WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The way we build homes and buildings is changing, and 3D printing offers companies a way to build more spectacular buildings faster and cheaper.
Over the past year or so I’ve written about the first 3D printed barracks, communities, houses, and even boats, and even just a few years ago the idea of any of these things being spit out by a 3D printer would’ve sounded absurd to most people. But while the world’s tallest 3D printed building has been standing in Suzhou, China since 2015, it now has a rival of sorts in the form of the world’s biggest 3D printed building which was recently completed in Dubai.
The Suzhou building, which is a five story apartment complex, is taller, the 31 foot tall Dubai building is larger by volume at 6,900 square feet, and its purpose is a bit less exciting than its construction since it’ll be used for administrative work by the Dubai Municipality.
The city collaborated on the building with Boston based 3D printing construction company Apis Cor, who’ve now printed several buildings and communities around the world including a house in Russia that went up in less than a day. And talk about contrasting climates – the Russia house was printed in the dead of winter, requiring a heated tent to be put up around the entire building site.
In Dubai, meanwhile, average temperatures are in the 90 to100 degree Farenheit range for several months a year, and you might think a giant air conditioned tent would be in order but the construction was completed in the open with no controls over temperature or humidity.
Most 3D printed houses, at around 500 square feet, are small enough to be constructed by a printer that moves around on a track. But there’s not yet a printer in existence that can build a 6,900 square foot structure in one go, even though there have been several advances in developing 3D printing robots that print in swarms, so the printer used on this project was moved around by a crane to complete the various segments of the building, pumping out successive layers of a gypsum-based mixture.
The building has a traditional foundation made of pre-cast concrete, and it’s reinforced with concrete and rebar. Once the walls were all printed contractors added the roof and windows.
The municipal building will also soon be in good company. Dubai has a target to make a quarter of its buildings 3D printed by 2030 and the government believes this will cut costs in various sectors and restructure the labour market. It also estimates that reaching the 25 percent 3D printed building goal will reduce labor demand by 70 percent, cut costs by 90 percent, and reduce the time it takes to build by 80 percent.
There’s certainly a need for quick, cheap, not shoddy ways to build things too. Demand for affordable housing is increasing as populations grow and a higher percentage of people gravitate to big cities. A recent Economist cover story went so far as to call home ownership “one of the rich world’s most serious and longest-running economic failures.” A lack of building in and near big cities, the article goes on to say, is the root cause of that failure, and high housing costs have fuelled generational and geographic inequality.
3D printing could provide a low-cost solution for adding new real estate in high-demand areas. A major caveat, though, is that the areas where housing is most in demand are already densely populated and densely built. Until 3D printing can build taller, it may not be as helpful as we’d like to think.
Next Apis Cor is planning to build a demo house in the US this year as a feasibility study. It will be a one-story, single-family home, but technology and capitalism have a way of shaping themselves to meet the market’s demands, and of doing so by increasingly efficient and cost-effective means. My guess is it’s only a matter of time, and not too much of it, before new records for big and tall 3D printed buildings are set , broken, and set again as the trend takes hold around the world at an ever accelerating rate.