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Will 3D Printing Revolutionize Housing?

By
Services for Real Estate Pros with Kukun, Inc.

The following article is still a work in progress. I welcome your thoughts and feedback. 

The advent of 3D printing technology has sparked significant interest across various sectors, with the housing industry standing out as one of the fields ripe for transformation. This article explores how 3D printing could fundamentally change the way homes are built, along with the potential benefits and challenges this technology may bring.

Understanding 3D Printing:

3D printing builds objects layer by layer using materials like plastic, metal, or concrete. This process starts with a digital blueprint, which a computer uses to direct a printer nozzle or other machinery. As the printer deposits material in thin layers, these layers solidify and bond together to form a three-dimensional structure. This method allows for intricate designs and complex details with less waste than traditional manufacturing processes. Originally used for creating prototypes, 3D printing has expanded into various industries, including construction, where it is used to efficiently produce everything from small components to entire buildings.

In the context of home building, 3D printing translates digital designs into physical structures by extruding construction materials through a large, movable printer---essentially a concrete extruder attached to three robotic armatures that move it back and forth along each of the three dimensions. This printer, guided by precise digital models, lays down layers of material—commonly a special type of concrete—to form the walls and framework of a house directly on-site.

The fact that the concrete is extruded one layer at a time causes 3D printing-based construction to have a lot in common, strangely enough, with brick-based building: Bricks also have to be laid one layer at a time. Moreover, bricks cannot span a window or door gap without a lintel, a structure designed to redistribute the weight above. That said, bricks don’t have the complexities associated with the drying and hardening of the material, which we will discuss in more detail below.

The Pros of 3D Printing in Housing

  1. Cost Reduction One of the most compelling advantages of 3D printing in housing is cost reduction. Traditional construction methods involve numerous costs, including labor, materials, and time. 3D printing significantly cuts down on these expenses by automating a large part of the building process. The printers can use a variety of materials, some of which can be sourced locally or are less expensive than traditional building materials. Moreover, according to the most recent survey by the NAHB (National Association of Home Builders), labor is a builder's largest cost---except for the cost of the lot itself.  3D printing offers the opportunity to save on labor by automating two of the most costly aspects of home construction: framing and the placement of drywall. It also reduces the labor associated with insulating the home by allowing the builders to inject a shaving cream like mixture between the 3D printed walls instead of placing panels. 

    This can make building homes more affordable and accessible, especially in underserved or developing regions.
  2. Speed of Construction 3D printing can dramatically speed up the construction process. A house that typically takes months to build could be completed in a matter of days. This efficiency not only reduces labor costs but also allows for quicker occupancy. When one considers that builders are often working with borrowed funds, projects that are completed faster are projects that cost less. Of course, time is money, and even if a builder is not borrowing the cash, the sooner he completes his project, the sooner he can see a profit and reinvest the proceeds. However, when the builder is borrowing the cash, the advantages of speed become all the more evident.
  3. Environmental Impact 3D-printed buildings promise to be more environmentally friendly. The technology can minimize waste by using exact amounts of construction material: All else being equal, processes that shape by adding material, rather than removing it, are less wasteful.
  4. More Consistent Build Quality: As the process is fully automated, there is potential for higher build quality in the long run. Of course, it is easier for human builders to make small adjustments to their build in order to account for previous mistakes/imperfections: So this increased consistency is both a blessing and a curse.

The Cons of 3D Printing in Housing

  1. Technical Limitations While 3D printing technology is evolving rapidly, there are still limitations to the scale and types of structures that can be printed. Current technology is primarily limited to simpler, smaller buildings and may not yet be suitable for larger, more complex structures. Additionally, the quality and durability of materials used in 3D printing are still under scrutiny.

One of the main issues is the physical limitations of using concrete, which needs to be strong enough to support additional layers before it fully cures, posing a risk of structural collapse if layered too quickly. However, it also bonds less strongly the more slowly it is poured. This has led to innovations like tapered walls, but such designs are not universally appealing and currently restrict building heights to mostly single-story structures. Additionally, using larger gravel improves the strength of the concrete mix but can cause uneven distribution when extruded through the printer's nozzle, reducing the durability of the structure. Many companies opt to use just sand instead of rock to avoid these issues, but this results in a material that is more akin to mortar than concrete, which is prone to shrinkage cracking and high internal stress upon curing.

Moreover, the broader application of 3D printing is further complicated by the inherent weaknesses of printed concrete, such as susceptibility to microcracks and damage from environmental factors like freeze-thaw cycles. This leads to potentially high maintenance costs and a need for specialized care, making 3D-printed homes less appealing compared to more traditional or prefabricated construction methods. While 3D printing may hold promise for niche or experimental applications, its current form is less likely to replace conventional construction techniques. The industry seems to be better suited for specialized projects rather than widespread residential use.

That said, innovations in materials may solve a number of these problems. However, at present, it will mostly be used on single-story buildings.

  1. Regulatory and Code Compliance Building codes and regulations are established based on traditional construction techniques. Integrating 3D printed structures into these regulatory frameworks poses significant challenges. Authorities must develop new codes to address the specific nuances and safety aspects of 3D-printed buildings, which can be a slow and complicated process.
  2. Aesthetic and Cultural Limitations 3D printed houses might not appeal to everyone, particularly in cultures with a strong attachment to traditional building styles. Moreover, the uniformity of printed structures could potentially lead to monotonous urban landscapes, lacking the architectural diversity seen in conventional cities. 3D printing also requires making homes in rounded shapes, as the extruder has a tendency to leave excess material, i.e. slop when performing a sharp turn. While some people may like these rounded structures, it means architects might have to give up the clean lines associated with traditional styles.

3D printing has the potential to revolutionize housing. However, housing is a highly regulated industry, and this means that promising new technologies are not incorporated as quickly as they could be. Until 3D printing can demonstrate that it is safer than other approaches, it won’t see widespread adoption, but once it does, it could change housing forever.

Carol Williams
Although I'm retired, I love sharing my knowledge and learning from other real estate industry professionals. - Wenatchee, WA
Retired Agent / Broker / Prop. Mgr, Wenatchee, WA

This whole subject fascinates me.

Jun 12, 2024 08:29 AM
Will Hamm
Hamm Homes - Aurora, CO
"Where There's a Will, There's a Way!"

Hello and once again a great blog to take in from you on this subject.  Can I reblog it soon?

Jun 12, 2024 08:32 AM
Kukun--240-483-3649 Franklin Carroll

Sure, no objections from me. 

Jun 12, 2024 08:34 AM
Dorie Dillard Austin TX
Coldwell Banker Realty ~ 512.750.6899 - Austin, TX
NW Austin ~ Canyon Creek and Spicewood/Balcones

I was just at a seminar and wrote a post that included 3-D printing homes. It is going to revolutionize the housing industry and is already making inroads.

Jun 12, 2024 06:44 PM
Laura Cerrano
Feng Shui Manhattan Long Island - Locust Valley, NY
Certified Feng Shui Expert, Speaker & Researcher

I’ve seen all manner of things made into 3-D objects with just a few instructions. It’s pretty cool!

Jun 12, 2024 09:52 PM
Jeff Drew
Motto Mortgage Pinnacle MB1998648 - Bridgewater, MA
Massachusetts Mortgage Professional
That was a very informative article. Thank you
Jun 13, 2024 03:01 AM
Lise Howe
Keller Williams Capital Properties - Washington, DC
Assoc. Broker in DC, MD, VA and attorney in DC
What fun to read this. The places we will go in the future!
Jun 13, 2024 03:56 AM
Kat Palmiotti
eXp Commercial, Referral Divison - Kalispell, MT
Helping your Montana dreams take root

I think once the materials/process for building homes is improved and once there becomes a way to make homes unique even with this building process, this could be extremely successful/desirable.

Jun 13, 2024 04:40 AM
Lorrie Semler, REALTOR® in the Dallas area. Call/text 972-416-3417
HomeSmart Stars - Addison, TX
Real Service. Real Results. Real Estate

I recommended this to several people in city government a few years ago.  They weren't keen on the idea at the time. Maybe they should revisit the concept of 3D printed homes.

Jun 13, 2024 04:52 AM
Doug Dawes
Keller Williams Evolution - 447 Boston Street, Suite #5, Topsfield, MA - Topsfield, MA
Your Personal Realtor®

Good Morning, this is an intriguing concept that was brought to my attention a few months ago. It is fascinating and the technology will get better and better. I did find this YouTube link

3D Printed Homes

Jun 13, 2024 04:58 AM
Margaret Goss
@Properties - Winnetka, IL
Chicago's North Shore & Winnetka Real Estate

Wow - this is the first I've heard of this. I was  in the printing industry in the 70s and 80s and understood the process of 4-color printing and how intricate it was. This is something else entirely!

Jun 13, 2024 08:27 AM
Dr. Paula McDonald
Beam & Branch Realty - Granbury, TX
Granbury, TX 936-203-0279

They are even trying to 3D print meat products - that is a big NO for me.

Jun 13, 2024 08:48 AM
Ben DeHaven
Haven Realty & Investments - Lakeland, FL
Proudly serving Winter Haven & Lakeland, Florida

I wish we had something like this in Central Florida I'd love to do a video on it for YouTube!

Jun 13, 2024 11:21 AM
Dorte Engel
RE/MAX Leading Edge - Bowie, MD
ABC - Annapolis, Bowie, Crofton & rest of Maryland

Dear Franklin,

This seems like a product with very specific applications. Not sure, how it complies with the building code, since it may be susceptible to earthquakes or wind shear. Still very interesting. I am sure, it will find its niche.

Jun 13, 2024 11:40 AM
Michael Jacobs
Pasadena, CA
Pasadena And Southern California 818.516.4393

Hello Franklin - oh, the possibilities.  So fascinating.  

Jun 14, 2024 04:29 AM
Inna Ivchenko
Barcode Properties - Encino, CA
Realtor® • GRI • HAFA • PSC Calabasas CA

I guess it is unavoidable. Some technologies are mind-blowing and the custom design and building will not be an exception. 

Jun 14, 2024 10:51 AM
Brenda J. Andrew RENE, PSA, MRP, SRS
ULTIMA REAL ESTATE - Willis, TX
Professional Realtor in N Houston & Corpus Christi

Kukun--240-483-3649 Franklin Carroll  This is so much to think about. I know about 3d printing in other areas but it sounds like a great option for home building in the future if all of the details can be worked out. I’ll keep an eye for any updates you have in this in the future.

Jun 16, 2024 10:51 AM
Randy Mitchelson,APR
Marketing Advisor & Squeeze Mortgage - Bonita Springs, FL
First Impressions are made at First Click

Hopefully smarter construction and less expensive processes to create high quality homes will help the affordable housing market take off.

Jun 17, 2024 07:16 PM
Jan Green - Scottsdale, AZ
Value Added Service, 602-620-2699 - Scottsdale, AZ
HomeSmart Elite Group, REALTOR®, EcoBroker, GREEN

Having toured a 3D printed home, the first such for Habitat for Humanity here in Phoenix, I can attest to your pros and cons.  Another con that some may not be aware - the outside temperature needs to be a mid-range temperature.  Not too hot or too cold.  We had to develope techniques to lower the termpature around the concrete so it could set up.  And Habitat said they won't build another one.  I'm pretty sure they're going to modular construction next. 

Anothe aspect, concrete uses a lot of water, which we try not to do in the desert.  I just toured a factory where they use Hercuwall, a panelized foam, steel and small amount of concrete.  That might be used on a project I'm involved.

Innovation - always pluses and minuses!  Great post!

Jun 17, 2024 08:29 PM