Can Robots Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis?

Shawna Chen

Apr 05, 2021

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At first glance, the video is not all that exciting—a robot arm squeezes out layers of concrete over and over again. But as the layers accumulate upward and the outline of a structure emerges, it becomes clear that this robot is building a house and doing it with astonishing speed. The video, made in 2017 by a company called Apis Cor outside Moscow, caused a sensation. A $10,000 house put up in a day?!? It was viewed 75 million times, a signal of the excitement created when a revolutionary technology, in this case 3D printing, meets one of the most conventional manufacturing industries.

Two years later, even as multiple companies such as ICON and MudBots vie to establish themselves as makers of 3D-printed homes, a market has not yet emerged that matches the changes 3D printing has brought to everything from fashion to medical devices. The desire to create that impact remains intense, however.

The technology, after all, would seem to have wide-ranging appeal to potential customers: radically lower costs thanks to savings on labor and materials, and a construction window measured in weeks (or even days) rather than months. Some have speculated it could be the solution to the country’s affordable housing crisis by providing a quick infusion of lower-priced homes in areas starved for housing inventory.

Some affordable housing experts, however, caution that the technology is not a panacea.

3D-printed homes won’t solve the problem of homelessness, but they are another “tool in the toolbox for housing development,” said Dee Walsh, chief officer of strategic development for the national affordable-housing nonprofit Mercy Housing, based in Denver.

“The cost to build housing and the amount of subsidy or low-cost financing available to make it affordable—there’s a gap there,” Walsh said. “We don’t have enough subsidy and soft financing to make traditional housing affordable. … The low markets are probably around $150,000 to $200,000 a unit; that would be in the Southeast U.S. In California, you’re looking at between $600,000 and $700,000 a unit to build an apartment. Clearly that’s not an affordable price for most folks.” That’s where 3D-printed houses come in.

While the words “3D-printed home” have understandably caught attention, a better term is additive manufacturing, says Bradley Rothenberg. Rothenberg is the CEO of nTopology, a software engineering company focused on enabling digital manufacturing. The key component that defines 3D-printing is the aspect of digital manufacturing, which builds from a 3D-solid model rather than from drawings. This kind of technology, Rothenberg said, is a “game changer.”

As with any technology, however, it has both limitations and potential. A net positive is less wasted material, which is more efficient and more cost-effective. On the flip side, it’s difficult to tell how the parts will perform. “It’ll take years to be able to tell,” Rothenberg said.

One company, Sunconomy, is currently building a house in Austin, Texas, with its version of 3D-printing technology that uses a mobile platform to spray geopolymer concrete onto pre-installed insulation panels. The concrete material is fireproof and repels water, says CEO Larry Haines, and can withstand winds of up to 220 mph.

Sunconomy’s method doesn’t resemble the multilayered technique in the Apis Cor video, but Haines says his goal is to build a home that can be certified for occupancy. Ultimately, he expects to be able to build a complete home in 10 to 14 days, depending on the home’s size, at a retail price of $100 to $160 per square foot. This lower cost and shorter construction timetable, he said, would be a boon for towns devastated by natural disasters such as the wildfires in California.

“There’s a lot of people right now that need housing out of Hurricane Michael, out in Northern California, along the Gulf Coast where we live in Texas. There are still whole cities or towns decimated from Hurricane Harvey a year ago,” Haines said. “That’s the biggest challenge; it’s not whether I can pump concrete through hose. ... It’s: ‘Can I build somebody’s house to get them back into a lifestyle they’re used to?’”

“We’re going to change the industry,” Haines added. “So we’re pretty excited about it.”


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This article is written by Shawna Chen
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