3D Printed Homes Go from Science-Fiction to Reality  

March 18, 2019 Conley Smith

It seems everywhere you turn lately has been another article about advances in 3D printing and its impact on the construction industry. The news has been non-stop—whether it’s about how 3D printed molds are giving architects and designers more freedom or how it could revolutionize affordable housing.

Many experts see 3D printing as having far-reaching potential to make the construction industry greener, improve project planning, and streamline client communications. Clearly, there are many applications for this game-changing technology.

We’re Going to Need a Bigger Printer!

No doubt, one of the biggest headlines has been out of Austin, Texas, where construction-tech startup ICON announced that its new 3-D printer, the Vulcan II, can print a 2,000-square-foot family home in a matter of days, reducing costs by about 30 percent.

An article in the Wall Street Journal by reporter Laura Kusisto noted:

A Texas startup says it will be able to use a 3-D printer to churn out a concrete house within days by year-end, a technology that has the potential to help solve housing shortages but faces regulatory and technical hurdles.

“It’s no longer a science project,” said Jason Ballard, co-founder and chief executive of the construction-technology company, ICON.

The firm says the printer ... can produce bungalows of up to 2,000 square feet, nearly as large as the typical 2,400-square-foot American home. Previous efforts in the U.S. and Europe have mainly resulted in printing simple shelters, and the technology has been largely one of promise, rather than reality.

Targeting Affordable Housing

Specifically, ICON touts its printer as the “first digitally-native approach to building construction designed specifically to produce resilient single-story buildings faster, more affordable, and with more design freedom.” The 3,800-pound Vulcan II, which stands 11-and-a-half-feet tall, can print walls with a maximum height of 8-and-a-half-feet and a width of up to 28 feet, with no limits on length.

Austin-based developer Cielo Property Group is purchasing the Vulcan II and plans to start production of affordable housing in Austin this year. ICON is also partnering with startup New Story to build at least 50 homes in Latin America this year.

Requiring only a few people to operate, the Vulcan II can be operated by a tablet, pumping out concrete layer-by-layer to create a home with a distinctive, folded appearance. The non-concrete elements like windows, doors, electrical wiring, and plumbing, are installed using conventional methods.

Not only is there less waste on the construction site, but it also costs about $20,000 to 3D print a 2,000-square-foot house. If the savings are passed onto consumers, ICON said it could make a home $120,000 cheaper. In Austin, the average home is roughly $400,000.

Even Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson praised ICON for its affordability, plus its ability to create resilient homes to withstand weather-related disasters. However, skeptics point out that the home design may not be for everyone. Also, scaling up the production in wet and cold weather conditions may be problematic.

3D-Printing for Custom Curves in Seattle

3D printing is also playing a big role in a big project going up in Seattle. Digital manufacturing company 3Diligent Corp. is printing aluminum curtain wall components for cladding firm Walters & Wolf’s work on the 1.7 million-square-foot, mixed-use Rainier Square Tower now under construction there.

The building’s distinctive sloping from the fourth to the 40th floor has been custom fabricated using 3D printing technology to meet the 59-story building’s unique geometric look, according to 3Diligent. There are 140 V-shaped nodes that will bring together square-cut pieces of curtain wall and accommodate a different angle for the nonstructural cladding on each floor of the building.

Tall Order for Unique 3D Design

The Rainier Square Tower has a unique design with a broad base and then, beginning at the fourth story, each floor steps back at an angle all the way to the 40th floor. The tower is expected to be Seattle’s second-tallest and is estimated to cost nearly $600 million.

Walters & Wolf settled on 3D printing “because of the dimensional accuracy and structural reliability it gave,” said designer Jon Ishee in a case study. Printing the components also helped meet schedule goals, even when design changes toward the end of the project required additional supports on certain levels, the company said.

Less Waste, More Savings with 3D

Experts say a third of all materials on a construction jobsite will end up in the trash. With 3D printing, there could be 30% to 60% less waste. They also claim 3D printing can trim construction time by 50-70% and labor costs by 50-80%.

With the 3D concrete printing market predicted to grow to nearly $70 million by the end of 2023, market watchers tout its potential for increased sustainability and savings. According to the International Construction Cost Survey, 3D printing can potentially reduce the total cost of construction by as much as 60%.

Technology Transforming Construction

In our Contractor’s Suite White Paper, we explore how contractors underspend on technology by 70 percent—even though new digital tech holds the promise of boosting productivity by as much as 60 percent. Without the right tech tools, contractors may have trouble keeping pace—especially if they are still doing takeoffs with notebooks and colored pencils or chasing down workers on jobsites for their timecards.

From the skilled labor shortage to tight tech budgets, it is unlikely that 3D printing will magically resolve all issues surrounding construction. For many contractors, improving productivity is less about being an early tech adopter as it is slowly adding the right tech tools—from digital estimating software to using drones to survey their jobsites.

Are you ready to fast track productivity with an integrated solution for takeoff, estimating, and production management? Find out what the Contractor’s Suite can do for your construction business – request a free demo now.

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