If you’re looking for a housing option that’s green, clean, efficient and won’t cost an arm and a leg to build, the future is almost here. 3D-printed houses have been going up in Europe for almost a decade now, and over the last few years, both prototypes and livable 3D-printed housing has been installed across America. What is a 3D-printed house, and most importantly, will anyone want to live in one?
What is a 3D-Printed Home?
In 2018, the first 3D-printed home went up in Austin. It was just two rooms and 350 square feet, but from this humble beginning, a trend took root in the United States. These houses are springing up across the country now, from affordable one-offs for organizations like Habitat for Humanity to commercial subdivisions with HOAs and all the trimmings.
Unlike a traditional stick-built home, 3D-printed homes are literally printed in place, just like you’d print a knickknack on your home 3D-printer. Layer by layer, proprietary concrete blends are used to build the wall systems of the home in any type of design that a builder can imagine. Innovators in the space are trying to solve a number of problems at once, but many believe 3D-printing can help solve the bigger issue of affordable housing.
“You could do very ornate executive-style housing,” says Zachary Mannheimer, founder and chairman of Alquist 3D in Greeley, Colorado. “But our mission goes back to Frank Lloyd Wright in the '30s, when he got a letter in the mail from someone who said, ‘Hey, I need an affordable home. But just because it's affordable, I don't want it to be of low quality and I want it to look amazing. Can you design me something for $1,000?’ (which is the equivalent today of about $20,000). And so Frank Lloyd Wright did, and the material that he chose was concrete.”
How Affordable Are 3D-Printed Homes?
The affordability of a 3D-printed home comes from a lot of different directions. First, you have the house itself. Building a 3D-printed home requires less labor and reduces job site waste compared with a traditional stick-built home, even though the only change is that the walls are made of concrete instead of wood. Again, there’s a lot of change currently happening in the space, but the already-built homes have told us a great deal about where the future is headed.
“What we do know is that 3D printing should be much more cost effective than a traditional stick built home in the near future,” says Janet Green, CEO at Habitat for Humanity Peninsula & Greater Williamsburg in Newport News, Virginia, which has already completed and sold three 3D-printed homes. “There are many cost efficiencies that these tools will help with. For instance, it took us about 35 hours to print the exterior walls of each home. Labor right now for that is about four people. Normally you need a lot more people to build the framing of the house.”
Because companies like Alquist 3D are working on ways to build 3D-printed homes with materials that are on hand locally, these homes can also have very small carbon footprints. One of Alquist 3D’s ultimate goals is to design homes that are not only carbon neutral but carbon negative – they literally remove carbon from the atmosphere.
The other way that 3D-printed homes will ultimately become more affordable for homeowners is by simply being more energy efficient. Concrete homes have traditionally had high insulation values, but by customizing the wall formulas, local construction experts can make walls that respond better to local needs.
“Moving to using 3D printing to create homes can significantly help reduce energy usage because designs can be optimized to balance different features,” says Soydan Ozcan, sustainable manufacturing and materials scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. “For instance, we can create homes with walls that are structurally sound but that minimize heat loss."
In the future, Ozcan says, a collaborative team from the Oak Ridge laboratory and the University of Maine will be introducing smart-wall features that can improve energy efficiency in response to a change in the environment.
Ready to Buy a 3D-Printed Home?
Although there aren’t many 3D-printed homes for sale yet, the few that are listed by homebuilder Lennar at its Wolf Ranch subdivision in Georgetown, Texas, start at $469,900 for a three bedroom, two bath, 1,574-square-foot home.
These homes haven’t yet broken the affordability barrier that 3D-printed home experts anticipate, but they are available now for early adopters who may be interested in the other types of savings that come with this lifestyle.
“Once you buy a house, the big problem that I see with my family, for example, is maintaining the home, things like the cost that you have in energy, the cost you have in maintenance,” says Patrick Callahan, CEO of Alquist 3D. “This material doesn't burn, there is no water permeability, it can withstand hurricane winds. The energy cost that you have with this material goes down by 50% the day you move in because of the R-factor (insulation value) of the material. It can last hundreds of years based on the strength of the material – that is a game changer for families.”
It's a game-changer that will also help reduce bills related to homeownership.
Before you jump, though, be aware of how your home is put together, because once the lid’s on the walls, getting back in there can be difficult if there wasn’t a great deal of forethought put into planning for access panels.
“We think that 3D-printed homes are an amazing investment, but you need to look at, and ask questions about, how the electrical's ran in the wall, how the plumbing's ran in the wall, if there are access panels to repair or replace that later, and so forth,” says Nate Schlueter, chief visionary officer at Eden Village in Springfield, Missouri, a tiny home community network with a mission to house the chronically homeless across the country. They are currently developing 3D-printed housing for their next community, breaking ground in early 2024. “We know if we live in a traditional home and something happens in a wall, we just knock the sheetrock out, somebody comes in, but that's not happening with a 3D-printed home.”
Your home inspector will be of some help, but 3D-printed homes are new to them, too, so it’s best to get the specifics directly from the builder.