In the US alone, the market value of the construction sector was approximately $1.36 trillion in 2020. With the growing need for residential and commercial buildings to house and provide workspaces for an expanding world population, there are opportunities for new technological breakthroughs to address the challenges of the industry. These challenges include cost, waste, emissions, reducing project timescale, and environmental damage.
3D printing, which in the public mind is more associated with the fabrication of components for sectors such as the biomedical industry and consumer products, has made significant inroads into the construction industry. The advantages which the technology confers include cost and time reductions, sustainability, less waste and emissions, replicability, and the ability to create highly customizable building designs.
3D printing entire structures has vast potential to be the next big thing as the construction industry looks to save costs and improve its sustainability. However, there are some drawbacks to the technology, especially in terms of the limited choice of materials. These are currently mostly limited to various types of concrete (some research is currently underway into 3D printing components such as bricks, however) and a lack of available information on durability and weather resistance.
The typical time it takes to completely print a detached structure is between 24 hours and a week. In a 3D building printer, the nozzle is supported by either a gantry crane or is installed in a robotic arm. Concrete mixes need to be fluid enough to be extruded. Conversely, the walls (which do not require any supporting framework) must be stable until the concrete mix sets. 3D printers create hundreds of layers of materials in each cavity wall. After setting, insulation is installed, and wiring and other vital elements are fed through technical duct
Currently Completed 3D Printed Housing Projects
The 3D printing housing concept has rapidly moved out of the design, testing, and prototyping stages over the past couple of years into the real world. There have been some exciting projects which saw completion in 2021. Although the scale of these projects has been small, they have demonstrated the potential of the technology and given an insight into how future urban areas could look.
In Austin, Texas, the four-dwelling East 17th Street Residences complex was completed in March 2021. Designed by Logan Architecture, the dwellings, whilst not completely 3D printed, were completed in under a week using an ICON Vulcan 3D printer. The ground floors of the houses are 3D printed, with the upper floors made using more traditional construction techniques. On the market at a starting price of $450,000, these are, according to the developers, the first commercially available 3D-printed homes in the United States.
Over in Europe, there has also been progress in the field of 3D-printed homes, with the first structures going on sale. In Germany, Peri has developed the first 3D-printed house that is ready for occupancy in the country. The company collaborated with Mense-Korte, an architecture and engineering firm. The building was printed using COBOD’s BOD2 concrete printer. The printing process took a few weeks to complete the 160 square meter, two-story house.
Project Milestone, a planned residential complex in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, has seen the construction of the first legally inhabited 3D-printed home in Europe. The first completed home in the project, designed to look like a boulder, was printed in a factory and assembled on-site. It is constructed from twenty-four large concrete elements and was printed in 120 hours. Currently, a retired Dutch couple call it home.
In Dubai, which is no stranger to ambitious building projects, a 3D-printed office has been built at a cost of approximately $140,000 in 17 days. The building project required minimal labor during the construction of the office space, demonstrating the potential savings for the industry in the future.
Projects Currently Under Development
Whilst the scope of 3D-printed construction projects is limited, there are many exciting projects on the horizon. Project Milestone itself is envisioned to provide five naturally shaped dwellings. Beyond this project, there are grand plans in the construction industry to fully realize the potential of 3D printing to shape the future of urban areas.
Over in Austin, Texas, the ground is being broken on an ambitious project which aims to print an entire neighborhood of 100 3D-printed dwellings, each with a freedom of form. The homes will be printed using ICON’s proprietary Lava Crete material and their Vulcan printers. Dwellings up to 3,000 square feet can be delivered by the construction system, and each dwelling will include roof-based photovoltaic solar panels. When completed, it will be the largest 3D-printed neighborhood in the world.
Over in California, Mighty Buildings and Palari Group have announced plans to build fifteen homes in their Rancho Mirage development, which are predicted to be finished by Spring 2022. The dwellings will be constructed out of prefabricated 3D-printed panels. This will be the first community of net-zero emission 3D-printed homes in the world. These modular homes will be steel-framed.
3D-printing buildings has moved from the conceptual stage into practice, with a growing number of projects worldwide demonstrating its potential to be a disruptive, industry-changing technology that will address multiple issues currently besetting the construction industry. The scale of ambition is huge: for example, in Dubai, 25% of new buildings are planned to be 3D-printed by 2030. The future of 3D printing in the construction industry is looking pretty exciting, to say the least.