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3d printed homes

3-D Printing: The Future of Sustainable Housing?

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Feb 22, 2018

The opportunities with 3-D printing are seemingly endless, allowing our human ingenuity to design on a screen and then print out almost anything we can come up with. From 3-D printers making pizza for astronauts in space to bio-printers churning out carbon copies of human body parts and organs, the 3-D printing industry certainly has the opportunity to revolutionize the way we make things.

While the immediate future of 3-D printing will most likely be taken advantage of by the medical industry, the construction industry is not far behind. Recently, a small startup construction company in San Francisco 3-D printed a small home in under 24 hours. The printer produced the concrete walls, partitions, and the building envelope while human labor was required for painting, wiring, plumbing, insulating, and adding the roof.

For people with environmental awareness, the main question is, “Can a 3-D printer provide a more sustainable housing alternative in the near future?” We talked with Charles Overy, director, and CEO at LGM 3D, a leading firm in 3-D printing and architectural modeling solutions.

What Can 3-D Printers Do in the World of Architecture and Home Construction?

Overy believes that 3-D printing may have the possibility to become mainstream in the US construction industry within 10 to 20 years. He believes that “chronic labor shortages in construction due to government policies may force builders to invest in (3-D printing) technology faster.”

In the meantime, 3-D printing fills three different market categories.

  1. 3-D printers can be designed to print complete or nearly complete homes. Apis Cor is one startup construction company that has developed a mobile construction printer that is capable of printing entire buildings on site. They report a 40% cost reduction in comparison to traditionally built homes. While there are valuable examples of companies venturing into whole-house 3-D printing, this is still at least a decade away from becoming more conventional.
  2. 3-D printers can be used to facilitate the production and design workflows of components of buildings. Overy says that the “time to market is reduced and design is improved by using additive fabrication as a prototyping tool as well as a way to produce final products.” 
  3. 3-D printing can be used to make scale models and other design visualization tools. This is the specialization of companies like LGM 3D. Utilizing 3-D printing for architectural design work allows for better visualization of projects as well as reducing the actual work time associated with developing a design. In relation to sustainable architecture, 3-D design can allow homeowners to visualize the ways differently, sustainable materials can be added into homes as well as testing different designs to maximize the energy efficiency of a home. As Overy states, “generally speaking, it is a good thing if design limitations are reduced as it allows the designer to focus on sustainability as more important design criteria.”
apiscor 3d printed house
3D Printed House. Photo Credit: Apis Cor

What Else Can 3-D Printing Offer for More Sustainable Homes?

On average, the construction of a new, 2,000 square foot home generates over 8,000 pounds of construction waste, the vast majority of which ends up in the landfill. One of the most important contributions that 3-D printing can offer to the sustainable construction movement is reducing waste. After designing a home on a computer, a 3-D printer will know the exact amount of materials needed to construct the house.

Overy assures that “more efficient fabrication techniques have tremendous potential to reduce scrap, reduce material transport costs, improve building lifespans and reduce the total operating costs.  There is very little innovation in building methods in residential construction where 3-D printing stands to make early and rapid inroads.”

By limiting construction waste and material transport costs, 3-D printers can drastically reduce the carbon footprint associated with building homes. 3-D printers can be developed to make homes out of sustainable and renewable materials.

WASP, an Italian 3-D printing company, recently revealed a portable 3-D construction printer capable of printing tiny homes made out of the mud with walls up to ten feet high. The triangular, truss-shaped design of the wall improves this natural construction alternative's strength and load-bearing capability while vastly reducing the time needed to build a home from natural materials.

In addition, 3-D printing has the opportunity to recycle plastic refuse into a durable construction material for sustainable housing. Though there are certainly logistical challenges to this recycling alternative (along with health concerns about living in a house made from recycled plastic), the opportunities to reuse some of our abundant plastic waste in our housing are exciting.

3-D printing is able to use bio-derived material for the printing of homes and structures. In 2016, the New York-based company SHoP Architects printed two pavilions from over 10,000 pounds of bamboo composite, making it the largest 3-D printed object to date.

apiscor 3d printed house
3D Printed House. Photo Credit: Apis Cor

A Few Challenges Ahead for 3-D Printing

When it comes to the recycling of huge amounts of plastic material for synthetic composites to be used in 3-D printing, Overy has his doubts. “It is not easy to locally source and certify recycled waste streams nor is there a tremendous economic incentive to do so.  Therefore, it is not easy from a regulatory standpoint (or technical) to just melt down milk bottles and extrude a house or even a doorframe.  It is hard to imagine a recycling stream that was as efficient as saying steel or aluminum is in the US.”

While the logistical aspects of recycling material for 3-D printing will certainly face some challenges in the years to come, the massive reduction of construction-based waste is an immediate benefit that comes with all 3-D printing projects. Again, Overy reminds us “the central benefit is that, due to scrap reduction, the overall amount of material used can be lower.”

One thing is certain: as 3-D printing technologies become more mainstream, many of the logistical barriers will begin to fall into place. The use of bio-derived materials for the 3-D printing of homes offers an opportunity to vastly reduce the carbon footprint of home construction while allowing homes to utilize more natural, sustainable, recyclable, and healthy construction materials.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-22T17:48:05+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.