3D printed homes could help solve the affordable housing crisis
Ostrapping on a giant robotic arm methodically laying down layers of concrete might not seem like a transfixing experience. But on TikTok, videos of this exact process, otherwise known as 3D printing, are racking up tens of millions of views and helping people imagine a world in which affordable 3D printed homes are the new normal.
Known as @thelayerlord on TikTok, Aiman Hussein has gained nearly 50,000 followers since joining the social platform last year to showcase the work of 3D Alquist, where he is the printing director. His TikToks revolve around the process of 3D printing homes, with his most-watched videos showing how Alquist printers systematically layer row after row of concrete to build the exterior walls of a house in a computer-generated pattern.
Much like smaller-scale 3D printers, Alquist’s machines have a dispenser that pumps layers of material – in this case, concrete – onto each other, to build a physical object. They follow a predetermined layout to form the design provided by a digital file. The process can be used to create anything from jewelry to furniture to the walls of a home.
Hussein says he started taking his videos to document the company’s work, but realized something about them resonated with people on TikTok. “It’s a strangely satisfying process we’re doing here,” he says.
Viewers often leave humorous comments like “serve soft forbidden” and “I can’t even get toothpaste to come out that smooth” on Hussein’s posts, of which the most popular have been viewed nearly 20 million times. However, others have questions. “I mean it’s convenient, but how long does it take to build a house,” one user commented on a August post which garnered over 16 million views. (Answer: an average of 20-30 hours).
But despite the growing potential of the 3D printed home building industry, challenges remain that could hinder its expansion. On the one hand, the demand is very high but the availability is extremely limited.
What is the current state of the 3D printed home industry?
Since its inception in 2020, Alquist has completed two 3D printed home builds, one in Williamsburg, Virginia, and one in Richmond, Virginia. The idea of 3D printed houses has also gained popularity in recent years. A survey published by real estate agent.com in August 2021 revealed that 66% of consumers would consider living in a 3D printed home. This number was even higher among younger generations, with 75% of millennials saying they would be open to 3D-printed homes. Around a third of respondents also said they believe 3D printing is the future of homebuilding and will eventually replace more traditional methods.
Mannheimer says one of the biggest benefits of 3D printing is that it produces affordable, energy-efficient and customizable homes.
Alquist finds 15% cost savings for 3D-printed homes compared to traditional stick-built homes, i.e. homes built on site using a wooden frame. The company’s goal is to increase cost savings to 30% by 2023, Mannheimer said.
In December, a family from Virginia moved into the Habitat for Humanity’s first 3D-printed home in the United States, built by the company. The concrete exterior of the 1,200-square-foot home was built in just 22 hours — about two to three weeks faster than the standard construction schedule — and resulted in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home.
“There’s nothing different about one of our houses than any other house, except that the exterior walls are made of concrete instead of wood. Otherwise, these houses are built almost identically,” says Mannheimer. “Our process simply extrudes concrete from a giant robot, saving you time, labor and materials.”
By Habitat for Humanity Home Ownership Programthe family living in the first 3D-printed house occupied by Alquist is responsible for monthly mortgage payments that do not exceed 30% of their income, including property taxes and home insurance.
“Working with Habitat for Humanity has been a fantastic experience. They shared the same ideas and were determined to reduce the costs of all their structures,” says Hussein. “It really showed how we can fulfill that mission statement of getting people into homes they can afford.”
Mannheimer says that since the news of the Habitat home broke, Alquist has seen a surge in inquiries, which shows just how much demand there is for more affordable housing. “Since the house was completed and the first story about it came out, we’ve averaged between 25 and 50 3D printed house requests per hour,” he says. “So it confirmed all of our beliefs about why this is so important. The need is immense.”
Following the success of its first two 3D-printed homes, Alquist is working on a new project related to affordable housing, which will be announced at the end of April.
A complete 3D printed house
Courtesy of Alquist 3D
Alquist machines pump layers of concrete on top of each other to build a physical object
Courtesy of Alquist 3D
What challenges do 3D printing construction companies face?
The White House estimating that the United States lacks so much 4 million affordable housing units, the problem goes beyond anything a viral TikTok could solve on its own. The biggest challenge facing the 3D-printed housing industry right now is scale, Mannheimer says, “Right now there are less than 10 companies using this technology in America. To really make a dent in the affordable housing crisis, we would need more than 50.”
But some experts say other fundamental issues are preventing 3D printing from revolutionizing housing. Ryan Smithdirector of the School of Design and Construction and professor of architecture at Washington State University, says that while 3D printing has the long-term potential to transform the construction industry, the American penchant for construction of lightweight timber frame houses is a major challenge for wider implementation of technology that relies on concrete.
Given that labor and supply chains in the United States are set up to handle lumber, Smith says attempting to disrupt the current system would create significant logistical hurdles for installing and repairing plumbing, electrical, HVAC and other systems. “If you’re changing the means and methods of construction from lightweight frame to concrete housing, you’re going to have to develop a whole workforce around that to be able to handle it,” he says.
Rather than try to replace existing wall construction methods with 3D printing, Smith says companies should produce the components of a home in a factory before assembling them on a home construction site. “You can integrate mechanics, electricity and plumbing much more easily in a factory than you can on the job,” he says.
Some other housing companies already do that.
How TikTok is fueling the 3D printing hype
All of these hurdles mean that, for now, affordable 3D-printed homes aren’t going mainstream anytime soon. But generating interest is the first step, Mannheimer says. “Videos get views because they’re so satisfying to watch,” he says.
For members of the younger generations facing a difficult path to home ownership, it is an irresistible fantasy.
“It starts to free your imagination for what else is possible,” he says. “We can excite a whole new generation to build things with computers and machines instead of shovels.”
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