options. Nonetheless, 3D printing is undoubtedly a technology that will only become more important in the future, especially as the industry strengthens its sustainable practices.

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