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Printing Cities

Could 3D printers solve the housing crisis

28Aug

Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press is heralded as a defining moment in human history, bringing the written word to millions around the world for whom education would have been otherwise impossible. Colorado-born Chuck Hull may be less well known, but by inventing the 3D printer, he could be responsible for the solution of an even greater number of problems.

One of these is the housing crisis being seen around the world. There is almost one billion people across the world currently living in slums according to UN-HABITAT. It is also a major issue in developed nations such as the UK, where houses are now prohibitively expensive for many. This is largely due to a lack of supply, with successive governments having failed to tackle the issue. Thanks to a revolution in 3D printed houses, however, they may no longer have an excuse to twiddle their thumbs.

A company named WinSun announced last year that it had built 10 3D printed houses in just one day, at a reported cost per building of just $5,000. WinSun has even managed to successfully 3D print a five-storey apartment building and a 1,100 square metre villa from a special print material that uses a blend of ground construction and industrial waste like glass and tailings, around a base of quick-drying cement mixed with a special hardening agent. This material is coursed through a printer that is 150 metres long.

This process saves between 30% and 60% of construction waste, and can decrease production times by between 50% and 70%. It can reduce labour costs by between 50% and 80%, and also means that construction workers are at less risk of coming into contact with hazardous materials. The speed and low cost doesn’t just make them idea for slums, it could also provide a great help providing housing after a disaster.

3D printing houses does not just save costs though, it also allows architects to be more innovative with their designs, integrating new geometries into their designs such as shapes inspired by nature. Dutch architect Janjaap Ruijssenaars has unveiled designs for a 3D-printed house made from layers of printed sand which takes the form of a continuous looping Möbius strip, rising out of the ground before folding back on itself in a seamless undulating band. In the US, one company, Branch, is printing houses in a way that emphasizes both speed and design. They are printing walls using a simple lightweight scaffolding onto which denser materials are added, increasing the strength and integrity of the overall structure, which the Branch team claims makes them stronger than traditional stud walls. The process is far slow that WinSun’s - producing 20 houses a year in its existing manufacturing facility - but the houses are far more attractive.

WinSum is already exporting its houses around the world. The Egyptian government has signed a deal for 20,000 single-storey dwellings in the desert, and the firm is looking to set up 3D printer plants in 20 countries in the next few years, including Britain and France. How long it is before they take off in earnest is unclear, and what it means for the construction industry is unclear, but the need is there, and it is surely a matter of time before we start to see entire printed cities rising up.

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