Printable Houses and the Future Opportunity Therein
All the way back in March of 2004, working in his laboratory at the University of Southern California in San Diego, Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis, was working with a new process he had invented called Contour Crafting to construct the world’s first 3D printed wall.
His goal was to use the technology for rapid home construction as a way to rebuild after natural disasters, like the devastating earthquakes that had recently occurred in his home country of Iran.
While we have still not seen our first “printed home” just yet, they will be coming very soon. Perhaps within a year. Commercial buildings will soon follow.
For an industry firmly entrenched in working with nails and screws, the prospects of replacing saws and hammers with giant printing machines seems frightening. But getting beyond this hesitancy lies the biggest construction boom in all history.
Here’s why I think this will happen.
Contour Crafting is a form of 3D printing that uses robotic arms and nozzles to squeeze out layers of concrete or other materials, moving back and forth over a set path in order to fabricate a large component. It is a construction technology that has great potential for low-cost, customized buildings that are quicker to make and can therefore reduce energy and emissions.
Using a quick-setting, concrete-like material, contour crafting forms the house’s walls layer by layer until topped off by floors and ceilings that are set into place by the crane. In its current state of thinking, buildings will still require the insertion of structural components, plumbing, wiring, utilities, and even consumer devices like entertainment and audiovisual systems, as the layers are being built.
After using the technology to form simple things like walls and benches, discussions began to focus on other far-reaching opportunities like constructing rapid shelters after natural disasters, building operational structures on the moon out of moon dust, and building cheap houses for people in impoverished countries.
But those early visions were too much for an industry steeped in regulation and tradition, and the laudable ideas of helping the less fortunate will likely give way to a more mainstream approach of working with pieces before building the whole enchilada.
Breaking Through the Barriers
Starting with a mortgage industry that’s becoming increasingly wary of lending on virtually any houses, let alone something that looks radically different, coupled with city planning and zoning departments that have no way of deciding what the code should be on a “non-traditional structure,” and thousands of aging industry experts who can’t imagine building houses in any way other than we do today, we find ourselves up against a slow-moving, massively resistant building culture that will take years to overcome.
That said, this industry will have plenty of opportunity to move forward.
Early on, a number of industries will form around printed components and construction material. Printed blocks, cabinets, wall panels, toilets, and even doors will catch on quickly.
Printed artwork will begin to show up everywhere, including three dimensional “wall printings.”
A natural extension of printing new buildings will be devices that recycle the old ones. Ideally, the old material will be ground up and reformulated into new composites that can be re-printed into whatever is needed.
As an example, an old patio deck could be automatically “eaten” by some sort of PacMan device, ground up and mixed with other materials, and used to “print” a new patio deck - all within a couple hours.
By replacing our traditional techniques for pouring concrete, 3d printers could be used to print driveways, sidewalks, benches, fences, foundations, and much more.
When it comes to roofing, small bots will be used to create seamless coatings on the tops of houses. The small army of people needed to reroof a house today will be replaced with a single person who’s job is to place the bot at its initial starting point and make sure there is a consistent supply of material to coat the entire roof.
Only after gaining traction in a myriad of these component industries will we see the public warming up to entire houses being printed from the ground up.
Here are a few examples of this type of 3D printed construction projects already taking place: