Towards Sustainable and Affordable Housing: Is 3D Printing the Future or the Present?
In recent years, the construction industry has faced challenges. A lack of skilled workers is driving up costs of labor, there is a global housing shortage, and the effects of climate change around the world are clearer than ever. Therefore, questioning traditional construction methods and pushing the limits of innovation has become a top priority, forcing the industry to new technologies as they get on board the digital transformation era. There is one innovation, however, that looks particularly promising: 3D construction printing. Although relatively recent, the technology has already been successfully tested in numerous structures, houses and apartment buildings, reshaping residential construction as we know it. Hence, 3D printing could very well be a viable alternative for more efficient, sustainable and cost-effective mass housing solutions in the near future, positively impacting people’s lives and contributing to greener, healthier cities.
The printing process
So, how does 3D printing work? Simply put, three-dimensional shapes are created through a computer-controlled process without the use of formwork. Using a large printing machine, concrete (or other materials like Mortar, Soil, Special Polymers, or recycled and other plastics) is extruded layer-by-layer to form walls, foundations, columns, stairs and other building elements. Since the system is portable, it is suitable for off-site, prefab production and in-situ application, eliminating the need for frequent relocation and calibration. Once the printer is assembled, it operates along three axes on a secured metallic frame and can be configured in any direction for a wide range of applications.
A fast, eco-friendly construction technology that doesn’t sacrifice creativity
Without a doubt, the printing process offers a significant potential to increase efficiency and productivity. Not only does it offer a high-degree of planning reliability from the start, but it also requires low coordination and monitoring efforts. With standard materials, such as wood or brick, houses can take months or years to complete. But with a 3D printer, construction time reduces drastically. In fact, according to Marco Vonk, Marketing Manager at Saint Gobain Weber Beamix, “you can save about 60% of time in the job site and 80% in labor.” This means a house can be built from the ground up in a matter of days, which also translates to less costs. And unlike traditional construction – where precision is limited by human error or the site’s conditions – the resulting building is an exact copy of the digital model, just like printing a picture on paper. In this sense, the automated process requires little supervision and no manual input, reducing chances of design errors and worker injuries.
Often, high resource and energy efficiency is a synonym of sustainability. Although there is a long way to go for 3D printing to be 100% eco-friendly, it certainly offers outstanding environmental benefits, especially when compared to conventional methods. Besides printing hollow walls that naturally require less material, the printer uses the exact amount needed to bring a digital model to life, ultimately minimizing concrete use. And because there is no need for on-site installation or formwork, construction waste – which would normally end up in a landfill – is significantly reduced. In addition, 3D printers can be developed to make structures out of organic, sustainable and renewable materials, such as round homes made of raw earth, tiny houses made of mud or structures made of bamboo composite. Thus, by using less materials, generating less waste, decreasing transportation needs and potentially using natural or recycled materials, printed buildings can drastically reduce their carbon footprint.
Despite being an automated process that can produce the same model repeatedly, 3D printing provides a high design flexibility. Because changes can easily be made within the digital model and the system can be configured according to each design, practically any surface and shape is possible: curved or straight walls, smooth or rough surfaces, flat or angled. For example, House Zero and Beckum House feature double-skin curved walls that, apart from offering structural efficiency, create a fluid movement within the homes. In this way, even in an extremely productive process, architects are still able to explore creative possibilities to create unique, innovative and eye-catching buildings.
With these numerous benefits in mind, materials company Saint Gobain Weber Beamix has been experimenting with 3D concrete printing technologies since the beginning of the century. In collaboration with BAM, they have opened the first concrete printing factory in Europe, developing milestones like the world’s first printed commercial housing project. Comprised of five homes that meet all comfort and stringent construction requirements, built, inhabited projects like these demonstrate the potential of 3D construction printing for affordable mass housing projects.
3D construction printing will potentially allow us to address global housing challenges
It is estimated that 900 million people among the global population are living in slums, while 330 million urban households can’t access affordable, adequate and secure accommodation. As prices continue to rise, this number is only expected to increase. Therefore, 3D construction printing – with its ability to create high-quality, cost-effective and eco-friendlier buildings in first rates – has the potential to address the current emergency housing in a more sustainable way. Because many homes can repeatedly come to life with the same software, model and material, it could also be a viable solution for emergency shelters. And, evidently, the efficiency of the process doesn’t necessarily imply that architects have to compromise creativity and aesthetics. Since 3D printing allows for a high design flexibility, it is easy to achieve a balance between beauty, form and function.
The many successful printed homes certainly point towards the right direction. However, to truly imagine a future where 3D printing becomes the norm for mass housing, there are still many challenges to overcome in order to replace traditional methods. For example, adapting countries’ strict construction requirements, adressing high density areas, adequately responding to different weather conditions, improving the circularity of materials after the end of life for deconstruction, reducing its carbon footprint, and making the technology even more affordable to promote access in more vulnerable sectors. It all starts, nonetheless, by continuing to invest, explore and innovate in the construction printing world.
After all, 3D printing is here to stay, but its history is still being written.