3D printers are already being used across industries to produce a number of products. A quick Google search provides an astonishing number of uses. One industry to keep an eye on is the housing industry and the use of 3D printers to build houses on-site.
In the United States, modular, transportable 3D printers are starting to be used to build houses on-site that are fully permitted and habitable. The 3D printer follows a computer-generated set of plans to “print” the walls of a home using a concrete-type material. This video shows how one company, ICON, uses its 3D printing technology to build the walls of a home. The roof, windows, doors, and other finishes and trim are constructed separately using standard market products or prefabricated 3D printed versions, to the extent available. The end result can be very impressive. Just have a look at the 1,200 square foot, 3 bedroom, 2 bath 3D printed house below, which was recently built by a partnership between Habitat for Humanity and Alquist in Williamsburg, Virginia. Here is a link to a news article about this house.
(Photo from Fox 5 DC)
What makes this 3D printing technology so impressive and exciting is that 3D printed houses could be an environmentally-friendly solution to the housing shortage in the United States. A few of the main reasons the United States is experiencing a housing shortage is the high cost to build a new house due, in part, to supply chain clogs and material shortages; the lack of labor; and the time it takes to build a house. On-site 3D printed houses offer a potential solution to these issues. First, 3D printed houses require far less lumber and other traditional building materials compared to traditionally-constructed houses and 3D printed houses can be built at a substantially lower cost than traditionally-built houses. Second, to operate a 3D printer and supervise the construction of a 3D printed house only requires a few people. Lastly, it only takes a few days to construct the walls of a 3D printed house (albeit at this time, 3D printed homes tend to still require traditional construction of the roof, installation of the windows and doors, and electrical and plumbing, which can slow down the final home completion time due to labor shortages and supply-chain issues). The construction of 3D printed homes can be more environmentally-friendly than traditionally-built homes because the 3D printed homes are constructed on-site using very few materials, which reduce the need for material transportations to and from the job site, and the amount of waste created is very minimal since the home is built using precise computer technology.
A few of the cons to 3D printed homes are that the walls, stylistically, look a bit sloppy with non-structural imperfections. Of course, these walls can be concealed with traditional finishes like paint, sheetrock or stucco, but those options add to the cost of the house. Another con is that, generally speaking, 3D printed houses currently being built in the United States are only 1 level, with the option to build more levels using traditional building methods. The height limitations need to be improved, as density is an important piece to solving America’s housing shortage. As the technology improves, it’s very likely multi-level 3D printed houses will become available in the United States.
At this point, there are only a few legally habitable 3D printed houses in the United States. As with any new technology, the technology will improve the more it is used. This past fall, ICON and Lennar announced a partnership to build a 3D home community consisting of 100 homes in the Austin, Texas area. The project is expected to break ground in early 2022. This will be the largest 3D printed home project in the United States by far, and it will provide valuable insight into the future possibilities of scaling this technology.
From a legal standpoint, prior to commencing a 3D printed home project, a developer should review local zoning, building, and other municipal codes to ensure the project will be in compliance (or if not in compliance, develop a strategy to obtain needed municipal approvals). In addition, since 3D printed home building involves sophisticated technology, real estate, and the potential to solve some of the U.S.’s housing needs, the industry is ripe for structuring creative joint ventures among 3D printer companies, real estate developers, private equity, governments, and non-profits. Otten Johnson Robinson Neff & Ragonetti PC offers clients a robust, sophisticated land use, real estate, and joint venture structuring legal practice.