3D-Printed Homes Could Help Solve Affordable Housing Crisis
WIt may sound boring to watch a robot arm lay down layers of concrete. But on TikTok, videos of this exact process—otherwise known as 3D printing—are racking up tens of millions of views and helping people envision a world in which affordable 3D-printed houses are the new norm.
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 Alquist 3D, where he’s the director of printing. His TikToks revolve around the process of 3D-printing houses, with his most-watched videos showing how Alquist’s printers systematically layer row after row of concrete to build up a home’s exterior walls in a computer-generated pattern.
Just like smaller-scale 3D printers, Alquist’s machines have a dispenser that pumps out layers of material—in this case, concrete—on top of each other, to construct a physical object. To form the digital design, they follow a preset layout. This process is used to make jewelry, furniture and walls for a house.
Hussein says he started out taking his videos to document the company’s work, but realized that something about them resonated with people on TikTok. “It’s an oddly satisfying process that we do here,” he says.
Viewers often leave jokey comments like “forbidden soft serve” and “I can’t even get toothpaste to come out that smooth” on Hussein’s posts, the most popular of which have been watched nearly 20 million times. Others have their own questions. “I mean it’s handy but how long does it take to build a house,” one user commented on an August post that garnered over 16 million views. The average time it takes to build a house is between 20 and 30 hours.
The 3D-printed homebuilding market is growing, but there are challenges that might hinder its mainstream expansion. One, the demand for 3D-printed homes is high and there is limited supply.
How is 3D printing home currently doing?
Alquist, which was founded in 2020 has successfully completed two 3D-printed houses, one in Williamsburg and one Richmond. 3D printed houses are also gaining in popularity over the past few years. According to a survey by Realtor.com, 66% of respondents would be open to living in a 3D printed home. That number was even higher among younger generations, with 75% of millennials saying they’d be open to 3D-printed living accommodations. A quarter of those surveyed also believed that 3D printing would eventually be the norm in homebuilding.
Mannheimer states that 3D printing has the greatest benefit of producing houses that can be customized, affordable and energy efficient.
Alquist is seeing cost savings of 15% for 3D-printed homes compared to traditional stick-built homes—i.e., homes that are built on site using a wooden frame. The company’s goal is to increase cost savings to 30% by 2023, Mannheimer says.
The company built the Habitat for Humanity’s first 3D-printed Habitat for Humanity Home in America. A Virginia family moved in to it last December. The concrete exterior of the 1,200-square-foot home was constructed in just 22 hours—around two-three weeks quicker than the standard construction schedule—and resulted in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house.
“There’s nothing different about one of our homes versus any other home except that the exterior walls are made out of concrete instead of wood. These homes are built nearly identically otherwise,” Mannheimer says. “Our process just involves extruding concrete from a giant robot, which gives you savings in time and labor and material.”
Through Habitat for Humanity’s homebuyer program, the family living in Alquist’s first owner-occupied 3D-printed home is responsible for monthly mortgage payments that are no more than 30% of its income, including real estate taxes and homeowner’s insurance.
“Working with Habitat for Humanity was a fantastic experience. They were very like-minded and driven to drop costs down on all their structures,” Hussein says. “It really showed how we can fulfill that mission statement of getting people into homes they can afford.”
Mannheimer said that Alquist’s demand has increased significantly since the announcement about Habitat Home was made. It is clear how many people are looking for affordable housing. “Since the home was completed and the first story about it came out, we’ve been averaging anywhere between 25-50 requests for 3D-printed homes per hour,” he says. “So it has confirmed all our beliefs about why this is so important. The need is huge.”
Alquist, following the success of the first three 3D-printed houses, is currently working on another affordable housing project, which will be released at the beginning of April.
Complete 3D-printed home
Courtesy Alquist 3D
Alquist’s machines pump out layers of concrete on top of each other to construct a physical object
Courtesy Alquist 3D
Which 3D printing construction firms are facing the most challenges?
The White House estimates that there is a 4 million housing shortage in the United States. This problem cannot be solved by a simple TikTok. The biggest challenge currently facing the 3D-printed housing industry is scale, says Mannheimer: “At the moment, there’s less than 10 companies using this technology in America. To really make a dent in the affordable housing crisis, we’d need more like 50.”
Experts say that 3D printing is not ready to revolutionize housing. Ryan Smith, director of the School of Design and Construction and a professor of architecture at Washington State University, says that while 3D printing has long-term potential to transform the construction industry, America’s penchant for building houses with light wood framing is a major challenge for wider implementation of tech that relies on concrete.
Smith says the U.S. supply and labor chains are designed to work with wood. Therefore, trying to change the system will create significant logistical challenges for installing and repairing plumbing, electricity and other systems. “If you change the means and methods of construction from a lightweight frame to concrete-based housing, you would have to develop a whole workforce around that to be able to manage it,” he says.
Smith recommends that 3D-printed wall components should be manufactured in factories before being assembled on a construction site. “You can embed mechanical, electrical, and plumbing much more easily in a factory than you can at the job,” he says.
Other housing companies have done this already.
TikTok fuels the 3D printing hype
All of those hurdles mean that, for now, affordable 3D-printed homes aren’t going mainstream anytime soon. Mannheimer states that building interest is the first stage. “The videos are getting views because they’re so satisfying to watch,” he says.
For members of younger generations facing a difficult path to home ownership, it’s a compelling fantasy.
“It starts to unlock your imagination for what else is possible, ” he says. “We can excite a whole new generation about building things with computers and machines instead of shovels.”
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