Homes from the Printer - Rent Week


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Osamu Iwasaki.

Our brave, new, automated world provides us with the luxury of getting what we want quickly and cheaply. New technologies roll in and repetitive, menial labor goes out.

Yet one industry has managed to dodge the technological curve for the past thousands of years, until now.

Since the pyramids, humans have put in the sweat and back-work into assembling buildings and homes manually–layer-by-layer. Despite the advent of tech tools such as power saws and mechanized cranes, construction is essentially the same methods of cutting, hoisting, and fastening of materials with human hands.

To save those the back trouble and time, how about we just print it?

The technology of 3D printing has the capability to create a 2,500 square-foot home in a single day. One company from China, WinSun, can even create 10 of these homes in a day for under $5,000. This is 200 times faster than the average 7 months it takes to build a home in the US.

At the forefront of America’s instant-homes is a robotic construction system called “Contour Crafting” developed at the Center For Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies at USC by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis.

Babak Zareiyan, an architectural engineer and member of CRAFT, spoke with BTR on the potential market for 3D printing homes. With the onset of technological feats in the manufacturing industry in mind, CC printing looks to finally collaborate manufacturing advances with the work of construction.

“Everything is manufactured right now, even Google is making automated cars,” says Zareiyan. “The only thing left is buildings. Why not buildings?”

It is exactly the question that ignited the federally funded project. Since the development of an 8 foot concrete wall a couple years ago, the team has been testing out machines and performance levels of the printed construction for various interested clients, including NASA.

“We have been working with lunar material and other local material to build on the moon,” says Zareiyan. “I have done research also in working with adobe material for undeveloped areas that don’t have easy access to concrete.”

The robotic technique operates by an automated nozzle that squirts out deposits of concrete, usually, in a layered fashion, practically like toothpaste onto a toothbrush. The machine is guided by software programs of computerized drawings which can feature exotic, custom designs of architecture. Styles that were once considered expensive engineering are now printable in a matter of minutes.

The invention holds prospects of building homes in 24 hours for the benefit of natural disaster victims and the impoverished around the world. The earthquake and typhoon that struck the Philippines in October 2013 destroyed over 300,000 homes and costed about $7 billion in reconstruction costs. When tragedy strikes in developing countries, the poor infrastructure of buildings can determine life or death.

The new tech’s reduction in time, cost, and environmental damage made it a candidate for revolutionizing the construction industry and has caught the attention of organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, to create homes during disaster relief and others of less fortune.

Though fairly new, the approach to construction is picking up internationally. Another company called DUS Architects from Amsterdam are currently on their way to building a 3D printed canal house on the banks of the city.

Yet constraints still prevent 3D printing from dominating the construction process. There are innumerable variables to consider in order to construct a home, which makes it virtually impossible to leave it all up to a machine.

Natasa Mrazovic, an architect and structural engineer has been conducting research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the adaptability of software such as 3D printing into the construction process. Mrazovic spoke with BTR on how 3D printing is not likely to take over the construction industry any time soon.

“Mostly due to building complexity–in construction and in design there are so many environmental constraints, in comparison to a car or any kind of space shuttle where you can test design and production in a controlled setting,” says Mrazovic. “Therefore, the construction industry will never be only 3D printing. It would be a hybrid system.”

Mrazovic has researched the harvested benefits that printing provides such as the fast production of parts and components of complex geometries. Reduction was seen by at least 30 percent of CO2 and embodied energy and by 15 percent in total costs. Much of the “leaks” that occur in construction, both physically and financially, were able to be reduced by adding 3D printing techniques.

Research concluded, however, with an emphasis of quantitative, scientific testing on the structural soundness of features build by printers. Basically, Mrazovic explained that laboratory testing of 3D printed prototypes are needed to asses the performance in all conditions before it can be considered for use by construction companies.

Vladimir Bazjanac, a staff scientist in the buildings technologies department of LBNL and principal investigator to Mrazovic’s research, told BTR that implementing 3D printing would require a reframing in the approach of the entire industry.

“The construction industry operates on such a low margin. The construction industry simply does not have a mind frame to invest into its future,” says Bazjanac. “Every decision in the construction industry needs to be backed up by simulation or some calculation and the industry needs to figure out a way to create larger margins and invest in more fundamental science research.”

Much of the 3D printing technology has not been regulated or legalized for construction. However, it could still have an impact on the labor force as it slowly begins to enter the industry.

There were more than 600,000 construction laborers in the US in 2013. The likelihood of displacement for these workers due to robotics would be a run through the same cycle high-technology manufacturing has seen lately. According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, some manufacturing companies for computer motherboards have relocated back to America due to robotics becoming cheaper than Asian labor abroad.

But perhaps this signals a shift in the paradigm. A chance to question where human potential truly lies as labor intensive jobs become obsolete.

“Everything is going towards giving people more freedom and the opportunity for choices beyond manual labor,” says Zareiyan.