Building houses has always involved digital solutions — in the form of the skilled fingers of craftsmen. Recently, fintechs have joined in, simplifying the mortgage process, disrupting the way properties are bought and sold, and even selling condominiums in homes.
Now technology has staged a more drastic intervention. American start-ups are the pioneers of 3D printing entire houses. A giant printhead resembling the nozzle of a piping bag blasts concrete to build entire walls layered and in situ.
It’s oddly compelling to watch. But can it make a real difference to housing affordability in the United States, as developers claim?
High prices and mortgage rates have made home ownership out of reach for many. The most recent reading for the Housing Affordability Index, as measured by the National Association of Realtors, was 91.3, down from 143 a year ago and the lowest reading since September 1985. An index below 100 means that a family with the median income earned too little. afford a house at the median price
House printers say their method is faster and cheaper than traditional construction, which builds houses on site using wooden frames. The increased speed could help solve severe housing shortages in the United States, especially for low-income housing. This could reduce overcrowding, evictions and homelessness.
The printing business is in its infancy. One of the biggest companies – Mighty Buildings – has only completed and delivered 19 homes to date. He expects the number to top 500 by the end of 2024.
Interest is growing. Another company, ICON, is working with US builder Lennar to build 100 3D-printed homes near Austin. Venture capital groups invested nearly $400 million in 3D building construction companies in 2022, according to PitchBook. That’s not so much, but still eight times more than was raised in the previous five years combined.
While exciting to watch, such home 3D printing can only do so much to improve affordability. Land prices generally represent the bulk of the cost of a development. And it’s not clear that 3D printing homes, with its complicated building platforms, would work in densely populated urban areas.
This technology is full of promise. But this lies above all in its ability to create varied buildings at low cost. In-house printing could replace traditional factory prefabrication in terms of cheapness and flexibility. It cannot, on its own, solve the housing crisis in the United States.
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