Can 3D printing save the world? A growing number of architects and builders are betting on it.
BY NANCY ZIMMERMAN
It may be a cliché to say that every crisis is also an opportunity, but it’s also true that pressing problems can indeed give rise to bold ideas and world-changing solutions. But at a time when everything seems to be collapsing around us, it’s hard to know where to begin to put it all back together. Catastrophic climate events, new migration patterns, worldwide housing shortages, and endemic poverty are taking their toll, compounded by unprecedented levels of civil discord, political division, and general distrust. In such an atmosphere, where every issue is a can’t-wait priority, it might seem impossible to do the triage necessary to single out the most pressing problems to address first.
Fortunately, innovative new technologies are proving that we can in fact tackle a number of these challenges simultaneously, most notably in the building sector. Here, the 3D-printing process has quietly launched a revolution in construction materials and methods that promises affordable, eco-friendly, energy-efficient housing that can be erected in record time, and at scale, using inexpensive local materials. The technology is complex, but the end process is a simple one: large printers equipped with robotic arms travel on a rail and extrude concrete, plastic, or other building materials through nozzles, layering the material to create textured, three-dimensional walls.
Although 3D-printing technology was first used in the early to mid-1980s, its prohibitive cost kept it under the radar until around 2005, when various related patents began expiring and costs began coming down. The past few years have seen a surge in 3D building as tech firms have teamed up with architects around the world in projects whose building materials range from concrete to hemp to mud and plain dirt.
There are conflicting claims as to who built the first truly livable 3D-printed home, but there are a few verifiable “firsts” of note. Europe’s first such house to actually function as a home rather than a prototype welcomed its initial tenants in 2021 in a suburb of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. The house, one of a group of five planned rental homes dubbed Project Milestone, is part of a collaborative research project by the Eindhoven University of Technology and a group of construction specialists whose purpose is to further the knowledge of this kind of fabrication. The project’s additional homes will become increasingly complex, featuring multiple stories and using a variety of printing techniques.
The 365-square-foot house is shaped like a boulder and features sloped exterior walls. Layers of stacked concrete were printed to form 24 individual components, then transported from the nearby printing site to the building site and assembled, attached to the foundation, and fitted with a roof, windows, and doors. The home’s interior, designed by Dutch architecture studio Houben & Van Mierlo, features thick, stacked-concrete walls, an open kitchen and dining area, a bedroom, and a bathroom. Tenants Elize Lutz and Harrie Dekkers love their new home, both for its beauty and its solidity. “It is beautiful,” Lutz says, while Dekkers adds, “It has the feel of a bunker—it feels safe.”
The first 3D-printed home constructed specifically to be an Airbnb rental is the Fibonacci House, located in Procter Point, British Columbia, Canada. So named because of its adherence to the Fibonacci sequence—the “golden ratio” that occurs frequently in nature and is employed by many architects—the compact residence features a picturesque site with mountain views near Kootenay Lake Village. The Netherlands–based Twente Additive Manufacturing designed the house as an homage to the beauty of nature as well as a showcase for the manufacturing methods of 3D printing, with an emphasis on the notion that “a home and the humans that inhabit it are joining the environment, not controlling it,” according to a company spokesperson. “Our mission is to reduce unnecessary material consumption and increase connectivity to the natural world.” The company designed its own concrete printers to build the 35-square-meter (375-square-foot) structure, which consists of an open kitchen and living space on the first floor as well as a sleeping mezzanine level reached by a ladder that can accommodate two adults and two children. There’s also a small garden and a covered patio for barbecues.
It took just 11 days to print the components, whose volume totaled 8.6 million square feet of concrete, to which elements made from sustainably harvested cedar and fir from the nearby forest were added. The house can be rented on Airbnb for approximately $133 USD per night, with a minimum stay of three nights. Proceeds from the rentals are directed to an affordable homes project led by the nonprofit organization World Housing, which plans to build Canada’s first entirely 3D-printed community of affordable houses.
Closer to home, 3D-printing technology geared to construction is advancing rapidly. Austin, Texas, has emerged as a kind of epicenter of innovation for its use of 3D printing in both affordable housing and high-end construction projects. ICON, a forward-thinking construction technologies company there, has positioned itself on the cutting edge of 3D everything—robotics, software, and materials—most notably with their Vulcan construction system that was engineered for high-volume printing of homes with precision and speed, as well as their Magma automated material delivery system.
One of the company’s 3D-printed homes is House Zero, which was unveiled in March 2022 as a demonstration project and field trial for ICON’s proprietary concrete wall printing system. ICON collaborated with Lake Flato Architects, an award-winning Austin-based firm known for its adherence to the principles of biophilic architecture, the newest term for buildings designed to increase occupants’ connectivity to the natural environment. Even before 3D printing was introduced, Lake Flato was committed to designing buildings that integrate the natural world into the lives of the occupants to improve their physical and mental well-being.
“Now we can put a name to the concept,” says Ashley Heeren, an associate architect with the firm. Adds Lewis McNeel, associate partner, “As with any new technology, or any technology and materials we’ve worked with, we always look for a connection to nature and a connection to place, no matter how futuristic the technology might be.”
“The big idea is to open-source and democratize and try to get this technology into the hands of the housing nonprofits and governments who want to solve serious problems in their towns and cities.” — Brett Hagler, New Story’s CEO and cofounder
At the higher end of the scale, designers are delighting in the versatility of 3D-printed materials that makes it possible to incorporate undulating curves and softer shapes that would be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive using traditional building methods.
The 2,000-plus-square-foot, three-bedroom House Zero gave both ICON and the architects an opportunity to try out innovative construction techniques and test the functionality of the materials. “For instance, these are the highest 3D [printed] walls ICON has used for an ordinary house,” McNeel says. “We played with tilting the wall a little bit so it curves and bends in plane, but it also curves a little bit in sections. No one was quite certain what the limits [of the tilts and curves] were for that, so we were testing that out in small ways.” He points out that other innovations extend to aspects of the home not readily visible, such as the guts of the walls, where carefully thought-out, intricately designed print paths accommodate high-performance mechanicals.
“House Zero is ground zero for the emergence of entirely new design languages and architectural vernaculars that will use robotic construction to deliver the things we need most from our housing: comfort, beauty, dignity, sustainability, attainability, and hope,” says ICON cofounder and CEO Jason Ballard. “This is the new standard of what 3D printing can mean for the world. My hope is that this home will provoke architects, developers, builders, and homeowners to dream alongside ICON about the exciting and hopeful future that robotic construction, and specifically 3D printing, make possible. The housing of our future must be different from the housing we have known.”
The response from visitors to House Zero has been positive, and they comment on both its beauty and its functionality. “We’ve had a couple of people walk into House Zero and say it’s like adobe architecture, which gives it a feeling of safe shelter, as well as its irregularities and imperfections,” Heeren says. “I’d also say that we use daylight really well in the house. There are clerestory windows and a light shelf to balance daylight, and every time we’ve been in the house we could turn off all the lights and the house would still be very comfortably lit.”
ICON has also developed plans for entire communities of 3D-printed homes that are noted for their durability and affordability. In Tabasco, Mexico, the company partnered with housing nonprofit New Story to create 50 homes, 10 of which have already been built, for local families living in extreme poverty, earning around $3 per day. New Story was founded in 2010 in response to the earthquake in Haiti as a way to provide housing assistance to towns and regions that needed to rebuild quickly after a natural or man-made disaster or to address a significant problem with homelessness. The advent of 3D printing has made that goal easier to achieve, as the low cost, speed of construction, and the use of local materials make it possible to erect high-quality housing in record time.
The homes in the Tabasco community are around 500 square feet and include two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. It took 24 hours to print the components for each of them, with local workers finishing the project with the installation of roofs and doors. The houses are built to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes, and they’re durable enough to be passed down from one generation to the next. New Story next hopes to collaborate with other nonprofits working to end homelessness worldwide. Says Brett Hagler, the organization’s CEO and cofounder, “The big idea is to open-source and democratize and try to get this technology into the hands of the housing nonprofits and governments who want to solve serious problems in their towns and cities.”
Back in Austin, ICON is doing its part to help alleviate the homelessness problem with Community First! Village from nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which breaks ground in 2022. When completed, it will provide accommodations for 480 people, about 40 percent of Austin’s homeless population. Construction costs for each 400-square-foot, one-bedroom unit run around $4,000, and the components can be printed in about 24 hours. Interiors were designed in consultation with the eventual residents.
“Conventional construction methods have many baked-in drawbacks and problems that we’ve taken for granted for so long that we forgot how to imagine any alternative,” Ballard says. “With 3D printing, you not only have a continuous thermal envelope, high thermal mass, and near zero waste, but you also have speed, a much broader design palette, next-level resiliency, and the possibility of a quantum leap in affordability. This isn’t 10 percent better, it’s 10 times better.”
At the higher end of the scale, designers are delighting in the versatility of 3D-printed materials that make it possible to incorporate undulating curves and softer shapes that would be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive using traditional building methods. House Zero’s signature curves, for example, are only possible because of the material (Lavacrete, a proprietary blend of concrete that is stronger, more durable, and environmentally friendlier than standard concrete) and its seamless robotic application.
“As with any new technology, we always look for a connection to nature and a connection to place, no matter how futuristic the technology might be,” McNeel says. “Biophilic principles are key to integrating it into the design. We believe the material itself is inherently beautiful, and it has biophilic qualities through its striations, which are a kind of rigid pattern but one that also breaks down a little bit and is imperfect—in a good way. That communicates to the eye something very pleasing and natural, even though it’s produced by a robot.”
Addressing the irony of using computers and robots to achieve a more natural result, Hereen adds, “It’s interesting because the 3D concrete is machine-made and applied by a robot, but it is also inherently irregular and unpredictable, to a degree that makes it feel like aspects of nature, which aren’t predictable or machined in any sense.”
Another high-end house is planned in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by WATG, an architecture/design/urban planning firm with offices worldwide. In collaboration with Branch Technology, which created the 3D printer for the project, they’ve designed Curve Appeal, a 2,000-square-foot home whose sensual curves form a visually appealing, livable sanctuary that’s at once futuristic and classic. Conceived and begun just prior to the onslaught of the pandemic, the project had already printed most of the components before it was put on hold when everything shut down. The project, soon to be revived, promises to be a game-changer in terms of design and next-generation technology; Branch’s state-of-the-art robotics can create customized shapes and extreme curvatures while maximizing the efficiency and structural integrity of the building.
“The point of all this,” McNeel says, “is to push the acceptance of this material forward and to show it off as far and wide as we can. Because the more accepted this material becomes, and the more experience you have inside it learning not to feel afraid of printed concrete as a material, the more people are going to be out there, innovating and working to get that economy of scale going, allowing the technology to become more and more viable for affordable housing. So House Zero was designed to show off the beauty of the technology as well as its high performance and sustainability.”
Adds Heeren, “It was important to take the opportunity that ICON’s technology presented and run with it, doing daring things, knowing that it would go back and inform the other work ICON is doing on affordable housing and disaster relief accommodation.”
The potential of 3D-printed housing is thus clear, offering a vision of the immediate future that embraces beauty, livability, economy, and energy-efficiency in housing that can be erected in a fraction of the time that traditional building methods require. It’s unusual to find an all-in-one solution to the complex challenges we face, but 3D-printed construction promises to provide that rare opportunity to tackle weighty problems with a long-term, sustainable, economical solution.
“House Zero is ground zero for the emergence of entirely new design languages and architectural vernaculars that will use robotic construction to deliver the things we need most from our housing: comfort, beauty, dignity, sustainability, attainability, and hope.” — Jason Ballard, ICON CEO and cofounder