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3D printed homes are all the rage - but are they solving any of humanity's problems?

3D printed homes are a marvel but they lack standardization. And despite their promise of being able to generate low-cost housing at scale, they cater mostly to the well-off.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

The University of Maine's Biohome could soon become a benchmark for low-cost housing in the US.

University of Maine

Watching a 3D printer build a house has got to be one of the more strangely meditative -- even mesmerizing -- exercises around. 

The 3D printer looks exactly like the ones you may have seen, except blown up, as if it were a prop in Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

After being assembled on-site by a spartan crew of four -- which is basically all the labor it takes to produce the entire foundation and exterior and interior walls of a 3D-printed house -- the printer stretches across the entire width of the house. 

Also: How to get into 3D printing without breaking (too many) things

At around 45 feet in length and perched atop two 15-foot towers like a giant, stretched-out, pull-up bar, the printer starts from one end, extruding cement like a giant caulking-gun-cum-ice-cream-dispenser as it makes its way to the other side.

An unflagging and meticulous worker, the printer methodically deposits layer upon layer of the exterior and interior walls of the home, printing 150 or more of these three-quarter inch layers all the way up to nine feet, in most cases.

You can check out the entire process in this video.

Now, consider the construction of a regular house, which can take anywhere from six to 12 months to complete.

The traditional construction process starts by laying a concrete slab down followed by wooden framing (essentially the skeleton of the house built with wood), plumbing, electricals, roof work, cladding (outer wall), ducts and vents, insulation, drywall or sheetrock, and finally interiors.

Framing alone takes up to two months while electrical and plumbing can take several weeks.

A 3D printer, by contrast, can lay down the foundation and then rip through building all of the walls of a house in a shockingly low week to 10 days with the plumbing and electrical already built into the slab or the walls.

In some cases, a modest two-bedroom dwelling can be completed in an astonishing 24 hours.

Also: This Anker 3D printer blew me away and it's perfect for beginners

This is undoubtedly the biggest leap in productivity that modern-day construction has ever seen.

And it could be the best news that home buyers and developers have ever heard. According to mortgage provider Freddie Mac, the US is desperately in need of at least 3.8 million units of housing. Growing labor and material shortages are not making things any easier.

When you include the staggering 38 million Americans living in poverty into your calculations, that picture gets even more dire. At least 7.3 million rental units of affordable housing are urgently needed for those with very low incomes.

Alas, that is not where investors will see fat margins; 3D printing companies are focusing primarily on buildings that lie at the upper end of the market.

Form factor


Icon's House Zero sports unique interior walls and spaces that only a 3D printer can navigate effortlessly and with no extra cost compared to a conventional build.


Icon, a pioneering 3D home builder, has partnered with property developer Lennar to churn out a 100-community home called Wolf Ranch, nestled in the hills of Georgetown, Texas.  

These smart, conventional-looking 3- or 4-bedroom units can be snatched up right off Icon's website where buyers can choose between eight different floor plans before they commit to anywhere from $450,000 to $500,000 for their new home.

Also: The best printers of 2023: For students and professionals

However, it is Icon's upscale, mid-century modernist ranch house, 'House Zero', that reveals the enormous design advantages of 3D printed homes. Here, exterior walls curve irregularly along with the landscape. They not only look great but also add a lot more rigidity.


Icon's Vulcan 3D printer that can print out a 2,000-square-foot house in eight days.


Dining rooms can be made into semi-cocoons, adding intimacy in a flash. Bathrooms can be made circular, hallways can become wavy passageways, counters can spring up effortlessly, islands and even furniture can be created on a whim and spaces can be opened up or closed off depending on your desired look and feel.

To do all of this you don't have to call any more masons or designers or brick workers to your rescue --  your trusty printer doesn't care if your walls are wavy or straight. It builds anything and everything without a fuss.

Moreover, the headache of managing a large work-site crew doesn't exist -- there are only three people on site, if you can imagine that. This skeleton crew simply assembles the printer, uploads the CAD design onto it, and then monitors the printing process, making sure that the layers are all forming correctly.

Also: 5 very useful tools and gadgets for better 3D printing

House Zero reflects many of these possibilities to play with form. It allows you as a prospective homeowner or builder to unleash your inner Gaudi and create something truly unique.

But does it make financial sense?

You only have to look at the cost of labor in a head-to-head comparison of 3D-printed homes versus conventionally built ones to get a whiff of how this comparison is going to end up.

With four workers on site for 10 days, the labor involved in 3D printed homes costs 80% less than a conventional one, which is a giant saving considering that 40% of a conventional home's budget is labor costs, according to industry authorities like All3DP.

That's not all. Insurance payments are significantly lower because there's really no one on the worksite, which means far less liability. You can nonchalantly build your house through as many pandemics as you want without hyperventilating about lumber being three times the price.

Also: This is the best and fastest sub-$300 3D printer I've tested yet

There's also 99% less waste in the 3D printing process since you print exactly what you need, and 3D printing remains unaffected by chronic labor shortages for skilled tradespeople.

So, it makes sense that a 3D printed house can right now be at least 20- to 30 percent more cheaply, according to industry estimates. 

Icon's CEO says that just the concrete wall of 'Zero' cost him $150,000, or half of what it costs to frame a house the conventional way with wood. The whole house apparently came in a few hundred thousand dollars cheaper than a comparable conventional build.

Even more eye-popping, however, is the fact that this process today is just an eighth of what it cost when the company first started 3D printing houses, signaling that prices could keep falling as the technology gets cheaper.

Operating in the same space albeit with a different business model is Mighty Buildings out of Oakland, California, whose approach to home building is a little different.

Also: Everything you need to start building a smart home

It centers on using a 3D printer to make panels in a factory offsite and then assembling them where the home is being built.

The advantage of Mighty Building's process lies in its ability to customize its panels to a variety of custom plans without having to fret about all the nightmares of a one-shot, make-or-break print job on site.

If the build is large -- like a whole neighborhood of homes – the company can erect its own pop-up 'micro-factory' nearby to reduce time and money sucked up by transportation and logistics involving panels.

Housing the vulnerable

Of course, America's 40 million living in poverty will not be too impressed as yet with the ease of printing curved walls or supply-chain efficiencies.

In recent research studies, the US consistently has the largest and deepest poverty rates among industrialized nations. Insecure housing is a big part of that picture, yet there hasn't been a large-scale 3D-printed initiative that can begin to address the problem.

Also: ChatGPT could help you find your next home

This is where 3D printing can fulfill its true promise. To its credit, Icon explored this in its Echale project, which sought to provide low-cost housing to an economically deprived community in Tabasco, Mexico.

The results were astounding. Each 500-square-foot house equipped with two bedrooms and one bath was printed in 24 hours with embedded lattice work for improved air flow in a hot climate.

However, the show-stopper in affordable housing has to be the BioHome (see above), printed by the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center (ASCC). 

The BioHome has been birthed by an unusual compact between the university and the local government, and driven by the state's realization that its economy may be hindered by the fact that 60% of the most vulnerable segment of its population -- low-income renters -- spend more than half of their income on housing.

The outcome of this endeavor is a 600-square-foot prototype that may just become a benchmark for the rest of the country. It was printed in four modules, slapped together on-site in half a day, and wired by an on-site electrician in a few hours.

Also: The best smart home devices of 2023: Expert reviewed

While the house's appearance is unexceptional, the engineering that has gone into it is anything but.
BioHome uses waste wood from sawmills -- 1.2 million tons of which are readily available -- fused with a corn-based binder that makes the entire house 100% recyclable and dirt cheap.

It also features an array of thermal, structural, and environmental sensors planted around the home to keep tabs on how it performs during Maine's cold winters so future designs can be improved upon.

Killed by construction

Other than specifically addressing the homeless and poor with quick-to-build solutions, this is another way that 3D homes will shine. In a future faced with global warming-related challenges, utilizing environmentally friendly, recyclable materials to replace wood and concrete will become non-debatable.

Today, buildings are responsible for a staggering 40% of carbon emissions globally, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. As much as 8% of emissions comes just from making cement for these buildings while the rest comes from operating them year-round.

In other words, the last thing we need is an industry using more cement than before. Every company in the 3D printed homes arena advertises their special mix. 

Also: AI is more likely to cause world doom than climate change, according to an AI expert

Icon uses its proprietary mix called lavacrete, which the company claims is far more resilient than regular concrete. Mighty Building's Light Stone Material has four times the tensile and flexural strength of concrete, weighs 30% less, and uses 60% sustainably sourced & recycled components, according to the company.

Nevertheless, these products still use cement and need to urgently gravitate towards material that is transparently and predominantly climate-friendly so they can become benchmarks for the future.


3D printed firm WASP's home is made entirely out of 3D printed clay


One pioneering attempt to deviate from cement is this stunning 3D-printed house built out of clay by 3D printing firm Wasp as a response to the climate emergency.

And every project boasts huge increases in structural strength and R-values (insulating power) from their proprietary material.

The problem is that there are no third-party validations of these claims in most cases. Plus, both developers and home buyers will need to dig deep into their area's building codes to see if they are able to demonstrate that their specific building material passes muster.

This will also continue to pose a standardization challenge for all parties involved until a whole new regulatory framework is charted out with ample input from all parties concerned.

Also: Is humanity really doomed? Consider AI's Achilles heel

"The technology is not yet mature or commonplace enough," Mallikarjuna Nadagouda, a researcher with the Environmental Protection Agency, wrote in an email to Yahoo News. "There are no codes or standards relating to manufacturers or specifications, and very few design professionals know how to design, specify, and procure these for commercial clients."

And finally, the most important question about how we live needs to be answered before 3D printing can be anointed as the future of home building.

There is widespread global consensus that the future of living is going to be vertical and not a forever expansion into the countryside. 

Experts are unanimous that taller buildings -- which make more efficient use of space and require less supporting infrastructure -- need to be prioritized rather than spending millions to develop forever-expanding suburbia that need expansive networks for water, electricity, and roads. 

Until 3D-printed home projects begin to cater to those most desperate for a dignified living and also begin architecting some industry-relevant codes, they will largely be a novelty solution for those who don't really need one.

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