Printing homes as a solution to housing inequality?

Social housing is urgently needed in many countries. But how can we provide affordable housing in low-income environments? 3D printing offers a potential solution for housing inequality.

In March 2021, Germany’s first 3D printed house in Beckum is set to be completed. In China, Russia and many other countries, first trial neighbourhoods consisting exclusively of 3D printed houses are starting to mushroom. In Mexico’s federal state of Tabasco, a non-profit organisation has built several complete homes using 3D printing. This works with a combination of cement and advanced additives. The mixture is printed from a huge printer that layers the material. Within days, a whole house can be printed.

“Within days, a whole house can be printed.”

Advantages of 3D printing houses seem convincing: the material is very resistant, withstands even extreme climatic conditions and can be manufactured anywhere in the world. Completion of a 3D printed house is possible faster and at a much lower price than a traditional house. Furthermore, the impact on the environment is much lower when 3D printing a home (up to 50 per cent less CO2 emissions compared to a traditional construction process), since construction is quick, almost silent and less resource-intensive. This reduces costs and waste. But perhaps most importantly, printing homes is hailed by some as a solution to housing inequality.

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“Printing homes is hailed by some as a solution to housing inequality.”

The hope and expectation is that modern printers will be able to provide affordable, decent housing in poor communities, help the homeless, and enable rapid responses after environmental disasters. In Tabasco, about 50 families with an income of less than 3 USD a day now live in 3D printed houses that are earthquake-proof. The beneficiaries were able to upgrade from the makeshift huts they resided in before, and now have two bedrooms, a living room, and a bathroom in each house. Is this a real possibility also for larger-scale products? Social housing by definition means affordable housing. It is usually rationed in order to award it only to those with a housing need. Typically, it is state or non-profit organisations that provide social housing.

“Technology cannot solve every problem.”

So far, 3D printed homes have mostly been built by private housing developers. The relatively new technology is not yet accessible to the state or to non-profit organisations with low financial strength, which mostly seems due to lacking funds and experiences in this area. At the same time, the built environment alone is not a solution for the quality or liveability of a city. Even if printing social housing for the masses were technically feasible today, the technology cannot solve every problem. For example, factors such as successful public spaces, eco-friendly and people-friendly mobility, short routes, safety and reduced waste in the urban environment are crucial to improving our cities.

“Manufacturing of 3D houses in the hands of local communities.”

Therefore, a successful integration of 3D printing technologies into social housing efforts requires an innovative and holistic approach. The cooperation between local authorities, non-profit organisations and the potential recipients is key in order to work out how the provision of affordable, stable, eco-friendly and adequate housing solutions could work. Grants for entire neighbourhoods that allocate space for public space design are desirable. An interesting approach is that of the fabricationcity that places the manufacturing of 3D houses in the hands of local communities. This kind of a project was launched in 2011 by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, the Fab Foundation and the Barcelona City Council. The fabrication city starts off by giving local makers access to fabrication labs, where they learn how to 3D print houses.

“We need to foster acceptance for 3D printing.”

In these “incubators”, future entrepreneurs are trained. In addition to their new skills, they also learn how to design for a neighbourhood and are invited to use participatory processes in order to include other residents in the planning process. Ideally, this results in a truly participatory co-creation of housing. To make the fabrication city a reality, we need to foster acceptance for 3D printing. This requires more analysis of the experience of houses and structures that have already been printed. The ambitious dream of printing social housing also requires community education, funding and planning permissions, integrated plans for upgrading urban environments around the social housing projects, and of course the necessary technology and materials at affordable prices. Until it ispossible to make all of these ingredients available, 3D printed social housing on a large scale will be stuck in the printer queue.

LAURA VON PUTTKAMER is an urban development specialist from Germany. She has a Master’s degree in Global Urban Development and Planning from The University of Manchester and currently lives in Mexico City. She blogs for parcitypatory.org.

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This opinion piece is from topos 114. Read more from that issue on the topic of fringes.