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By: Kendall Jones on August 7, 2020

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The Promise of 3D Printed Buildings

Construction Technology

3D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing, has been making impressive advancements in a number of industries from manufacturing to medicine over the past few years. The construction industry hasn’t been immune to the potential benefits that 3D printing technology promises.

Earlier this week at the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals, construction technology start-up ICON and non-profit New Story revealed a 3D-printed house they built $10,000 using ICON’s Vulcan printer. They claim this is the first permitted and code compliant home in the U.S. built using 3D printing.

ICON’s Vulcan printer can print a 650-square-foot house onsite in 12 to 24 hours using a concrete mixture to build walls layer by layer, leaving openings for windows and doors to be installed once the concrete has set. The windows, roof, doors, plumbing and electrical are all installed once the printing has been completed.

The model they unveiled at SXSW will be used as an office and proof-of-concept as they work to refine their process. As they further develop and test materials, they hope to bring the costs down to around $4,000 and could possibly cut the build time down to six hours. As part of their partnership with New Story, they plan to build 100 homes in El Salvador next year to address their goal of providing housing solutions to underdeveloped communities around the world.

ICON is one of a number of start-ups that have popped up in the last several years hoping to make 3D printed buildings a reality. Companies like Apis Cor, Branch Technology, CyBe, Cazza, XtreeE and 3D Printhuset, just to name a few, have all gotten into the 3D construction printing game.

They join pioneers like Contour Crafting, D-Shape and DUS Architects along with a number of research institutions who have all been working for years to make 3D construction printing a viable option for the construction industry.

Finding the Right Mix

3D construction printing is still very much an emerging technology. Most of the 3D printed buildings that have been produced have been one-offs used to demonstrate the viability of the technology. Currently, there are only a handful of 3D printed buildings that have been built for daily use or occupancy. Winsun has built some bus stop shelters and public restrooms in China. There’s also an office building in Dubai and a residence in Russia.

3D Printhuset completed their Building on Demand (BOD), a hotel office in Copenhagen, last year. The office was permitted built to meet the European Union’s strict building codes. The concrete mixture includes recycled tiles and sand to make the material more environmentally friendly.

The two major challenges in perfecting 3D construction printing lie in the material and the machine. Regardless of whether you are printing onsite or offsite, the construction printer needs to be able to continuously and uniformly extrude each layer of the material.

Gantry-style printers and multi-axis autonomous machines are two of the more popular methods for creating 3D printers for construction. For onsite construction, they need to be easy to set up and take down once printing is completed and they need to be able to maneuver the construction site without an interruption in their printing.

The second major challenge is formulating the right mixture for the materials being printed. The material, in most cases some type of concrete mixture, needs to be strong enough or dry quickly enough to support the weight of each subsequent layer without falling over.

Developers of 3D printed buildings need to ensure that the material will set and cure as expected in the climate and conditions where the buildings are being printed. There’s also the question of durability, scalability and lifecycle of the building, not to mention getting building codes changed to allow permits to be issued for construction.

The International Code Council (ICC) is one of the participating organizations working with America Makes and ANSI’s Additive Manufacturing Standardization Collaborative to develop a roadmap for standards and specifications for the use of 3D printing across a wide range of industries, construction included. This will hopefully lead to the ICC adopting building codes for 3D printed buildings.

The Benefits of 3D Printed Buildings

Some of the benefits promised from 3D printing buildings includes shorter construction times and reduced costs compared to traditional construction methods. It also creates less waste than conventional construction methods. The use of bioplastics or concrete made with recycled materials could make the building materials more environmentally friendly.

Another benefit of 3D printing is the endless possibilities it opens up for the design and look of a building. Architects would only be limited by their own imagination when it comes to building design using 3D printing technology.

The speed that 3D printers can build an entire structure makes it ideal for providing disaster relief housing. The low costs promised could be a major benefit to developers of affordable housing. There’s even research being conducted for using 3D construction printing for space exploration, using local materials to build structures on the moon and Mars.

Based on all the progress being made in the field of 3D construction printing, it appears that it will be a viable and marketable construction method in just a few short years.

About Kendall Jones

Kendall Jones is the Editor in Chief at ConstructConnect. He has been writing about the construction industry for years, covering a wide range of topics from safety and technology to industry news and operating insights.