According to the Census, 98% of all newly constructed single-family homes in 2022 were site-built, more commonly known as stick-built. But there is a new construction method that is making us rethink how we build our homes. 3D printing is a modern technology that is forcing the industry to realize that there are alternatives to traditional lumber framing. Whether it is a realistic alternative is another question.
In this article, we take a look at what 3D-printed houses are, the benefits and drawbacks for both companies and homebuyers, a look at the predicted market growth forecast, and top experts’ opinions. So are 3D-printed houses a solution to current housing industry problems, or are they just a passing phase?
What Are 3D-Printed Houses?
Image courtesy of SQ4D
Designed to be like any other home you have lived in, a 3D-printed house refers to the construction method by which it is built. Instead of laborers manually constructing the home, a 3D-printing technology is used. A large 3D printer, often mounted on a robotic arm or gantry system, follows a pre-programmed design to deposit material precisely. That material is typically concrete. It then follows the pre-programmed design, extruding the construction material in precise layers to build up the walls and other structural elements. Once the layering process is complete, contractors return to traditional building methods for other areas of the home, such as interior finishes, plumbing, electrical wiring, and insulation.
3D-Printed House Cost
One of the first questions people ask when innovative construction comes along is: How much does it cost? In general, the cost of 3D-printed houses is lower than average wood-framed homes. Less labor means needing to pay less to contractors. 3D printing removes the need to pay for skilled workers such as bricklayers, framers, and sometimes even roofers. It is also faster which also reduces labor costs. Yet the land cost must be taken into consideration, as well as interior finishes and HVAC appliances.
We asked 3D printing companies to share the average cost of homes they have built. Trevor Ragno, Director of Construction & Building Technologies at Apis Cor, says “We are currently building a 2,168 sq.ft. 4 bed 4 bath model home in Melbourne, FL. The total build cost is $260k which breaks down to about $119 per sq.ft. and this includes everything from the walls, roof, foundation, septic, well, windows/doors, HVAC, flooring, appliances, TV, fireplace, etc, basically everything except the furniture.”
Yet build cost and listing prices can be two very different things. Kristen Henry, Chief Technology Officer at SQ4D says “Although the goal is to pass along some of the cost savings to the home buyer, the market ultimately dictates the price of the homes built. Though 3D-printed homes can be listed at a lower asking price, what consumers are willing to pay determines the sale price as it is the offers above the asking price that generally win. SQ4D’s most recent 2000 square foot home was listed at $499,999 and sold at $550,000, 10% above asking price.”
Pros of 3D-Printed Houses
Image courtesy of SQ4D
As mentioned above, more affordable construction is a huge plus point when it comes to a 3D-printed house. As less labor is needed, the more affordable the project becomes. Zachary Mannheimer, Founder and Chairman of Alquist 3D claims that “with an experienced crew, a 3D print project can be done with as few as 2 human crew members”. Material cost also plays a part, as Henry says “The cost of building materials used is also greatly reduced as concrete is a cheaper material that can be locally sourced, and is used to the exact quantity needed.”
Quicker to build
Time and money go hand in hand, which is a big reason why 3D-printed houses are cheaper, as they are much quicker to build. Mannheimer says “Without weather or equipment issues, most prints of a 1,200 sq ft home can be achieved in as little as 20 hours.” While it’s possible to build a home in under 24 hours you can usually expect it to take around 10 days in total. Ragno adds “Robotic precision ensures walls are perfectly plumb, level, and square which streamlines secondary construction (MEP, windows, doors, cabinets, baseboards, etc).” Henry says that “[...] companies do not need to worry about finding as much skilled labor. There is currently an extreme shortage of available construction workers, which is slowing the completion of projects.”
Eco-friendly and efficient
The 3D printing method results in less material waste which makes the construction process much more eco-friendly than wood framing. Henry points out that “There is often a lot of waste in traditional construction as materials like sheetrock, lumber, and vinyl siding need to be cut.”
Due to the material mainly being concrete, they are extremely durable dwellings that can withstand a multitude of challenges. For example, Ragno says “Our 3D printed walls are tested to be 33% stronger than concrete block walls, termite and insect proof, they don't rot, they're hurricane and impact resistant, flood resistant, and they are fire rated for 2.25 hours.” It should be mentioned that these houses are yet to be widely long-term tested to see their durability length over many years.
Cons of 3D-Printed Houses
Image courtesy of SQ4D
Not much availability
Some would argue that 3D printers are welcome at a time when there are labor shortages in the industry. However, today, according to Ragno, there are not that many printers available. He comments that “Printer manufacturers are in the process of ramping up production to meet overwhelming demand, but this will take time. For now, there are still thousands of people waiting for their 3D-printed homes to begin construction.” Mannheimer echoes this by saying “[...] you may wait a while to get a robot as the supply chain is limited.”
Codes and regulations
Not all building codes and regulations are updated to allow for 3D printing construction methods. As Henry states, “Building codes have not yet been tailored specifically to 3D printed construction and the associated processes, so without these defined regulations, certain areas may be hesitant to approve this type of construction for residential and commercial use.” This could mean delays in getting the necessary approvals and permits before the building can commence.
Companies planning on constructing such homes should expect scrutiny from officials. Yet, in Mannheimer’s experience, this has not been the case: “Once the officials understand the properties of the material and the process, the code officials get on board quickly. Similarly, we have seen little to zero resistance when it comes to appraisals, insurance, and mortgages.”
Due to the fact that 3D printers can only construct homes using concrete or a specially mixed material, there are limitations. Firstly, the aesthetic design of homes is limited, often meaning having visible layers and a modern look. The material used also means not being able to construct high-rise buildings, due to the lack of strength to deal with the pressure.
Less reliance on craftsmanship
Technological advancements that replace the jobs of skilled workers can result in it being harder for people to find work. As well as that, the finer finishing touches that craftsmen can bring to construction are lost when relying upon machinery.
Growth Potential for 3D-Printing Construction Industry
This area of the industry is still relatively new and there is little historical data available to make any market impact conclusions. However, as Grand View Research notes the 3D printing global construction market size was valued at 18,175.7 USD in 2022. Projections suggest it will reach a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 101.9% in the next seven years. The desire for lower-cost ways to construct buildings will be the main driving force behind this uptick in the market. Mannheimer is optimistic saying “The industry is in its infancy, and the next 5-10 years will bring tremendous growth as the process becomes smoother and more approachable.”
Experts Message to Skeptics: The Future, Not a Fad
Image courtesy of SQ4D
There is still a very long way to go if we’re to see a shift in homebuilding. While projections for the market look promising, site-built home’s dominance is vast. So is it just a craze or will we see more 3D-printed homes in the future? Here is what industry experts have to say:
“3D construction isn't a "fad" it's an inevitability. There simply aren't enough construction workers to meet demand today [...] We don't build printers because it's fun, we do it because without this technology (or something like it) our nation's current housing crisis will only intensify to a scale far beyond anything our country has ever experienced.”
Trevor Ragno, Director of Construction & Building Technologies, Apis Cor.
“There are certainly other ways to construct a home, and 3D is not a silver bullet, instead I see the 3D industry merging with the manufactured and prefab home industry to create an amazing product that will help people get back to the American Dream of home ownership.”
Zachary Mannheimer, Founder and Chairman, Alquist 3D.
“I believe that construction 3D printing is here to stay [...] If we are able to create homes that are less expensive, stronger, safer, and quicker to build, as well as more sustainable, then we will be able to make some huge strides in terms of the housing affordability crisis while also increasing the durability of homes in light of the changing climate all while helping out our environment, which is truly the best of all worlds.”
Kristen Henry, Chief Technology Officer, SQ4D.
Outlook: 3D-Printed Houses Vs Traditionally-Built Homes
Image courtesy of SQ4D
3D-printed homes offer a promising solution that could go some way to help solve housing shortages, reduce construction costs, and be more eco-friendly. Utilizing advanced robotics and sustainable materials, they can be built quickly and with minimal waste. On the other hand, traditional homes, with their time-honored craftsmanship, create a sense of permanence and character in communities that 3D-printed homes lack.
It is not easy to change the habit of a lifetime. As Henry says “[...] in America, people are not used to concrete homes. Consumers take time to adjust to new styles of construction.” Only time will tell how, if, and when America truly embraces 3D-printed homes.
Adam Graham is an industry analyst at Fixr.com. He analyzes and writes about the real estate and home construction industries, covering a range of associated topics. He has been featured in publications such as Better Homes and Gardens and The Boston Globe and has written for various outlets including the National Association of Realtors, and Insurance News Net Magazine.