Print me a house, if you please

Start-ups want to solve the worldwide shortage of affordable housing by 3D printing, but is the market ready?

(photo credit: COURTESY TRIDOM)
‘By 2030 every person shall have access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services.” This long-term goal was announced at the first UN Global Summit on Urbanization in Quito in 2016. Today, however, this vision seems to be much farther in the future.
Some 828 million people are living in slums without infrastructure or stable housing conditions. Refugee influx, urban growth and a steady increase in population are making a roof over one’s head into an object of desire for many people. 
Already half of the world’s population lives in a city; by 2030 this number is predicted to grow to over 60%. 
“This is why we are focusing on urban areas,” says Yaron Schwarcz, co-founder of the Israeli start-up TRIDOM in the heart of Tel Aviv. He takes a sip of his espresso while never ceasing to talk into his headset. His sentences are short, the words run fast. 
The young entrepreneur is dreaming a step beyond the United Nations: housing should not only be adequate, affordable and safe, but also desirable. “I don’t believe that we have a problem of space on this planet. We are just not using it correctly.”
According to Schwarcz, you have to create desirable housing in the proximity of urban hubs; the physical location of the home is as important as its walls and isolation.
Schwarcz hopes that one day robotics will be the solution to global homelessness and will revolutionize the cities. To him, 3D printing is just a subclass of general robotics that is more cost-effective as well as time-saving compared to regular construction by manual labor. 
TRIDOM collaborated with the Italian company WASP to develop new approaches to how 3D printing with mud and clay can be done right at the construction site. Printed structures don’t have to be transported to the site itself.
With this method companies can save costs, time and logistic effort. A robot stacks layer on layer directly on location. Only the finishing touches and the installation of windows have to be done by hand. “Of course there are a lot of jobs that will cease to exist like this. But as long as a task is potentially harmful for a human being, we don’t see a problem of using a robot instead.”
Together with engineer and robotic expert Lior Aharoni, who began studying mathematics and computer science at the age of 16, Schwarcz founded TRIDOM in 2014. Three years later he remains committed to the cause, but has started to recognize the huge obstacles at hand.
“The construction industry has not changed in over a century. The market is not very innovative, the mind-set traditional. We are building houses in the same way as we did 150 years ago,” he notes. Contrary to other sectors, for example the automobile industry, the housing industry seldom reinvents itself.
Thus, the entrepreneur holds the view that the current market is not yet ready for the 3D printing revolution. The quality of the final product is not yet comparable to that of regularly constructed houses. 
“In a few years, yes. But right now, 3D printing is only really effective in dental medicine and aerospace engineering. In housing, it will take a few more years until we leave the theory or make headlines with new prototypes, but make the technology available to the masses.” 
Konstantin Nefedev, project manager at Apis Cor, agrees: “The housing industry is a very conservative business. Innovative solutions have a hard time getting through.” Regulations and laws that are especially strict when it comes to constructing houses are some of the obstacles that keep engineers and scientists from looking into new directions, he says.
Nevertheless, Apis Cor, a Russian start-up from Moscow with a second office in San Francisco, caught worldwide attention only a few months ago. In March the Russian team managed to print – in freezing temperatures – a 37 sq.m. house in an unprecedented fewer than 24 hours and at a cost of only $100,000.
Low cost, speed and little waste seem to be the holy trinity of futuristic urban planning. If only it weren’t just a prototype, adds Nefedev. 
“I call it a sculpture,” adds Schwarcz, as many aspects have not yet been addressed: multi-levels, safety exits, thermal and acoustic damping, to name a few. Yet, Nefedev claims, “We have constructed the house according to the basic Russian regulations. Theoretically you would be permitted to live in there.”
 The Apis Cor-Home has a peculiar design: Two half circles are interlocked, twisting into each other like a snail shell; one half in yellow, the other white, the roof flat. According to Nefedev, 3D printing will lead to whole new trends in architecture and design. 
Until now the industry was focused on using cement, but the future holds the possibility of working with a new range of materials, such as foam or different polymer blends. This has been demonstrated by a robotics experiment by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A 3D printer sprayed layer on layer of quickly drying foam and is supposed to be able to construct a whole building in 14 hours. 
This might create the opportunity for aspiring house owners to individually create the house of their dreams. The Australian company Archiblox has set an example with its first “carbon-positive” building, which produces more energy than it uses. 
“In the future, people will have a bigger say in what their home should look like. We are working on a sort of toolbox from which people can choose single elements and thereby construct their ideal house,” says Nefedev.
This strategy will enable 3D printing of housing in low-income areas, as well as for luxurious, individually styled villas. In the United Arab Emirates, 25% of newly constructed buildings are supposed to come from 3D printers by 2025, declared Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. 
Using the slogan ‘Dubai 3D Printing Strategy,’ the Gulf region bid to become a major player in the technology by printing a 250-sq.m. office building in May 2016. The project took 17 workdays, cost some $140,000 and only one person was needed to operate the printer. Just seven construction workers and 10 electricians were present on location, a fraction of what is usually needed for a building of this scale. 
At first sight, vanishing jobs may seem to be a negative result of the new technology, admits Nefedev. Reeducation is needed in order to provide workers with skills for the construction sites of tomorrow. “They need to learn to operate the machines instead of doing manual labour themselves,” he says. 
 The reduction of labor costs and workforce seems to be one of the factors driving the sheikh’s enthusiasm. “We believe that this technology is capable of transforming the construction sector by lowering costs and reducing the time it takes to implement projects.
It will also help reduce manpower requirements, as well as waste generated from construction, which can be harmful to the environment,” Nefedev says. 
The architect’s Dubai office has already announced a plan to build a 40-story, 3D skyscraper in the city. According to Schwarcz, the revolution will come in the hands of a robot, and the present phase is devoted to pioneering and experiments. 
“3D printing had its big public boom in 2006 and since then a lot of people have been disappointed, as it didn’t live up to their expectations,” he notes. “People sold it as the next Internet. We will certainly get there, we just need a bit more time.”