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3D printed houses are here


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In the small community of Procter, in southeastern B.C., sits Canada’s first 3D-printed home on a scenic plot of land that overlooks the Purcell Mountains. A structure of about 300 square feet built in 2020, the Fibonacci House—with walls made of a custom concrete mixture squirted out of a nozzle and completed in little more than a month—is now rentable on Airbnb.

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The company behind the tiny 3D home, the Netherlands-based Twente Additive Manufacturing (TAM), has paired up with World Housing , a Vancouver-based organization that builds affordable housing globally, to develop Canada’s first “affordable village ” using 3D concrete printing. The project aims to build five two-bedroom homes in Nelson, B.C., and World Housing says it’s committed to developing additional communities in Canada. Their belief is that using 3D architecture to construct housing will soon be more affordable and time efficient than traditional residential construction and can be conscripted to house people experiencing homelessness, or those priced out of the market.

“Two main contributors to housing affordability have to do with the labour costs to assemble housing and then the materials themselves,” says Ian Comishin, president of TAM, who grew up in the Kootenays. “In both of those areas, 3D printing is actually having a fairly aggressive impact on reducing those costs.”

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Further east, researchers from the University of Windsor and Habitat for Humanity are also using TAM’s technologies to build residential homes , to be erected in Windsor-Essex, in a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way. “The printing is going to start on-site sometime in December, but through the month of November, we’re at the University of Windsor printing what we call the prefab elements,” Comishin says. In Mexico , a 3D-printed village was created for residents experiencing poverty in the town of Nacajuca, a project partnered on by a U.S.-based construction technology company, a San Francisco non-profit and a Mexican social housing organization.

While concrete-printed houses have yet to be erected in Toronto, these initiatives may serve as a blueprint for a city seeking solutions to its own housing crisis, especially if the Canadian projects in the works prove successful.

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According to Maria Anna Polak , a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo and an expert in 3D printing with concrete, the genius of 3D architecture is the ease that automation brings to building. A benefit of using it to build homes, she says, is that you can reuse the machine time and again, and modify designs by updating the instructions that software feeds the machines. This means designs can be tweaked with the click of a mouse.

As far as using the technology to solve the nation’s housing woes, however, Polak cautions that we’re not quite there yet.

A printer nozzle extrudes a custom concrete blend that builds up the home’s walls, creating a hollow structure that can later be filled with insulation.
A printer nozzle extrudes a custom concrete blend that builds up the home’s walls, creating a hollow structure that can later be filled with insulation. Photo by Photo courtesy of Twente Additive Manufacturing

One of the current barriers, she explains, is the cost of the printing machinery and the fact that it’s still new technology. While large pieces of machinery are being developed that can print on an industrial scale, the equipment isn’t yet widely available. What’s more, it takes skilled workers to design the houses, then operate the 3D machines.

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“I truly believe 3D printing homes has potential,” Polak says. “But anybody who thinks it’s going to be [widely available] next year—that’s not happening.”

Even still, architectural printing is gaining steam. According to a report by consulting firm Smithers, the 3D printing industry will reach a global value of US$55.8 billion by 2027.

Comishin himself has seen an increase in interest in his work. Designing and building the Procter home, he says, was a good learning experience and proved to be a time-efficient way to create a small house—even though the other functional parts of a residence, like electricity and plumbing, still took a decent amount of time to complete. Because this skilled work relies on humans, not machines, he says, it’s important to realize that 3D printing can’t spit out a ready-to-live-in home without the additional labour and expertise of humans.

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“We conceived it, designed it, printed it and installed it in five weeks—that’s for the printed portion,” Comishin says. “Then, it took almost a year for the other trades to show up and do the rest of the work.”

Still, Comishin says, 3D printing is going to be a valuable method of construction in the future. It is also looked to as a solution to help solve some skilled labour shortages— a growing problem in North America —and high construction costs.

While 3D printing can be a more affordable option than typical construction methods, the savings at this stage aren’t staggering. Between the cost of the technology, the skills needed to operate the machinery and the cost of the labour for inside the home, Comishin says at best a 3D-printed house is about 15 to 25 per cent cheaper than conventional building right now. TAM’s robots also use special concrete, which is more expensive than the regular kind. There’s a misconception that a 3D-printed building can be made for around $10,000, he says.

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“However, when you utilize the printing techniques that are available, you can assemble wall structures that don’t require, say, vinyl siding or facade siding such as bricks, and you can leave the interior walls with the nice printed texture so you don’t have to use drywall,” he explains.

“So at the end of the day, you can dramatically reduce the overall materials that are installed in the building by reducing the number of ‘ingredients’ it takes to build a house.”

Comishin is optimistic that with time and wider adoption, 3D-printed homes will become more common and more affordable. The B.C. 3D-printed village will be a model to see how the technology can work in other communities.

“Like anything else,” he says, “the more people who are doing it, the lower the costs are going to be.”

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