Many countries and cities around the world are grappling with housing shortages, with populations rising faster than construction companies can build new houses, and with hundreds of millions of people unable to afford homes.
One potential solution could lie in the work of Branch Technology, a Tennessee startup that is using 3D printers to speed up the building process, while another lies in a project being developed by construction company ICON for the developing world.
C-FAB is go
Branch Technology’s stated purpose is to “revolutionise the built environment”. To do that, it has developed a technology called cellular fabrication (C-FAB) and put together the world’s largest freeform 3D printer.
Conventional 3D printers build constructions layer by layer, but Branch’s machines create lattices. These are then filled with liquid foam and concrete, which harden to support the structure.
The huge 3D printer allows clients to send in plans and receive prefabricated products in return. Each part of the structure can be pre-made and shipped directly to the building site. The only task then is to assemble the pieces, like an oversized game of Lego.
Why 3D print a building?
There are several reasons why Branch Technology’s 3D, freeform homes could gain traction in the coming years. For starters, because the machines only print the parts that are necessary, the process produces far less waste than traditional construction methods.
And then there are the obvious advantages in terms of speed and efficiency. Once a home is shipped to its location, it only takes a crew three weeks to assemble it. All that’s left after that are the final touches, such as plumbing and electrics.
The method could also pass on savings to construction companies by drastically speeding up builds.
The statement prototype
In 2016, Branch Technology commissioned the Freeform Design Challenge, an open invitation to architects around the world to design a one-bedroom house. The winning entry from Chicago-based WATG – a 1,000-square-foot house called Curve Appeal – is currently under construction in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
According to Branch Technology’s director of sales, David Fuehrer, the prototype is due to be finished this year and will cost $300 to $400 per square foot to build. Before Branch Technology seeks to start selling homes at scale, that price will need to fall significantly – which is where other competitors come in (see below).
Branch Technology has also shown ambitions beyond Earth orbit. The company won a $250,000 NASA competition last year with a design for a 3D-printed habitat for deep space exploration.
Ultra low-cost alternatives
Branch is far from the only company to be working on 3D printing houses. In the US, for example, a partnership between non-profit organisation New Story and construction technology company ICON has created a high-speed 3D construction machine that is able to print low-cost, single-story homes – in some cases for as little as $4,000. In effect, the printer is a large-scale precision-pouring device.
Worldwide, a billion people lack affordable housing, says the project, which has built a show-house in Austin, Texas, and aims to build a proof-of-concept estate of 100 house in El Salvador next year.
While Branch appears to be focusing on higher-end architectural applications, ICON and New Story are among the projects looking at ultra-low-cost, sustainable alternatives – as this second video explains.
Internet of Business says
In the minds of the general public, 3D printing has languished in the realms of labs, school art rooms, and the market for low-cost plastic models. But in the background, the technology has been developing in leaps and bounds in the construction and engineering sectors, enabling the design of new types of structure that could not be made using traditional building-block methods.
An important development is in 3D metal printing, which allows for the design and manufacture of precision parts as well as larger structures. For more on this, read our recent in-depth report, below.