Step aside, traditional housing, and make way for 3-D construction

Nancy Napier
Nancy Napier

Imagine sitting in your favorite coffee shop, sketching your dream house or a solution for affordable housing. The design would have flair but fit the budget for families and young people, or even active retirees. Now imagine that you can take your idea to a 3-D printing company and print out that house, layer by layer.

The notion of 3-D printing has been around for decades, but its use has been for objects such as mechanical parts for engines or artificial bones or teeth. But as Eric Schmidt of Google’s Alphabet said last year, 3-D printing for home construction is emerging as the hottest new idea in years. (Andrew Zaleski, “How to print a house,” May 2017).

Known technically as “additive manufacturing,” the processes for 3-D printing have improved dramatically over the years. Today, you could have a 3-D printer on your desk if you could afford it. Basically, the process heats powdered metals or plastics to fuse them and then prints out items, layer by layer. For houses, the inputs are cement, sand and plastic polymers. Robotic arms move to print out the house components, part by part, including flooring, windows, and plumbing and electrical units.

With improvements in technology, the cost of 3-D houses has plummeted. In 2014, architect Platt Boyd figured that building a free-form house with the design freedom he wanted would cost between $800-$1,000 per square foot using normal building materials. Using 3-D printing could reduce that to $200 per square foot, he thought. A company called Apis Cor built a 400-square-foot house for just over $10,000, or about $25 per square foot. By comparison, Habitat for Humanity needs $50,000 to build a 1,050-square-foot house.

The concept is still at an early stage, and the industry is waiting to develop. But what if it could be a way for Boise to tackle affordable housing?

Nancy Napier is a distinguished professor at Boise State.