Next Up in the Printer Queue: Social Housing

Affordable housing is a key challenge in many cities and one of the concerns addressed in Sustainable Development Goal 11. Especially in low-income environments, it is often hard to find housing that is both stable and affordable. However, there might be a solution: 3D printing is now at a level where entire houses can be printed within a few days with costs as low as 5,000 USD per house. Could this be a solution for housing inequality?

How do you print a house?

In California’s Coachella Valley, the first 3D-printed neighborhood of the country is set to be printed soon. A real estate group and a construction technology company have come together to offer affordable housing to middle-class people who normally could not afford to buy a home. But with 3D printing, up to 80% of the construction can be automated, reducing labor hours by up to 95% percent.

Massive 3D printers are in use all over the world. At the size of a small garage, they are able to print entire houses, using layering technology. A specific cement and adhesives mix results in material that hardens almost immediately but can also be molded into countless shapes such as a roof or an overhang for a house. The technology creates up to 10 times less waste than conventional construction, resulting in 50 percent less CO2 emissions.

In as little as 24 hours, entire houses can be constructed. They are not only cheap and sustainable but also very resistant, meaning they withstand even extreme climatic conditions and hazards such as earthquakes. Since the urban poor are often particularly affected by environmental risks, a robust and affordable 3D printed house could be an ideal solution.

3D models of cities are easy to print, but even entire houses can be printed in just a few days.

3D printing in practice – still stuck in the printer queue?

Countries such as Russia, China, and Mexico are already experimenting with printing affordable 3D houses that can be offered to poorer communities and to the homeless. In Mexico’s state Tabasco, a 3D printed community funded by an NGO and two construction companies has allowed 50 families that earn less than 3 USD a day to move into 3D printed houses that are earthquake-proof. Each house offers two bedrooms, a living room, and a bathroom, significantly improving space and security for families.  

But can 3D printing really be a larger-scale solution for the housing crisis that countless cities are experiencing? Social housing is affordable housing, meaning that it costs a third of a family’s income or less. Cheap houses such as those coming from a printer can indeed meet the affordability challenge. The question is who provides them. For now, private housing developers and non-profit organizations are interested in using the technology. There is little to no interest from governments, resulting in a lack of funds.

Even if these challenges can be overcome soon, there remains another worry: Affordable houses alone cannot tackle housing inequality. Liveable, attractive cities that can make sure that “no one is left behind” are something that cannot be printed or fabricated. Good public spaces, sustainable mobility, short routes, safety for women and children, and equal employment opportunities are crucial elements for better urban living.

This means that we will need a holistic approach which could consist of integrating 3D printing of social housing into other efforts to improve our cities. Local authorities, municipal governments, non-profit organizations, and for-profit companies need to work together in order to provide affordable, sustainable, and equal housing solutions, supporting not just houses but also entire neighborhoods.

Handing the printers over to local communities

A potential approach for integrating 3D printing into upgrading entire neighborhoods is Fab Labs. These urban laboratories became popular in 2011 by a project in Barcelona that focused on fabrication cities. Urban making is at the core of this idea, challenging cities to fabricate everything they produce themselves. All over the world, Fab Labs are popping up. They invite local makers to learn how to use 3D printers and many other fabrication technologies. A focus lies on communities: Fab Labs are open spaces that often offer community-driven workshops that go beyond technological issues – for example in Mexico City.

Participatory processes shape the planning in Fab Labs. New employment is created, and funded equipment is available to anyone. Ideally, this places the manufacturing of 3D houses in the hands of local communities eventually. The idea that locals know best how to upgrade their neighborhoods is powerful. While some external guidance can be helpful, 3D printing templates can indeed lead to a shift in affordable housing, making better cities a reality.

Hand in hand with community education, uncomplicated permission processes, plans for entire urban environments, and sufficient funding can lead to a much better quality of life in many cities. While 3D printed houses are currently still something new and adventurous, Fab Lab initiatives can help to bring their many opportunities to life.

Fab Labs invite the community to experiment with new technology, resulting in economic opportunities as well as ownership.