Why 3D printed houses are a solution looking for a problem

3D printer squirting cement
© University of Eindhoven/ Project Milestone

The problem in housing has never been technological; it is economic and social, whether you are in San Francisco or El Salvador.

Writing in IdeaLog, “New Zealand’s favourite guide to entrepreneurship and innovation in business, design, science and tech,” architect and builder Dan Hayworth looks at Project Milestone in Eindhoven, described as “the first 3D printed housing project” and covered in TreeHugger here. He has some doubts about the curvy concrete homes:

3D printed housing development at night© University of Eindhoven/ Project Milestone

I personally love how it brings us closer to the architecture of Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine, which combines highly organic forms with serious high-tech, but could this really be the future?

Like me, he is not sure that it is ready for prime time. He also worries about the use of cement, and other technical questions. Hayworth is also thinking about the future roles of the architect and the construction industry, which are rapidly changing; look at Katerra buying Michael Green Architecture and other firms.

Building companies and manufacturers around the world are emerging as the true architects of the modern age, while traditional architects continue to marginalise themselves as ‘artists’, serving very small segments of the market with custom-designed monuments using old-fashioned methods.

But it is not just the architects who get marginalized here, but the entire construction industry as we know it. Hayworth’s article got me thinking again about the 3D printing of housing, and whether we need this kind of disruption.

ICON / New Story© ICON / New Story

I think the most interesting example is the ICON house built for non-profit New Story, which builds houses in Central America. Kim described the problem, and how the ICON house can help solve it:

There's a lack of affordable housing worldwide, from the most cosmopolitan of cities, to more remote, rural areas -- affecting an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide…. this prototype cost around USD $10,000 to produce, but it estimates that costs will be lowered to around $3,500 or $4,000 for its production run in El Salvador next year, where it plans to print 100 affordable homes.

The problem for me is that when you look at the New Story website, they say “For Locals, By Locals: We hire local labor and buy materials locally for a positive economic impact in the communities we work.” They have a whole page devoted to listening to their future occupants and making something that they want. They write: “Assuming that our western perspective is best and excluding locals in solution-making yields avoidable mistakes and wasted resources.”

ICON / New Story© ICON / New Story

And then they drop the world’s most sophisticated 3D printing machinery in the middle of this community and print houses like nobody has ever seen, houses that don’t need masons or plasterers or labor, that don’t create many local jobs or teach many skills. Talk about western perspective! They have reduced the cost of the house a bit, but the money is no longer going into the pockets of local workers, it is going to buy bags of goo to feed the big expensive printer.

ICON / New Story© ICON / New Story

The New Milestone project is a pile of single detached inhabited boulders when we need low carbon, multifamily dwellings. The Icon New Story project appears to disenfranchise local trades and contradict every word they say about what their purpose is. It is the ultimate Silicon Valley high tech solution, but housing has never been a technological problem: it is economic and social.

And, as Dan Hayworth concludes, “Back to the fundamental point – how much art will my Mum hang on her curved wall?”

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