Construction startups build homes with 3D printers

AP
Created: April 19, 2021 03:07 PM

A new generation of startups wants to disrupt the construction industry - layer by layer - by automating production with industrial 3D printers.

These entrepreneurs say these smart machines _ combined with software, robots and new building materials - can make homes faster, cheaper and more sustainably.

"With 3D printing, we're able to print exactly what we need. So it's effectively zero-waste construction," said Sam Ruben, the company's co-founder and chief sustainability officer at Mighty Buildings, a 3D printing construction firm in Oakland, Calif.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, uses autonomous machines to create three-dimensional objects by depositing thin layers of material according to digital blueprints.

In recent years, 3D printer been used to produce everything from toys and auto parts to artificial organs and prosthetic limbs. Now they're being deployed in the construction industry.

Backers say 3D printing reduces the need for human labor at a time when home builders are struggling to find enough skilled workers to meeting housing demand.

These startups want to use 3D printers, industrial robots and other technologies to help address severe housing shortages that have led to soaring home prices, overcrowding, evictions and homelessness around the world.

But to move beyond a niche market, 3D printed construction firms will need to significantly ramp up production and persuade home buyers, developers and regulators that they're safe, well-built and pleasing to the eye. They'll also need to train workers to operate the machines and install the homes.

"To the extent that 3D printing can offer a faster, cheaper way to build even single family housing units or small units, it can address a portion of the problem," said Michelle Boyd, who directs the Housing Lab at the University of California, Berkeley's Terner Center for Housing Innovation. "We need all the help, all the solutions that we can get."

In Mighty Buildings' factory warehouse in Oakland, a 3D printer deposits layers of a white substance that quickly hardens under ultraviolet light into a lightweight, stone-like material that's resistant to heat and water.

The printer can produce the entire exterior shell of a studio home or individual wall panels that can easily assembled by hand. Robotic arms are used to finish the surfaces into various designs.

The company is producing 350-square-foot backyard studios, known in the industry as "accessory dwelling units" that can be used as extra bedrooms, playrooms, gyms or home offices.

So far the company has delivered six units and has another 30 under contract, starting at $115,000 each, which doesn't include the cost of installation and site work, Ruben said. Two units can be combined to make a 700-square-foot dwelling.

Most of the modules are assembled in the factory, transported by truck to the owner's property, then put into place using a crane.

Mighty Buildings is now focused on backyard studios and single family homes, but has plans to produce townhouses and multistory apartment buildings.

Backed with more than $70 million in venture capital, Mighty Buildings is planning to build more factories with a goal of producing 1,000 units next year. They're also creating software that allows developers to custom design buildings that can be produced with 3D printers.

"We're lowering labor hours by about 90 percent per unit. But at the end of the day, we're actually hoping to create more work by increasing the productivity," Ruben said.

Mighty Buildings is teaming up with a Beverly Hills, Calif.-based developer, the Palari Group, to create a planned community of 3D printed homes in the desert resort community of Rancho Mirage in California's Coachella Valley.

The solar-powered development, set for completion next spring, will have 15 lots with a 1,450-square-foot primary home plus a 700-square-foot secondary home and swimming pool in the backyard, costing around $850,000, said Basel Starr, Palari's CEO and founder.

The 15 lots quickly sold out quickly and there's a waiting list of 500 homebuyers, Starr, said. His planning similar developments in other parts of California.

The wall panels and other components will be manufactured in the Mighty Buildings factory in Oakland, then transported by truck to Rancho Mirage for installation.

"They're assembled in a similar fashion like a Lego set. So it reduces the time that it takes to build a home significantly," Starr said. "This is the future of home-building."

Austin, Texas-based ICON has used 3D printing technology to produce low-cost housing. It's printed about clusters of homes for the chronically homeless in Austin as well as poor families in Nacajuca, Mexico.

Instead of producing homes in factories, it brings its Vulcan printer to work on-site, building walls with tubular layers of excretable concrete, following blueprints designed with its software.

"The factory comes to you, imprints the house right where it intends to be. We chose that method to eliminate a lot of the shipping costs and then also to give ourselves a lot of design freedom," said Jason Ballard, ICON's CEO and co-founder.

Ballard said its 3D printing system can do the work of 10 to 20 workers in five or six different trades for up to 24 hours a day, saving time and money.

The company, which has raised more than $40 million in venture funding, is working with Kansas City-based developer 3Strands to build a 3D printed neighborhood of two-story homes with two to four bedrooms in Austin.

"The benefits that automation and digitization had brought to so many other industries with regard to speed and affordability were completely missing from the construction industry," Ballard said. "3D printing turned out to be was like the most powerful automation of all the automations we could discover."

While 3D printing shows promise as a way to produce more housing, experts say the sheer magnitude of the housing shortage demands many types of solutions, from loosening zoning restrictions to building more high-rise apartment buildings.

"We haven't changed the way that we build housing in 30, 40, 50 years," Boyd said. "So we need innovation in the materials we use, the processes and really from soup to nuts, how we build housing."


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