These homes are built with big 3D printers

(NYTIMES) – Mr Pedro Garcia Hernandez is a carpenter in the south-eastern Mexican state of Tabasco, a rainforest-shrouded region of the country where about half of the residents live below the poverty line.

The 48-year-old ekes out a living making about 2,500 pesos (S$168) a month from a tiny space inside the home he shares with his wife, Patrona, and their daughter, Yareli. The home has dirt floors and, during Tabasco’s long rainy season, it’s prone to flooding. Dust from the construction projects coats nearly everything in the home, clinging to the bedroom walls, the pump toilet and the counters of the makeshift kitchen.

But that will soon change. In a few months, the Hernandez family will move to a new home on the outskirts of Nacajuca: a sleek, 500 sq ft building with two bedrooms, a finished kitchen and bath, and indoor plumbing. What’s most unusual about the home is that it was made with an 11-foot-tall 3D printer.

A manufacturing process that builds objects layer by layer from a digital file, 3D printing is set for explosive growth. After a Covid-19 pandemic-related boom from printing objects such as test swabs, protective gear and respirator parts, the 3D printing market is forecast to be worth US$55.8 billion (S$75 billion) by 2027, said Smithers, a technology consulting firm.

Nearly any object can be printed in 3D; in construction, it uses concrete, foam and polymers to produce full-scale buildings. The real estate industry is warming to the trend: construction firm SQ4D listed a 3D-printed house in Riverhead, New York, this year for US$299,000. It was billed as the first 3D-printed home for sale in the United States, but it was predated by similar projects in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Now, the era of the 3D-printed community has arrived. Mr Hernandez’s home is one of 500 being built by New Story, a San Francisco non-profit organisation focused on providing housing solutions to communities in extreme poverty, in partnership with Echale, a social housing production company in Mexico, and Icon, a construction technology firm in Austin, Texas.

When New Story broke ground on the village in 2019, it was called the world’s first community of 3D-printed homes. Two years and a Covid-19 pandemic later, 200 homes are either being built or have been completed, 10 of which were printed on site by Icon’s Vulcan II printer. Plans for roads, a soccer field, a school, a market and a library are in the works.

Single-family homes are a good testing ground for the durability of 3D-printed construction because they are small and offer a repetitive design process without much height, said Mr Henry D’Esposito, who leads construction research at JLL, a commercial real estate firm. They can also be built to tolerate natural disasters: Nacajuca sits in a seismic zone, and the homes there have already withstood a magnitude 7.4 earthquake.

The technology is promising, but some investors remain wary, and they are watching the emergence of 3D housing clusters closely.

In March, Palari Homes and construction company Mighty Buildings announced a US$15 million planned community of more than a dozen 3D-printed homes in Rancho Mirage, California. The community has a waiting list of more than 1,000.

The 3D-printing market grew 21 per cent last year, and Hubs, a manufacturing platform, projects that it will double in size over the next five years.

“It really is a very effective and efficient way to build a small segment of property, but it’s not something that applies across the broader commercial real estate ecosystem,” Mr D’Esposito said. “We don’t know exactly how these buildings will perform over decades or what the long-term value retention will be for them. So if you’re talking to an investor or lender, that’s a big yellow flag.”

In Nacajuca, building a home with Icon’s Vulcan II printer looks much like a massive soft-serve ice cream cone: layers of lavacrete, the company’s proprietary concrete mix, are poured one after another in long swirls. The printer is controlled by a tablet or smartphone, requires as few as three workers and can complete a home in less than 24 hours.

“We know that being able to build more quickly, without sacrificing quality, is something that we have to make huge leaps on if we’re going to even make a dent on the issue of housing in our lifetime,” said Mr Brett Hagler, New Story’s CEO and one of its four founders.

“We’re really looking at the biggest opportunities to have both impact and efficiency gains,” said Ms Alexandria Lafci, another New Story founder. “There is a very significant gain in speed that you get with 3D printing, without sacrificing quality.” Speed is only one factor in bringing a village to completion – New Story has teamed up with local officials in Tabasco to bring sewage services, electricity and water to the community.

When Icon was founded, its biggest hurdle was convincing sceptics, said Mr Jason Ballard, one of Icon’s founders and its CEO.

“I had builders and developers explaining to me how it’s not possible to get concrete to do that, even as I walked them up to our 3D-printed house,” he said. “Now our biggest challenge is we’ve just got to make more printers.”

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