3-D Printed Suburbs Aren’t the Future of Housing

The process of 3D printing a building is fascinating, but does it really change development?
Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand / dpa / picture alliance via Getty Images

Rancho Mirage’s five-acre site could be located anywhere in the Coachella Valley’s endless sprawl: a wasteland strewn with creosote and sagebrush, surrounded by stores and malls, with eight golf courses. within a three mile radius. But the corner of Ginger Rogers Road and Key Largo Avenue, just ten miles east of Palm Springs, won global attention as the location of the “world’s first 3-D printed net zero energy community,” where a developer plans to place 15 freshly printed homes in the Southern California desert, and potential buyers have, would have, has already made deposits for three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes starting at $ 595,000 (two paid in bitcoin).

The houses are printed in large pieces in an Oakland warehouse by Mighty buildings, a startup that is one of the few companies hoping to use 3D printing technology to revolutionize the construction industry. Mighty claims it can print a 350 square foot studio – often used as an ADU, or accessory living unit, the backyard structure you may know as a guesthouse or ‘apartment. grandmother ‘- in less than 24 hours, and on a time-lapse video, you can watch a zippy robotic arm manifest the building virtually from scratch, laying layers of polymer composite into a mesh that cures under ultraviolet light, then pumped full of drywall for insulation.

These aren’t the only so-called 3D printed houses on the proverbial block. Another company, ICON, who claims to have built America’s “first 3-D printed houses for sale” in Austin, Texas, produces his buildings a little differently by bringing his 3-D printer to the job site, where he extrudes a cement mixture he calls “Lavacrete”. ICON is moving its homes in five to seven days, in a fascinating process layered concrete piping like cake frosting to create walls that are then topped with a roof made of other materials, more or less like any other house.

To call either of these end products a 3-D printed house is a bit of a misnomer. Mighty 3D printing is a structural insulation panel that still needs to be assembled using conventional methods, either at the factory or on site. What ICON is 3D printing is actually just those concrete walls; the rest of the interior and the entire second story are all conventional wood frame. They both still need a foundation. The two companies say robotics and automation can lower costs, accelerate development, eliminate waste and reduce emissions compared to traditional construction methods. Mighty, for example, claims “an almost zero waste production process” and “savings of 2.3 tonnes of CO2 emissions per 3D printed house”. But like Lloyd Alter demonstrates to Treehugger, the panels are made from polyurethane, which as a material has extremely high carbon embedded in it, although it is offset, as the company claims, and it still has to be mounted on the frame – in this case , steel. All of this tempers claims of sustainability a bit, he says, as the result is a particularly unsustainable end product: a “foam and plastic sandwich made entirely from non-renewable materials.” You might end up with a “zero net energy” home, but a home made mostly from petroleum with the same old carbon-intensive steel frame.

What Mighty really offers could be more accurately described as prefabricated building elements, which is not a new concept and does not necessarily require 3D printing to save time or reduce costs. Mighty’s Desert House is a kit house, shipped flat and assembled on site – you can order a sears catalog home this way a century ago – and another of its products is an entire housing unit shipped to the site complete and hoisted into place. (This can also be done for some standard components, such as bathrooms or kitchens.) This field is also barely new, although the technology behind it has made great strides in recent years. Modular FullStack built entire residential towers at its Brooklyn Navy Yard factory, including a 32-story building by SHoP Architects called “the tallest modular building in the world,” and the New York Public Design Commission is explore more uses for modular design as a way to save money and maintain local jobs. A recent analysis for a project in San Francisco showed that modular housing could reduce both time and cost roughly half to build permanent supportive housing, six years and an average of $ 700,000 per three-year housing and $ 383,000.

It’s possible that 3D printing will revolutionize the speed at which potential housing units are created. A homeowner with a relatively flat, buildable property could hypothetically purchase a printed, shipped, installed, and rental ADU on the rental market within 30 days. It is the promise of a Mighty structure designed by LA Más that currently available as part of the new approved standard plan program to help homeowners build UDAs in their backyards. The parts kit look streamlines approvals and installation, says Elizabeth Timme, director of LA Más, which runs a separate ADU program which subsidizes some of the costs of DSUs for landlords who agree to house tenants using Section Eight vouchers. “The biggest challenge we have that can really drive up costs is building around an existing structure, the main house,” she says. “Mighty’s Flat-Pack System is helpful in eliminating some of the problem solving that we have to do when it comes to creating ADUs.” The 3D printing process can also easily incorporate trim and other vernacular details without increasing costs, explains Timme. These decorative flourishes can help buildings fit in, architecturally, and might appease some homeowners who want new buildings to match the aesthetic feel of existing structures.

But there are better ways to add housing on a large scale and do it more sustainably at the same time. “These are good people who care about this, but it’s nothing new,” says Mark Hogan, director of California-based OpenScope, which specializes in ADU and urban infill developments. What could really transform the entire construction industry, Hogan says, is to do away with paneled plastic altogether and embrace solid wood. This wide range of engineered wood materials like cross-laminated timber, or CLT, use adhesives and laminates to make the world’s most renewable building material so strong that it doesn’t require any steel framing or concrete foundations. If American cities began to require that every 10- or 12-story structure be constructed of solid timber, these factories could begin mass-producing components for a wide range of building types, Hogan says. “What we need is to make sure that the building code advances to the point where it will be competitive and give CLT the edge.”

It’s telling that this 3-D printed demo development at Rancho Mirage is a single-family, car-dependent subdivision in the exurban wilderness. If the goal here is not only efficiency in construction, but also efficiency in all other areas – land use, fuel consumption, emission reductions – not all new technology in the world will work. a lot to move this kind of community. What would be truly revolutionary would be figuring out how to use one of these new methods to build housing more equitably and sustainably in cities, says Roderick Hall, research, planning and spatial equity project manager at Pacific. Urbanism, a Los Angeles-based task force. at housing policy reforms. “If we don’t talk about housing in the context of climate change and environmental justice, and make sure the decisions we make are not just about cost, but also how it benefits the most vulnerable people , then we’ll have a lot more. costs in the future for other problems that are too late to resolve. Hall points to a new subdivision of eight housing units in South LA, which looks like the same wood-frame and stucco bungalow yard become ubiquitous in Los Angeles for 100 years. But the project, by Restore Neighborhoods LA, managed to cut the cost of building a new apartment in half – they’re about $ 225,000 per unit – thanks to a series of creative financing and development decisions, including construction. parking spaces in a place accessible to public transport. district. “They built houses quickly and resisted sprawl, ”says Hall. “Now, for me, it’s innovative.”

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