By Lauren Dexter, OTD Student
At The Universal Design Project, we are excited to explore different ways homes can be designed and built to provide increased functionality for people in their homes. We are often looking into different styles of homes and building processes to learn more about what possibilities there are to increase the number of homes in our communities that are universally accessible. We like to work with designers who are not afraid to think outside of the box to create inventive ways for people to live as independently as possible in their homes.
As a 3rd year occupational therapy student about to begin my capstone experience, I wanted to work with an organization where I could be involved in a less traditional role, using an occupational therapy lens to approach societal issues in a unique way. The Universal Design Project offers me this opportunity, allowing me to work with a unique interprofessional team of architects and home builders and explore emerging topics such as today’s topic of 3D printing.
During my last semester of school before embarking on my capstone course, my cohort was encouraged to use our on-campus 3D printing lab to create ‘whatchamacallits’ which were essentially any device or product modification we could make with a 3D printer to aid someone in completing a daily living task. The world of 3D printing seems to offer endless opportunities for customization of tools and devices. However, the advancement of this technology to be able to create an entirely new item from the ground up (literally) allows for so many cool possibilities. The best example of this is what this post will be discussing, all about 3D printed homes. Instead of being able to just 3D print a ramp to access your house, companies are now able to 3D print entire homes! This concept is so interesting and something I see as a great opportunity for anyone involved in universal design to learn more about.
So what is 3D printing and how can homes be constructed in this way? In this post, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of this method as well as which companies are currently using this technology.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing can seem like an abstract concept but put in simple terms, Will Kenton defines it as an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital design. The process works by laying down thin layers of material in the form of liquid or powdered plastic, metal or cement, and then fusing the layers together.
The two images above are the 3D printers my university provides us access to, which allow for printing volume of 210 x 210 x 205 mm on the smaller model and 400mm x 400mm x 450 mm build volume on the larger model. Slightly smaller than a standard decorative pillow. I thought these machines were quite intense, so trying to visualize how large a 3D printer would have to be for creating the entire frame of a home was difficult for me to even conceptualize at first.
To 3D print homes requires large industrial machines such as Sarca’s heavy-duty 3D printer ($57,500) or MudBots Concrete 3D printer ($128,000). The cheapest construction 3D printer I could find is also made by MudBot, used to produce smaller homes ($35,000), while other construction 3D printers can cost over $1 million. There are two types of construction 3D printers, robotic arm systems and gantry-type systems (frame structure that supports the printer head along the X/Y axis), with the robotic arms typically being the more expensive of the two.
So we’ve discussed the general process of 3D printing and the types of printers that are involved in home building, but what does the construction of 3D printing homes actually look like?
How are 3D Printed Homes Constructed?
If you’re wondering how one of these machines can be used to 3D print a home, check out this video below!
To print a home, these machines use a layer-by-layer paste-type material such as concrete that comes out of an end nozzle to form each layer. What does this look like? The process of adding each layer of concrete is described in this video, this process could be related to the process of watching a pastry bag squeeze out layers of frosting onto a cake. Another option for 3D printing in the home building space is to 3D print brick molds then manually stack them.
The infographic above explains the detailed steps in this home-building process. Software is used to create the home blueprint which is translated into a code for the printer to read. After the concrete mix is loaded into the printer, it creates and shapes materials one layer at a time that are stacked in the coded pattern until the walls are completed. The rest of the home (window/doors/paint) are added by hand.
Benefits of 3D Printing
As the concept of 3D printing has expanded into the home design world, entire houses are beginning to be 3D printed, increasing the speed, versatility and sustainability while decreasing the cost of the home building process.
This infographic above describes how 3D printing allows for the speed of home building to now be done in under 24 hours and can bring the cost down to $10,000. With the modeling software used in 3D printing construction, homes can be customized easily and the process can allow for more eco-friendly builds.
The example above demonstrates some of the efficiencies 3D printing of homes can provide, such as self-supported walls, thermal insulation, use of recycled materials and being disaster-resilient.
Opportunities for Accessibility/Universal Design
The increased customization allowed by 3D printing provides possibilities for a new avenue to obtain financially and universally accessible housing.
A Washington Post article explains the accessibility benefits one of the seniors is experiencing from a newly constructed 3D printed home. His arthritis and use of a walker made living in his RV home difficult and he describes his excitement to give up the steep ramp he has had to previously use to enter or exit his RV homes.
For a broader overview, the development of new printing designs could be explored for universally designed features such as homes built with wider doorways and hallways, which would benefit people using the home from children to adults. The rooms could be built with the consideration of providing functionality for all ages and abilities, such as considering the location of windows when the home is printed to allow for good air flow and natural light, which benefits those with a mental health illness or visual deficits. Printing the home with an open floor plan would allow for easier maneuverability and increased opportunities/space for further universal design elements to be easily implemented in the home. Other considerations could include creating an easy pathway from garage to home entrance with no steps, avoiding-load bearing interior walls (to allow for easier and less expensive changes to the home layout), providing adequate space for a kitchen, bathroom, laundry room and at least one bedroom on the main floor, as well as even ‘stacking’ closets over each other in multi-story homes to allow for easier installation of an elevator or lift if needed.
What are the Disadvantages of 3D Printed Homes?
While there are great benefits to 3D printing homes, there are also disadvantages that are important to consider. As discussed earlier, these 3D printers used for construction can be expensive (up to $1 million dollars. These machines also do not solely produce a home but rather are used mostly to produce the house frame. What I see as the most harmful downside of 3D printed homes is the impact on unemployment rates. These machines reduce the need for manual labor, design plans from architects, and create fewer overall employment opportunities for local workers, which is important in some of the more poverty-stricken areas where this emerging low-cost construction option is considered.
To design a house the traditional way, an architect may use a popular design software called Revit. Interestingly, an architect may also use this software to 3D print their designed home, however, while there are some tutorials online, this is an emerging concept and may present a steeper than expected learning curve.
Who is 3D Printing Homes?
Below are some prototypes of homes and their prices that have been 3D printed by companies such as WASP ($1000 – 215 square foot house); ICON ($10,000 – 650 square foot house); WINSUN ($161,000 – 11,840 square foot apartment building) and OUEST FRANCE ($270,000 5 room family home).
More information on the companies and projects being developed in this emerging space can be found here.
What can we take away from all this information on 3D printing for home construction? For a future occupational therapist (OT) like myself. I appreciate my program encouraging our exploration of 3D printing because our profession has a great opportunity to introduce the benefits of this technology into our client’s everyday life. While the 3D printed inventions my cohort developed have the potential to assist clients in daily activities, involving an OT lens in the design processes of 3D printed houses presents possibilities for our future clients to have an entire environment that provides them more functionally accessible housing that is more financially attainable.