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The process of building a house today looks a lot like it did 200 years ago. Construction workers lay out walls brick by brick, board by board, until the entire house is complete. The process takes months and relies on skilled builders every step of the way.
A new technology, called 3D printing , promises to completely change the way we approach construction. Instead of months, building a new home could take hours. Instead of requiring teams of construction workers, a single person could build a house on their own.
To understand how 3D printing works, it’s helpful to think about how the magazine in front of you was printed. First, someone typed some words on a computer, creating a blueprint for what to print. Then a fully automated print head moved back and forth across the page according to that blueprint, laying down ink as it went.
3D printing works similarly. But the things you design and print can literally jump off the page. That’s because 3D printers lay down materials like molten plastic or metal instead of ink. These materials harden as they cool, making it possible to print multiple layers on top of one another. As the print head moves back and forth depositing layers over and over again, objects gradually grow upwards from the print surface.
This type of printing opens a whole world of possibilities. You can use 3D printing to create a plate or bowl made out of plastic at home. You can also use it to build something more advanced, like a bicycle or a custom pair of shoes. Many companies are now using this technology to build medical devices, car parts, custom jewelry, and even parts for spaceships and satellites. With a printing material like concrete and a big enough printer, an entire house can appear right in front of you seemingly out of thin air.
In fact, there are already hundreds of 3D printed homes around the world. One community in Mexico includes more than 200 3D printed houses made out of concrete. Each house took less than a day to build and is sturdy enough to withstand an earthquake.
The impact of 3D printed homes could be enormous. 3D printed homes cost around half as much as new homes built with traditional construction methods. Cheaper homes make it easier for more people to move to cities. Affordable 3D printed houses could also reduce inequality and eliminate homelessness entirely.
Still, there is a potential catch to 3D printing houses. The process of producing concrete releases greenhouse gases . So, creating millions of new concrete homes could end up contributing to climate change.
The good news is that there are now several companies working to create eco-friendly concrete that stores greenhouse gases instead of releasing them. Other companies are using different materials to 3D print homes. For example, in Italy, one new home was printed using soil as the building material. In the long run, 3D printed homes could end up playing a major role in fighting climate change.
For now, there are still only a handful of 3D printed homes in the US. But that could change quickly. Neighborhoods made entirely of 3D printed houses are planned in Texas and California. They could be ready for move-in as soon as this year. If those projects succeed, 3D printed homes in crowded cities like New York, San Francisco, and Seattle are likely to follow.
By the time you’re ready to buy a house of your own, 3D printed homes may be everywhere. It’s possible you could even design your dream home, print it, and move in—all in a single day.
3D printing—The process of creating a physical, 3-dimensional object based on a digital blueprint.
Concrete—A very strong building material made up of sand and chemicals that are heated together.
Greenhouse gases—Carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat in Earth’s atmosphere and contribute to climate change.
Print head—The part of a traditional or 3D printer that moves around and lays down material such as ink, plastic, or concrete.
Bowman S, Meyers J, Southwood B. 2021. The housing theory of everything. Works in Progress. https://www.worksinprogress.co/issue/the-housing-theory-of-everything/.
Holland O. 2021. World’s largest 3D-printed neighborhood to break ground in Texas. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/icon-3d-printed-homes-austin/index.html.