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3D Printed homes show potential, but industry challenges need to be overcome

JUL 22, 2022 | Paras Sharma
region: ALL Construction Internet of Things3D Printing and Additive ManufacturingAutonomous Robotic Systems

Owning a home is a dream for everyone but it remains a reality for only some. Globally, millions of people are homeless, and billions live in sub-standard homes due to price constraints. The general lack of affordable housing leads to people living in poorly constructed homes or in overcrowded places due to lack of suitable homes. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2030 three billion people will require better housing, which suggests a requirement to construct ~96,000 new homes every day.

The digital transformation of construction

Home construction is an industry that is undergoing a slow transformation towards using more efficient construction methodologies to enable faster and more economical construction. Developers are slowly shifting away from relying only on traditional methods of constructing buildings which provides a product that remains out of reach for many low and middle-income buyers. The Covid-19 pandemic has also pushed real estate developers to look for innovative ways of designing and building homes with reduced requirements for manual labour.

3D designed and printed homes can provide a two-pronged solution to help make house building affordable and customisable. In simple terms, the technique requires an industrial-sized printer to construct homes by depositing concrete layer-by-layer, leveraging materials such as cement, clay, and sand. It helps in building the basic structure of a home so that developers and builders can add the finishing touches. The use of precise design and construction technologies also results in less manual labour due to increased use of prefabricated construction components which helps in reducing labour intensive work tremendously. Additionally, these houses can be delivered in much less time, as basic layout information is available in software form in factories where prefabricated components (such as roofs, staircases, windows, and even bathroom furnishings) can be prefabricated in parallel with the main build.

Environmental and SDG benefits of new construction techniques

This new approach to housebuilding is not only cheaper but also can be more environmentally friendly since it produces reduced levels of solid waste in comparison to most conventional methods, and less vehicle emissions due to reduced transportation requirements. The construction sector along with buildings constitutes ~39% of all carbon emissions, with the buildings construction industry itself contributing 10% of all carbon emissions (according to the UN). A technology-led approach to housebuilding can result in ~20% cost benefit in comparison to traditional construction methods. Developers around the world are reaping the benefits of 3D design techniques to provide faster constructed and better designed homes, with some even planning to build townships using 3D technology to offer homes to the homeless. For instance, in Austin US, ICON and Mobile Loaves & Fishes are planning to build a 51-acre project to provide for the housing needs of ~40% of the city’s homeless buyers.

Challenges associated with new construction techniques

However, the industry needs to confront some challenges to fill the demand-supply gap in the housing sector. 3D printing technologies make use of concrete to additively manufacture walls rather than timber framing which is currently adopted on a more widespread basis. It can however lead to operational and logistical challenges for developers which will require HVAC related professionals equipped with the knowledge to work with the newer ways of construction. These kinds of frictions can act to hinder the adoption of 3D technology amongst developers. For instance, there are currently only a few companies in the US leveraging 3D printing for house construction partly due to supply chain problems. Any developer pursuing a more automated approach to housebuilding will also need to face the wrath of blue-collar workers for taking away their jobs by reducing employment opportunities in the construction sites.

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