Function and Facts of 3D Printed Housing

The technology for printing homes is slowly evolving so that code and suppliers can develop solutions to make it successful

3D printing gives the world instant access to goods. And because of consumers’ desires for customization married with instant gratification, it is becoming more and more popular.

The first 3D-printed bridge has opened for foot and bicycle traffic in the Netherlands. Scientists have 3D printed internal organs, prosthetic legs, custom shoes, packaging, product development models, and even rockets. As housing does, the industry isn’t diving in to be the first adopter, but several innovators are dipping in their toes.

Starting Slow 

The Print House design has roof peaks mirroring the rolling hills of Malibu and to benefit from sun paths and methods of water collection.
M-RadThe Print House design has roof peaks mirroring the rolling hills of Malibu and to benefit from sun paths and methods of water collection.

The world was amazed to see the first 3D-printed home. And although the technology is amazing, it’s still relatively immature. The 3D-printed homes that made a big splash in the headlines are not yet sophisticated enough for someone to live in them permanently; they lack the necessary infrastructure.

Matthew Rosenberg, founder of M-Rad, is working with a developer in Malibu, Calif., to solve some of the challenges facing this advancing technology in the field of housing.

Rosenberg and his team set out to develop a fully integrated printing program that offered complete mechanical, electrical, and plumbing components. To avoid waste, the options for setting up the infrastructure for a 3D-printed home are much more limited than on a normal floor plan, said Rosenberg. His team is working on ways to configure the necessary pipes and conduits that fit code and that can be supported during the printing process.

The project, called Print House, is backed by startup legend Tim Draper and his Startup University’s 2016 Best in Class winner Tony Capasso, who owns Construction Automation Inc. It aims to rid the construction process of its inefficiencies by alleviating downtime on site.

Print House’s goal is to change the way concrete materials are made by moving to a process of concrete layering in 3D printing. The process brings the best of bricklaying and arch-building together with the contour flexibility of spider webs. The project currently depends on permitting in Malibu to move forward, but will be a true example of 3D printing and innovation in design, sustainability, and the construction process.

To do what other 3D-printed homes haven’t been able to accomplish, the team had to look at ways to incorporate infrastructure. They are doing so by using rebar and wire mesh to hold plumbing and electric conduits in place while the home is being printed with four onsite printers. Rosenberg says their process is patent pending and couldn’t reveal the details during this experimental project.

3D printhuset is a completed, 3D printed building on demand (BOD) in Europe.
3D printhuset3D printhuset is a completed, 3D printed building on demand (BOD) in Europe.

Jacob Jorgensen is the technical manager of another cutting-edge 3D-printed home called the 3D printhuset, a completed project built in Amsterdam. For his project, the water, electricity, and sewage portions were done by a third-party company after the foundation rim was printed. The slab foundation was done by the third-party company as well.

Another up-and-coming player in the realm of 3D printing is 2016 HIVE 100 honoree Platt Boyd, founder and CEO of Branch Technology. His organization is currently working on a project called Curve Appeal that was designed by architecture firm WATG and will start printing in December.

Several partners are aligning with Branch Technology to learn and experience how the project fits together with all its infrastructure elements, including USG, Sub Zero, and Philips. These partners are contributing product as part of a future demonstration for this unprecedented project. Branch Technology will 3D-print panels in a prefabrication process using robots; the panels are then brought to the jobsite and put together like a Lego system. The printing process is much more intensive than other projects that Branch has done, with a double-walled strength.

Huge Savings
This new construction process promises a host of benefits. Homes will be completed in days, not months. This extreme time savings will equate to cost savings for builders, in terms of labor and operations. That savings can then be passed on to the buyers.

With the Print House project, Rosenberg predicts about a 90% reduction of waste, because the only extra material in the construction process is the support that they are using during the printing. There will no longer be the need to use formwork.

As for time savings, the developers of both projects have a hard time predicting a true number for how 3D printing could change schedules. Jorgensen guesses that the raw house, which takes approximately 50 hours to print, is faster than some conventional methods. But since it was an experimental first time, there were a few time-consuming adjustments to both the printer and the setup that would not be future considerations.

How Will Code Change? 
With new processes, new code will be born.

“We’re always in the process of working on code,” Rosenberg says. “We kind of built the backbone and know when it’s about to change before it changes. For this project and others, we work hard to be at the forefront on code, and we guide cities on what we think is the right direction. We submitted a proposal to Culver City with ideas on zoning code and legal language.”

Boyd has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to work with ASTM to get structural engineering approval that meets building code for his Curve Appeal project, which aims for completion in Chattanooga in mid-summer 2018.

When Jorgensen completed the 3D printhuset, his team didn’t focus on changing local codes, because that would have been too time consuming. “Instead, we adjusted our construction to meet regulations. We have columns inside the house which carry the roof, wind load, etc.,” Jorgensen says.

What Does the Future Hold? 
First, 3D printing could transform design by allowing new shapes and ideas to come to life. The logical progress is to incorporate more and more features, like insulation, plumbing, and electricity during the printing process, making it more turnkey and efficient.

“But no project in the world is near this maturity level yet, so we simply don’t know how long it will take to reach it,” Jorgensen says.

Rosenberg and his team for the Print House want to gradually move to deploy the technology to build homes in third-world countries. “Our focus first is to fix Los Angeles in terms of being spread out and inefficient in construction,” he says. “We want to densify construction in one area.”

Their biggest challenge?

“Getting past legacy building technologies, which are slow and dated, and people are too used to them,” he says. “We have to complete the first one to show and quantify less use of manpower to change people’s perspective. That’s always the biggest challenge.”

Maura McCarthy, co-founder at Blu Homes and HIVE dean, will challenge her panel at HIVE to think about new ways to bring efficiencies to the construction process and breakthrough legacy practices. Register now to be part of the discussion.