3-D Printed Houses?

As interest in the possibilities of 3-D printing grows, UCLA architecture students have created a proof-of-concept 3-D printed house. It’s touted, as other 3-D projects have been, as a possible low-cost answer to housing shortages. Certainly, for budget-conscious seniors, it’s an intriguing possibility. Or is it?

UCLA’s prototype is a claustrophobic, 50-square foot structure that consists of two shell-like halves that close together to form a living space with everything from bed to bathroom. It was designed with young professionals in mind; the notion of wheelchair use seems not to have occurred to anyone.

It joins a short, but growing list of printed house projects, including one from cross-town rival USC. The USC approach proposes layering concrete to form houses. A FAQ on their site says that once the technology hits the market it should be possible to build a 2,400 square foot house in less than 24 hours. It also says, “We hope to see entry-level construction models on the market within one to two years.”

A Chinese firm claims to have already built ten houses using a similar process. While it looks convincing, we wonder about the ultimate quality and durability, given China’s notorious history of construction standards and code enforcement. A Dutch effort is currently building a house from a plant-based plastic.

The UCLA house, made in conjunction with 3-D printing pioneers Voxeljet, is a giant piece of sand casting, and thus a 21st century update of a manufacturing method that goes back at least as far as ancient Babylonia.

Given all of this, as much as we’d like to join in the general enthusiasm about what 3-D printing could mean for senior housing, for example, printable age-in-place bathrooms, in the end, we can’t help but be a little skeptical.

According to Voxeljet, the printing costs were “approximately EUR 60,000.” At today’s exchange rate, that’s over 81,000 dollars. Meanwhile, a quick Google search shows that currently you can buy a brand new, four-bedroom, two-bath manufactured home on sale for a little over 72k. (Although given some of the comments on the company’s YouTube page, you should thoroughly research such a purchase.)

Obviously, given economies of scale, future projects will surely be less than $1600 per square foot, but that’s a fairly daunting start-up cost.

The utopian dreams of 3-D printing enthusiasts are reminding us a little too much of Montreal’s poured concrete Habitat, design star of Canada’s Expo 67. It too was touted in its day as a cheap way to create comfortable, low-cost housing. Instead, it’s become a sought-after luxury property.

Academic Prototype:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yv-IWdSdns]

Current state-of-the-art:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDU3s9Kf0HY#t=14]