Berkheimer: Can 3D printing help solve the affordable housing issue?
For The Aspen Times
The dismal housing situation nationwide is projected to continue through 2023 and perhaps years beyond. But, I see reasons for optimism and considerable improvement beginning by mid-2024 and thereafter.
In recent weeks, I have read or glanced through dozens of articles on housing-industry projections. Some are forecasting the current shortage of affordable homes — now in the millions — likely will last for many years.
The basic reasons are high costs — for materials, wages, land, fees, and permits, plus the recent high mortgage rates.
Also, quite naturally, the unfulfilled demand for more homes has prompted rental prices to soar.
So, why am I optimistic the situation will change for the better during the next couple years? It stems from developments in two major directions.
The first was outlined recently by California columnist Thomas Elias. I agree with him that increased pressure to convert vacant large retail and office buildings into apartment rentals and condos could be a considerable help toward easing the overall housing situation.
Although such conversions will provide work for carpenters, plumbers, and related trades, they won’t resolve the soaring demand for single-family homes — especially starter homes.
What will alleviate that demand, however, is my second reason for optimism: A series of high-technology construction developments, involving new methods and materials, that will reduce erection time and costs.
The predictions for more years of housing shortages come from traditional sources — realty, construction, and financial associations — which continue to base forecasts on historic “stick-built” methods. Only, they give little consideration to the developments in pre-fab construction and three-dimensional (3D) printing.
Those developments will drastically change the industry during the next two to three years. And, they will require changes in attitudes, zoning, building codes, marketing, and financing — some of which will involve community foot-dragging, partly because of the NIMBYs.
3D printed buildings, using tech-designed materials, can be erected much quicker, will be more sturdy, more resistant to mold and climate disasters, and considerably more affordable.
Some estimates indicate the cost of 3D homes could be as little as 50% to 60% of historic homebuilding — with completions reported in days rather than weeks. Land costs and utility fees will still need to be added, of course.
3D homes — both in pre-fab and on-site processes — are no longer in test modes. Models have been tested in nearly 10 countries and more than a dozen U.S. states since 2014. My computer files include several articles on those reports.
Right now, just outside Austin, Texas, huge machines are in the process of printing 100 three- and four-bedroom homes in the first major on-site 3D housing development. Those homes will go on the market next year, starting in the mid-$400,000 range.
And, a Los Angeles-based real-estate company announced last month that it will use 3D printed pre-fab modules to erect 10 built-to-rent homes at three southern California sites. The agency has partnered with a company that takes only one day to print each module. And, the 3D company added it already is compiling a months-long waiting list for orders.
That news gets even better when we learn that 60% of the printing materials used in the modules is a recycled plastic most often found in bottles and food packaging, which bolsters the ecological benefits of 3D printing.
In addition, several on-site 3D construction companies are using concrete mixtures that include various nearby waste materials.
Skeptics continue to doubt the viability of 3D printed homes, but doubts fade with the completion of each project. And, the worldwide robot construction market is projected to grow nearly 20% during the next five years.
A major endorsement of 3D printed homes came from Habitat for Humanity, the largest not-for-profit home builder. In 2021, it contracted for a 1,200-square-foot Virginia home that was 3D printed in just under 30 hours. A second, 1,700-square-feet, was built in Arizona.
And, small communities are optimistically turning to 3D house printing.
The rural community of John Day, Oregon, scheduled 12 this year and a total of 100 over the next five years.
Hamburg, Iowa, is planning 25 to 35 residential units to attract young families as part of a 3D affordable housing project.
And the 3D printing company Alquist announced plans to build 200 homes over the next four to five years in the Pulaski, Virginia, area — a growing hub of manufacturing and tech jobs.
So, I suspect home building will become more exciting, faster, and cheaper during the next couple years as 3D printed homes become fashionable — maybe including the Roaring Fork Valley.
Darrell Berkheimer is a retired California journalist whose career spans nearly 60 years. He filled editor positions with newspapers in Pennsylvania, Utah, Georgia, Texas, and New Mexico. He also is the author of several essays books. Contact him at email@example.com.