The Future of “Sanctuary”: How 3D Printing is Flipping the Housing Market

This month’s feature article is provided by GPA Sponsor, CPL. Founded in 1975, CPL is a 450-person multi-disciplined architecture, engineering and planning firm offering inspiring design services and enriching communities in 19 cities across five states. CPL specializes in the Healthcare, Transportation, Community, and Academic sectors – providing planning, architecture, interior design, civil engineering, buildings and structural engineering, landscape architecture and 3D/virtual design services to a host of public and private clients. Visit their website to learn more.

The United States’ housing market falls nearly 3.8 million homes short of meeting current housing demand, according to mortgage giant Freddie Mac, and Americans looking to purchase “entry-level” single-family homes are feeling the brunt of the impact. The nation saw only 65,000 new entry-level homes constructed in 2020 – an 80% decrease from the number of starter homes built throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

Major obstacles hindering the housing supply, as reported by the National Association of Home Builders, include the cost and availability of skilled construction labor (a significant issue that plagues 87% of builders) and the rising price of building materials (faced by 69% of builders). Fortunately, additive manufacturing (AM) – also known as 3D printing – presents an alternative solution to these exhaustive labor and material shortages. 

A printed home is produced in two stages. During the first stage, a 3D printer (such as the Vulcan II) prepares a home’s foundation slab and interior/exterior walls by extruding and layering proprietary concrete upon a chosen site. The home’s layering is guided by design software; approximately 47% of the structure is fabricated during this step. In the second stage, the remaining internal systems (plumbing, electrical, etc.) are manually installed. 

The country’s first traditionally-sized printed home to receive a certificate of occupancy (located in Riverhead, NY) is, as of the date of this article, listed for sale on Zillow for $299,999. The price is only half the average cost of a new home in the area, and according to developer SQ4D, the house took just 48 hours to build and cost a mere $20,000 using AM technology – a stark contrast from conventional construction methods, which would have cost $150,000 and taken more than two months to complete. 

Innovative construction materials and practices, such as self-healing concrete, modular bamboo, bioplastics, the implementation of 3D printing and other construction methods, are expected to continue to grow in popularity to combat ongoing disruptions to the housing sector. Planners can play a vital role in introducing the general public to these emerging technologies by updating land use regulations, building codes, and permitting processes to ensure resultant structures are as safe and aesthetically compatible with their communities as possible. 

As forward-looking printed communities in Austin, TX, and other locations come to fruition, it becomes increasingly clear that cities and counties no longer have to choose between affordability and sustainability. By leveraging new tools and integrating the right regulatory guidance, a single project can provide both, paving a new, more equitable path for the next generation of homebuyers.