What should we think about the prospects of 3D Printed Housing

A contribution by Eric Hunting:

“Recently, a number of articles and videos about 3D printing of houses in China have gone viral, catalyzing a lot of attention for this very promising subject.


Additionally, another 3D printed building project in the Netherlands is also starting to garner attention.

3D printing has gained steadily increasing popular interest but the limitation to the production of small artifacts has tended to see it dismissed in significance. And controversial projects, such as the printing of crude guns, have drawn negative attention from easily-spooked and compulsively obstructive government authorities. But with this demonstration of the technology’s potential at a relatively large scale people are finally seeing this as something more than a technology novelty.

But, to be sure, these projects are still in an experimental stage and the printing techniques still relatively crude. Their most practical early impact is likely to be in low cost and relief housing applications where, confined to the one or two storey dwellings, their structural performance isn’t as critical.

Being long interested in construction automation and, over this year, working toward establishing the workshop needed for WikiHouse participation, I recently wrote an Open Manufacturing post speculating on the future of WikiHouse and the eventual application of 3D printing. The concept isn’t exactly new. Space scientists suggested the sintering of lunar regolith for print-like building construction in space back in the 1960s. This was followed, in the 80s and 90s, by architect Nader Khalili’s exploration of solar-thermal vitrification for building construction. The first proposal of a house printing system based on what we currently recognize as a ‘3D printer’ and using masonry materials was the Contour Crafting concept devised at the University of Southern California. Unable to get support in the US, this concept sat on the shelf for some years, the Italian company D-Shape beating them to the first practical demonstration. It appears that the Chinese system is very much lifted from the Contour Crafting concept, though truth be told, Contour Crafting itself was in some ways derivative of mechanical rotary boom-based slip-forming systems developed in the early ’80s, if not much earlier, for the production of circular and domed luxury homes.

I’ve long been puzzled by the focus on the notion of printing of houses whole and in-situ by exceptionally large machines. This seems a bit anachronistic to me–a throw-back to the sort of Big Machine futurism illustrated by Metabolist design and the building concepts of Jacque Fresco’s Venus Project.

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/-hayWrEZtjqs/TvRXpF_JF4I/AAAAAAAAv2U/LfSfDW2UN98/w800-h800/07.jpgVenus 1

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-gW-xn71WPPU/Tdgm-U2BGGI/AAAAAAAADZo/rSn6r3torKg/s1600/selferecthomes.jpgVenus 2

The chief problem I see is that the scale of capital investment needed for such elaborate hardware limits its implementation to the largest of corporations and may make it economically unsustainable. Historically, the only disruptive modern innovations in housing technology that have survived to the present day are those which avoided a need for extreme capital investment and a limitation to any specific aesthetic because industrialists have always felt there was insufficient, if any, market for innovative housing. Commercial architecture has often been flamboyantly diverse in its design and technology but, because of the weirdly parasitic interdependence between housing and personal finance and the way the real estate market depends on the continuous ingression of labor into debt to create virtual market value, housing innovation is dogmatically resisted. The real estate market depends on housing being as utterly inefficient as possible–and that’s not a technological problem. Across the whole 20th century, thousands of innovations in housing design and technology were experimented with, Modernist designers in particular obsessed with the notion of the industrialization of housing as a means to overcome the modern blight of homelessness. Virtually all these innovations were commercial failures. The things that proved commercially sustainable were those innovations that, for the most part, could remain ‘hidden’ behind the sheetrock, hence the steady yet largely unperceived evolution of the typical American home toward a composition of high-tech papier mâché.

Thus I see the most critical factor for the viability of the 3D printed house being the question of whether it scales to a level of individual, small scale entrepreneurial, local community empowerment. Not a question of innovating housing but rather how it impacts the personal logistics and economics of acquiring shelter. To put it simply, whether we can reduce this production hardware to a physical scale tenable for the small entrepreneur and DIY enthusiast. To make it an owner/build option. Thus in my post I suggested the possibility of employing newly emerged printable and compostable wood/plastic composites with a very light form of large format 3D printer based on the cable-based Stewart platform or Robocrane;

With such a more modest machine and more easily handled material a modest scale house can be printed in readily mobile sections in a space the size of a garage or small warehouse. The focus would be on the modular and simple, tapping into the same Tiny House trend that the WikiHouse project and other CNC-based housing production schemes have. This seems to me a much more practical approach and, of course, we have seen something similar both these Chinese and Dutch projects. Though shipped as complete prefabs, the Chinese printed houses seem to be assembled from short bay sections much as I’ve imagined–though with much heavier and more brittle masonry material. The Dutch canal house project is using a series of varied modular components, printed with a very large derivative of the Ultimaker 3D printer which is nonetheless at a far more practical scale of hardware than earlier proposed house printers like the Contour Crafting system.

But what does the prospect of 3D printed housing mean for the way we regard housing and the way that influences housing economics? The 3D printed house is, effectively, the ultimate made-on-demand ‘blobject’. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blobject ) As such it has the very disruptive potential to decouple the value of housing from property–the essential basis of the Ponzi scheme of real estate. It’s disposable and adds no value to the property it’s placed on. It can be replaced as cheaply as it might be repaired–potentially with low environmental impact based on the kinds of materials speculated. This is why the scale of the ‘buy in’ for the entrepreneur is so critical. This technology will be suppressed by the established finance industry as long as its implementation is capital-dependent–like every other radical housing innovation that came before it.

The 3D printed house is in the peculiar situation that its most practical near-term application–relief/low-cost housing–is the greatest threat to its eventual mainstream acceptance because the real estate market is extremely class and race biased. As soon as a particular style of architecture becomes associated with a particular social class it becomes damned from the presence of other class communities–just as happened with the mobile home. Currently, Tiny House architecture is tolerated in conventional communities because it remains well camouflaged, discreet, and relatively rare. That quaint doll-house look is rather crucial. 3D printed housing can potentially be as flamboyant in design as commercial architecture. It can get as wild as anyone’s imagination, especially when one needs no mortgage. Ironically, the worst thing a housing innovation can do is aesthetically draw attention to itself. Even as tolerant as the local culture may be, the Dutch canal house design could only ever be a temporary exhibition.

The 3D printed house is an artifact of another culture–a future culture that our current culture has only barely begun to evolve toward. Regardless of how it functionally performs, it’s near-term prospect is very likely to be exactly the same fate as befalls every other form of alternative construction and architecture; embraced for commercial/industrial/’special’ use but, for housing, damned to the edge of wilderness. Its first adopters will be those seeking such alternatives to empower their ‘unplugging’ from the existing culture and its economic constraints. It faces a situation similar to that the late Nader Khalili faced with vitrified earthen construction. His goal for that technology was to radically change the situation of housing in the whole developing world. But he sought to get the technology accepted in the west first because, in his experience, innovations were only embraced in the developing world culture when they had apparent acceptance in rich western nations. The leaders in the developing world keep thinking they have to ‘catch up’ to the west–as if we know what the hell we’re doing! He knew he could never break through to the mainstream western real estate market, so took a very radical approach; he went to NASA proposing buildings for the Moon… “

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