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3D Printing Will Make the Construction Industry More Sustainable

It could help with housing affordability, too.

David Silverberg

David Silverberg

The Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Lab at the University of Waterloo. Image: University of Waterloo

The era of 3D printing has evolved faster than a Japanese bullet train. This technology fits with the construction industry's desire to be more sustainable and efficient by "creating only the amount of materials needed, cutting down on waste, and also on unnecessary labour costs," according to Vincent Hui, the associate chair of Architectural Science at Ryerson University. It could ultimately make homes more affordable, too.

We've already seen movement in the 3D-printed-home space. Look at the past three years: In March 2017, Dubai construction firm Cazza said it plans to build the world's first 3D-printed skyscraper by 2020, although construction has yet to begin. Earlier this year, San Francisco startup Apis Cor announced it used 3D printing tech to build a house's components in Russia within 24 hours. In Canada, a new 3D printing lab at the University of Waterloo recently received almost $9 million in provincial funding, making it the largest academic 3D lab in the country.

A conceptual model of Cazza's Dubai skyscraper made via 3D-printed materials. Image: Cazza
A conceptual model of Cazza's Dubai skyscraper made via 3D-printed materials. image: Cazza.

For the uninitiated, 3D printing works by creating an entire object via thousands of tiny little slices, from the bottom-up, slice by slice. Tiny layers then stick together to form a solid object. Each layer can be complex, based on what the user wants customized, so 3D printer nozzles can spit out moving parts such as hinges and wheels as part of the same object.

Typically, concrete extrusions are used for building materials. Advanced engineering applications may use metal-based materials, like titanium and steel, but "simply for durability and accessibility, current architectural practice is more amenable to concrete-based printing," Hui explained.

The ability to 3D print city structures comes at a crucial time for engineers, architects and construction managers, according to Hui. "There needs to be some change in the inertia-laden construction industry. This industry needs to innovative and welcome new technologies," he said. Hui went on to explain that 3D printing tech has evolved sufficiently to help construction companies develop materials that are environmentally friendly, cost-effective and timely.

"Steel, concrete and wood are the most common building materials, and they all have an ecological impact," Hui noted. Concrete, for example, "has limited potential for renewal and reuse." Some reports estimate that up to five percent of the worldwide total of CO2 emissions is caused by cement production alone.

Fans of 3D printing also say it could make housing more affordable, since home construction can be so costly for builders and owners. Sarah Leighton, the public relations manager for Cazza, the Dubai firm with its eyes set on building the 2020 skyscraper, predicted that "3D printing will greatly affect countries where there are housing shortages or a lack of affordable housing."

Affordability is top of mind, exemplified by the buzz around San Francisco startup Apis Cor's 3D-printed home. The 400-square-foot home, built in March 2017, cost $10,000 US. Sure, it's a tiny one-story structure, but we've all come across condo apartments that size costing at least $200,000.

Despite these apparent benefits, the technology still has its critics. In 2016, Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski said many consumer desires are buoyed by science fiction, which in this case had many believing 3D-printing was a breakthrough process to turn our dreams into a tangible reality.

Ryerson architectural science professor Vincent Hui holding 3D-printed material. Image: William Putz.

He argued to reporters: "Consumers prefer things pre-composed for us. They prefer to buy that end product instead of fiddle with each bit. It's why we still go to restaurants instead of cooking for ourselves all the time."

An entire home can't easily be born out of a printer nozzle, but rather its components such as concrete, corrugated fillers, and domes made out of specialized foam.

John Stephenson, president of the Ontario Association of Architects, views 3D printing's potential as a "technology that will drive design, and the freedom afforded by 3D printing could open lots of possibilities."

Hui cautioned that there's a need to be practical about the many components required in building homes, such as the electrical and plumbing, which 3D printing can't replace today. "It's not the magic of 'set it and forget it'," he said, "because buildings take a tremendous amount of effort to construct."

3D printing will be an additional tool the construction industry as opposed to replacing it wholesale. Bringing another layer of sustainability is appealing in a sector in sore need of as many doses of enviro-friendliness as it can absorb. We may not soon see that 3D-printer-in-every-garage vision, but sooner than you think, the door you open to your new home could be spat out from a cartridge nozzle run by futurists with an eye to engineering.