How 3D Printing and Modular Systems Could Transform Housing
As we approach 2050, the global population is expected to grow from the current 7 billion to 9 billion. This will bring enormous demand for new construction at a time when roughly a billion people already live in substandard housing, natural resources are in high demand, pollution is rampant, and an unstable international order could make it impossible to build homes for many who need them.
To meet this potential emergency, architecture and engineering schools are investigating new construction methods that could be cheaper and more efficientâ??modular housing, 3D printing, and combinations of both.
Modular Construction Growing
Modular houses range from trailers to multi-million-dollar mansions. The modules, or standard units, are made in factories and assembled at the site and are often indistinguishable from custom-built construction.
Although "pre-fab" was once associated with cheap quality, modular homes are becoming a stylish, cost-effective alternative to onsite construction. Leading architects in Europe, the US, and Asia are designing modular systems that can be ordered and assembled in myriad combinations for 1/5th to half the cost of more traditionally constructed buildings. "Prefab was [previously] thought of as bad design," said author Jill Herbers. "Now it's the polar opposite." (Herbers, Prefab Modern)
TechCast Global anticipates that modular building will make up 30 percent of all new construction by the mid-'20s.
Introducing 3D Printed Homes
While home-scale 3D printing still is in the early stages of development, TechCast experts estimate 3D printing generally is likely to reach the 15-percent adoption level about 2018, when sales take off. Already, builders in Dubai are reported to be planning the world's first 3D office building. (Reuters, Jun 30, 2015) Here are promising applications for housing:
- DIY With access to a 3D printer and a building site, aspiring homebuilders can go to WikiHouse, an open-source website, to download and print various components, and design and assemble their own homes. It's a lot like printing giant LEGOs and then building a home from them.
Mass Customization WinSun Decoration Design Engineering in China says it can build a prefabricated 2000-sq. ft. home at a cost of US$5000. Using a large 3D printer that squirts out a mixture of cement and recycled construction materials with the texture of toothpaste, WinSun has constructed 10 houses in a single day. (China Daily Mail, May 12, 2014)
Integrated Hi-Tech Construction
More ambitious methods are evolving that combine modular construction with 3D printing and more. For instance, it may prove more feasible to construct modular units using 3D printing. Here are examples of integrated hi-tech construction:
- 3D Printed Modules Using a 3D printer the length of a football field, builders can deliver individualized modular components from a factory to a building site. DUS Architects in Amsterdam is building the 13-room Canal House and experimenting with recycled bioplastics. (3D Printing Industry, Jan 22, 2014)
- On-Site Construction The Contour Crafting project at the University of Southern California, is developing a streamlined process to erect a homeâ??or any other buildingâ??from the design stage to the final product. Parts could be printed on site or remotely and then assembled by a robotic arm, ducts for wires, plumbing, and heat and air conditioning built in automatically. The group's software can easily make non-traditional shapes such as curved walls and earthquake-resistant structures.
Adding integrated solar panels, rainwater storage, and geothermal heating and cooling, these hi-tech designs can meet demand for environmentally friendly housing.
Social Impacts and Policies
The new hi-tech construction will not turn out to be the miracle it appears. Life-cycle analysis shows that the primary savings are from the energy costs eliminated by getting rid of construction waste and the trucks that travel to the building site daily for months. In the developed lands, delivery costs and custom design and construction could easily offset the savings. Following are some impacts that can be expected:
Meeting Building Codes Inspectors licensing traditional construction projects typically show up several times over a period of months. That clearly won't work with a technology that can build a house in less than 24 hours. As an alternative, Behrokh Khoshnevis, professor of industrial engineering at the University of California, is developing sensors that could be embedded in the walls of a house to enable real-time visual inspections that would ensure the home is going up as designed. Nonetheless, the need to meet building codes remain the biggest obstacle to 3D printing of homes and commercial structures. This is particularly true in the United States, where individual communities pass their own codes, which may vary widely from one town to the next.
Serving the Displaced. Hurricane Katrina displaced 1.5 million people and destroyed 200,000 homes in the New Orleans area. Given its high speed and costs about one-fourth those of traditional construction, 3D printing seems perfect for building emergency shelters after this kind of natural disaster. It also could be used to renovate slums and provide affordable, low-income housing.
Shift in Labor Force. This new technology will not be good news for everyone. The building and construction industry employs 110 million people worldwide. With 3D construction, window and door installers, and machinery maintenance workers would have steady employment. However, automated installation would displace construction and drywall workers, carpenters, architects, and electrical and plumbing subcontractors.
Worker Safety In compensation, many of those workers would get to live. Construction today is more dangerous for workers than mining and agriculture, resulting in 10,000 deaths a year. (Huffington Post, Jan 21, 2014)
Equity in Jeopardy There is another issue. If new homes cost one-fourth as much as traditional housing, why should existing homes be worth any more than that? Not counting land values, those with traditional homes could lose most of their equity. If home values plummet with trillions of dollars in mortgage debt outstanding, the economy, the housing and mortgage industries, and homeowners all could suffer catastrophic losses. (Esquire, Jan 24, 2014)
Space Boost If 3D printed housing ever "takes off," it is likely to happen in space, where engineering requirements trump nonexistent building codes. NASA has already set up a contest to design and build a 3D-printed habitat for deep space exploration. (NASA, May 16, 2015)
Thanks to its low cost, ease of construction, and convenience, hi-tech modular construction using 3D printing could provide sustainable and resource-efficient homes for the world's rising urban population. This would be especially useful for cheap housing in the developing world or a quick response to a natural disaster. It may not be perfect, but it's the best option now on the horizon.
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