I am not a total skeptic about 3D printed houses. I think there is a place for them – on the moon, for example.
Everybody is so excited about the community 3D-printed homes being built by New Story somewhere in Latin America. I'm excited that they have brought one of our favourite designers, Yves Béhar of Fuseproject, on board.
The charity, New Story, has been building houses conventionally for years, but now "New Story’s vision to marry the mission to end global homelessness and build sustainable communities with cutting-edge technology has reached a new milestone: the unveiling of the world’s first 3D-printed community design, which will provide much-needed houses for impoverished families in Latin America."
Béhar describes the house (watch the video to see the printer in action):
The design reflects a culture of using outdoor spaces for cooking, food preparation and eating. The Roof overhang over the front and back patios provide added shade from the sun, protection from rainfall and a space for socializing. The simple addition of front and rear outdoor lighting offers a sense of safety and security for the families. The design and technology also allow the home to adapt to the local environmental conditions such as climate and seismic activity with simple enhancements to the base structure, by incorporating additional reinforcement into the wall cavities and using the walls themselves to resist lateral movement.
New Story and Béhar say that they have worked closely with the community to design houses that are appropriate for their needs.
To ensure the home design complements the families’ needs, lives, and anticipated growth, New Story and fuseproject have facilitated a series of on-the-ground workshops to understand and adapt plans and designs to the community’s habits, needs, culture, and climate. “As we spoke to the community members, we realized that a single house design doesn't respond to the needs and expectations. This led us to design a system that allows for different programs, climate factors, and growth for families and spaces,” noted Yves Béhar.
Béhar claims that they are "marrying design, technology, and community organizing." There are many things to admire in what ICON, New Story and Béhar are doing here. But there are also many things I do not understand.
New Story has been building houses for people in Latin America for a while, usually out of concrete block that is made on site, with the houses built by local people. I previously looked at this concept and noted that the New Story website says, “For Locals, By Locals: We hire local labor and buy materials locally for a positive economic impact in the communities we work.” (Kim also covered the house in detail here)
Now they are going to bring in a big, very high-tech 3D printing rig, going to import a mix of cement that probably has to be made to careful tolerances so as not to clog the nozzles of this fancy machine. I noted previously that "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."
But wait, Adele Peters of Fast Company notes that there have been changes since I wrote that.
After printing an initial test home in a backyard in Austin in 2018, the team kept refining the design of both the house and the equipment. One addition was a simple interface so that it would be easier to operate. “Something that’s really important to us as an international development organization is the ability for the machine to be operated by local talent,” says Alexandria Lafci, cofounder and head of operations of New Story. (Though the construction process provides fewer jobs per home than traditional building, it offers the chance to learn new technical skills.)
There will be other jobs beside pushing buttons on the printer. Somebody has to build the roof, which can't be printed. That's why Winsun used the same kind of printer but then tilts it up. As noted previously, someone probably has to put in reinforcing for seismic loads, and then someone probably has to fill the voids with concrete, turning the whole thing into fancy 3D printed formwork. There will probably also be jobs feeding the diesel generators that keep the printer running and driving to the airport to pick up parts when it breaks down. At which point, someone should probably ask whether it didn't make more sense to hire a bunch of local people and teach them how to make and lay concrete blocks, plopping in rebars as they go.
I am not a total skeptic about 3D printed houses. I think there is a place for them – on the moon, for example. But here on earth, I think we should put our money into people, not giant printers and bags of goo.