Few industries have seen the fast-paced level of innovations like the 3D-printing world. What began as a high-priced device capable of printing a small figurine in 12 or more hours has exploded into technology that can print the framework of a house in a few days’ time. The process is being touted as a sustainable solution for housing shortages, but is it? The answer is yes, possibly no and it depends.
Reduction in construction waste
Perhaps the most notable step towards sustainability in the 3D realm is the ability to print houses with nearly zero waste. The technology is so precise it allows structures to be printed to exact specifications. Even better, because the printing information is provided by software, changes from one design to another are easily accomplished with a tweak to the programming.
In standard construction, board and metal cutoffs are prolific, resulting in copious waste on the construction site. Without a doubt, well-designed 3D houses are a win for the environment in this category. However, “well-designed” is essential. Not all 3D printing companies have their processes dialed in. Those who don’t can produce waste through inefficiencies.
Lower transport emissions
3D-printed houses, either printed off site and transported as prefabricated units, or printed onsite where the structure will sit, predominantly require much less transport than traditionally-built homes. Think of all the separate contractors, suppliers, subcontractors and other invested parties that show up to a traditional build over the multi-month timeline. In contrast, 3D-printed homes typically require limited equipment and transports, significantly cutting the embodied carbon during the build. This is especially true in remote locations and for small structures like tiny homes. However, this is again contingent upon the sustainability efforts of the 3D-printing provider.
Types of materials used
Most 3D-printer ingredients for home construction include some concrete in the mix. Concrete is responsible for up to 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions and contributes to global warming and water runoff. Inasmuch, there’s some debate about the sustainable aspects of the materials used in 3D-printed homes.
However, there is a lot of exciting research going on in this segment of the field. Companies are developing a variety of low-concrete or no-concrete options. Many of these concepts are made from natural materials such as hemp or clay. Other companies are experimenting with recycled plastic and glass. Since the industry is still in its youth, these materials aren’t yet widely available, but they offer promising hope for the future of 3D-home printing.
When considering emissions, it’s important to look at other aspects of the build in addition to the 3D-printing itself. For example, is there a foundation required? Is that made from concrete? What about the windows that are typically added after the build? Most windows contain gasses such as argon and krypton, which are seen in both traditional and 3D builds. Onsite activities such as welding and site preparation should also be factored into the overall footprint of the process.
Addressing housing shortages
One distinct advantage of 3D-printed houses is the speed at which they can be completed. This creates a viable solution for housing shortages. As it pertains to the environment, it means villages or subdivisions can be printed in a fraction of the time it would require from traditional builds with less waste. Plus, the technology makes it easy to produce homes that are highly energy-efficient.
Like any new technology, we don’t yet know the long-term capabilities of 3D-printed homes. If they don’t stand the test of time as well as brick or wood houses, we could see a massive waste issue in the future. Even though we won’t have those answers for decades, it’s certainly part of the 3D-printed home sustainability equation.
Are people interested in 3D-printed homes?
More than ever, it seems. According to a recent survey by 3D printing experts Hubs, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of people inquiring about both the technology and the availability. When people search 3D technology, printed homes are the number one most Googled search around the world. It’s not too surprising, considering the potential it has to address housing shortages in a potentially sustainable way.
“In the last 12 months, Google searches for ‘what is a 3D printed home’ have risen significantly by 250%, while ‘where can I buy a 3D printed house’ is up 70%,” stated he Hubs report.
The 3D-printing trend report for 2022 shows the 3D printing industry is here to stay and is expected to see 24% growth in the next four years. With a large percentage of that action being directed towards 3D-printed houses, all evidence points to a continued interest and effort to rely on the technology within the construction sector.
We’ve covered a lot of 3D-related topics here on Inhabitat. While we don’t have all the answers yet, the pros seem to outweigh the cons so, for now, responsibly made 3D-printed houses remain on the list of sustainable construction options to watch in the near future.
Images via Bart van Overbeeke