3D Printed Houses Are the New Shipping Container

Video screen capture. Curve Appeal House by WATG

Over on Curbed, Andrew Zaleski writes one of their “longform” articles, How to print a house. He describes the race to scale up 3D printers to house size:

Instead of powdered metals and plastic [that desktop printers use], mixtures of cement, sand, and plastic-polymers are the building materials. Instead of stationary, box-like machines, large robotic arms on a swivel produce fully functional houses, with electricity, plumbing, roofs, and windows.
printing house

© Apis CorHe covers most of the houses we have mentioned on TreeHugger, from the Apis Cor house outside of Moscow to the work of WinSun in China and Dubai, and writes:

Pioneers of 3D-printed construction rattle off what they see as numerous advantages: decreased costs and the consequent ability to follow through on their inventive architectural plans, as well as simpler and sturdier houses built more quickly. The price is lower for homebuyers, too. The house Apis Cor built last December cost just over $10,000. By comparison, a three-bedroom, 1,050-square-foot house built by Habitat for Humanity costs roughly $50,000.

There are a couple of problems here; perhaps the biggest one is the question of whether 3D printing will actually reduce costs. The comparison to the Habitat house is dubious; it has plumbing and heating and is not a conversion from roubles. The beauty of 3D printing is that it makes unique products that might otherwise need expensive tooling cheaply and quickly; that is why it is used so often for prototyping and for body parts where everyone is different. But as Nick Allen noted in the New York Times,
...items printed from a 3-D printer are unlikely to ever match the quality and strength and surface finish of mass manufactured goods. The layer-by-layer process of 3-D printing is a slower, more expensive, worse way of manufacturing than molding or subtractive manufacture.
flotsam jetsam

© SHoP Architects/ via Branch Technology

Zaleski describes the amazing things that Architect Platt Boyd is doing at Branch Technology (including the pavilion designed by SHoP for Art Basel in Miami) but he is squirting out plastic from a giant computerized doodle pen. Nobody in the industry is using sustainable, renewable materials.

3d Printed House from WATG on Vimeo.

Branch Technology’s competition winning 3D printed house proposed by WATG is lovely to look at, but what is the problem being solved here? Do people really have a craving for round living rooms and parametric forms? Do we want everyone living in their own custom one-off house or do we want to really solve the problems of putting energy efficient sustainably built houses over lots of people? Curve Appeal house designer Chris Hurst says “Everybody’s dream is you hit the button and boom, your house pops out, and it’s ready to live in, That’s the market, and it’s something we can do relatively soon.” Really?

Just from basic principles, mass production is going to have lower costs and probably better quality than 3D printing. The whole point of mass production is to increase quantity and reduce cost per unit; The whole point of 3D printing is to make a one-off.

In the Curbed article, Andrew Zaleski offers all kinds of reasons why 3D printing might be slow to take off, from entrenched interests in the construction industry to code approval. But he misses the single most important reason: It’s a dumb idea, a solution in search of a problem.

factory floor

© Lindbäcks Group AB, Sweden

In Sweden, Lindbäcks cranks out twenty energy efficient and affordable housing units every week. In their new plant they may well turn out sixty. In China, Broad builds high quality housing units in a fraction of the the time at a fraction of the cost of conventional housing. They deal with all the many disparate components of a dwelling, the plumbing, heating and wiring which are almost afterthoughts in the 3D printed house. They actually address the problem of building homes quickly, sustainably and affordably.

3D Printed homes are like shipping container homes: a sort of interesting fad, a fun diversion. But shipping containers were designed for freight, not people; 3D printing was designed for prototypes and one-offs, not mass production. Both have their place, but neither solve the real problems of housing.