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Is 3D Printing the Future of Eco Building?
Main image source: ICON
By Vlera Bajraktari, Sustainability writer for Realty Sage
In recent years, the construction industry has faced unprecedented challenges starting from climate change, housing shortage and increased costs of labour and building materials. Therefore, new methods, such as that of 3D printing, are being considered as the future of construction.
HOW 3D PRINTED HOMES ARE BUILT
As with traditionally built houses, the first step in the 3D-home building process involves creating a blueprint. Once the blueprint is approved, the home builder sends the design to the 3D printer. Now it’s time to prepare the build platform and fill the raw materials to get the project ready for execution. Before printing begins, rails are installed around the building site to direct the robotic arm where to lay the paste-like build mixture. Once you press “print,” the printer works automatically to begin building.
3D printers use additive manufacturing to print materials layer by layer. This process can sometimes be done in less than 24 hours.
It should be stated though that today, the printing process described above only takes care of the home’s foundation and walls. Additional construction and human labor are still needed to finish the project.
3D PRINTING MATERIALS: MOVING TOWARDS ECO-FRIENDLY OPTIONS
Concrete - Concrete is by far the most popular construction 3D printing material. Construction 3D printing concrete in many ways is similar to normal concrete, but with added fibers, superplasticizers and other ingredients that make the concrete set in optimal time for layer adhesion between the constructed 3D printing layers, as well as strength to allow for less need of steel reinforcements.
The major drawback, however, is how environmentally unfriendly concrete itself is. Concrete production, or more specifically, cement production overall is responsible for more than 8% of total global CO2 emissions.
Mortar - Mortar is a mix made out of cement, sand and other minerals, designed to be used in construction. It is not as strong as concrete, but it tends to be easier to work with, and more flexible than concrete allowing for it to be made with a less environmentally damaging footprint.
Raw earth - Raw earth, or soil, is simply the stuff we walk on. In 2021, Mario Cucinella Architects and Wasp, Italy’s leading 3D printing company, constructed Tecla, the first house to be 3D-printed from raw earth. It is eco-sustainable and environmentally friendly due to the production being zero waste and needing no materials to be transported to the site as it uses local soil.
TECLA - Mario Cucinella Architects
Special polymers - A recent trend has been developing towards entirely new synthetic polymers that can be used to construct houses. Haus.me is one such example whereby they have built an entire 3D printed prefabricated house using a special insulating polymer composite.
Recycled plastic - Azure Printed Homes is using bottles, food packaging and other plastics normally destined for landfill to contribute 60% of the material making 3D printed buildings. Also, there is an ongoing development in construction 3D printing with bioplastics.
BENEFITS OF 3D-PRINTED HOMES
Speed: Often, it doesn’t even take 24 hours to build a small 3D-printed home, although this build-out is typically done in waves rather than all at once.
Cost: 3D-printed homes are surprisingly cheap to create, running around $10,000 USD on average today. 3D-printed home leader ICON hopes these homes are even more affordable in the future, with a projected goal of reducing builds down to $4,000. Once plumbing, electrical and other additional construction is added, the final housing cost is around $140,000 to $160,000 on average today.
Sustainability: 3D-home construction boasts a shorter supply chain and less waste due to over-engineering. This reduction in process and waste makes these homes more eco-friendly, even more so if using materials such as raw earth or recycled plastic.
Versatility: 3D printing offers unique building opportunities that would be either impossible or too expensive to be created via conventional construction techniques.
Situational applicability: Overall, 3D printing houses can play a central role in different scenarios worldwide. The relatively quick process of 3D printing houses could potentially deal with housing shortages and homelessness. They could also be beneficial in humanitarian crisis situations, especially after natural disasters where homes get tragically lost in earthquakes, fires, or tsunamis.
CHALLENGES FOR 3D-PRINTING
Technology training: The biggest challenge currently facing the 3D-printed housing industry is scale and training. There is a huge learning curve for traditional construction companies and workers when it comes to operating industrial-sized 3D printers and new processes. At the moment, there’s less than 10 companies using this technology in America.
Size: 3D printed buildings are relatively small, but this is quickly changing. The world’s largest 3D printed building is in Dubai, standing at 31 feet tall with an area of 6900 square feet.
Green building materials: It is true that 3D printed homes produce less waste than traditionally built homes, but improvements are needed in the building materials used. Concrete is the main material, but unfortunately it is not considered eco-friendly. That’s why it needs to be decarbonized, or a more versatile range of sustainable materials should be the alternative.
3D PRINTING TODAY AND TOMORROW
3D construction printing is relatively new but it has already been successfully tested in numerous houses and buildings, resulting in a more efficient, sustainable and cost-effective alternative. The technology still has its limitations, but these are common barriers that any new technology faces when launched in the market. They are most likely to resolve over time with testimonies of success. Thus, we can say that 3D printing technology is not a flickering trend but the future of the sustainable construction industry.
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