Is 3D printing the solution to housing shortages?
When 3D printing first launched, the space was awash with ideas on how the industry could revolutionise different sectors and society. 3D printed models fit to specification, trainer shoes, even jewellery began being made by the machines.
Industrial applications soon followed, and now, 3D printers have been used to make machine parts, bioprint living tissue, and even address social issues like housing shortages.
This is not the first time we've seen tech take the lead on addressing social issues - as tech giants like Google and Facebook are racing to give web access to parts of the world where it is otherwise unavailable. But where this pursuit is different is it focuses on an issue that also plagues the developed world as much as it does with developing countries.
"Europe is experiencing a housing crisis, this is undeniable," says EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit. "We need massive public and private investment in affordable housing to avoid people being pushed into poverty."
With pre-existing housing shortage being exacerbated by new labour shortages, inventive methods are becoming increasingly sought after to try and find a solution.
Why now for 3D printing?
Although the idea of 3D printing to build houses has been a concept many have touted for a while, the recent growth of the industry and development of the tech may have helped the idea pick up pace once more.
But perhaps the biggest thing that brought it back in the public focus was an announcement by 3D printing construction company ICON. In 2018, the company was the first in the US to secure a building permit for 3D printed homes in Austin, Texas. This development of 100 homes was recently announced to be taking reservations this year, and when completed, will be the world's largest community of 3D-printed homes.
ICON has developed its intellectual property and is a combination of hardware, materials, and software, which it uses to construct homes and large-scale structures. Every part of the system has been designed, engineered, and built from scratch by the company. Using a proprietary concrete mix made by its material science team called Lavacrete, a portable smart factory called Magma feeds its Vulcan printer and is controlled via iPhone or iPad app through its BuildOS to build all 100 of the homes' walls before having a traditional trade partner install the roof and the electricals and design elements. This combination of smart elements allows the controller of the BuildOS to translate the print job fed into it to direct the Magma and Vulcan with real-time data down to the millisecond. This accuracy allows for greater structural integrity and importantly a reduction in waste, which could prove crucial for the industry as the world moves towards net zero targets.
If this development proves successful, this could prove a tipping point for companies and world governments as they begin to witness its use for residential building projects. Currently, governments across the globe have seen increased use of the technology in a commercial or civic infrastructure setting. In Dubai, the government in 2018 announced that 25% of its state-built buildings would be 3D printed by 2025, and China, the Netherlands and Italy have been vying for who can print the longest bridge. The UK's efforts so far have been much more modest, with a staircase for a footbridge over a motorway near Glasgow which was believed to be the country's largest printed concrete construction.
Yet this interest is only increasing, as supply-chain issues, labour shortages and rising costs of raw construction materials are leading the industry to consider this seriously. A site in Lancashire, UK is set to become the biggest 3D-printed housing development in Europe, with 46 homes mixed between three-storey apartments and houses; a printer weighing more than 12 tonnes is creating what is believed to be the first 3D-printed, two-story home in the United States, and in August 2022, Ireland's Louth Meath Education Training Board announced that it was launching the country's first 3D concrete printing course.
Versarien – a publicly traded British company that manufactures material solutions for industrial purposes - CEO Neill Ricketts states he believes the tipping point for 3D printing in construction has been reached due to a convergence of these factors. "We are at the top of the pyramid now, where you have low volume and its relatively expensive but as we wash down the pyramid, it becomes normal. In a few years' time it will be just one of those boring things that gets done."