Building Homes for Those in Need and for the Future: How 3D Printing is Transforming the Housing Landscape
Housing is a basic human need, yet millions around the globe lack access to basic housing, or currently live in dire conditions. How can 3D printing transform access to housing around the globe?
Six months and tens of thousands of dollars. In approximate terms, that is the time and resources that one must commit to building a home. It is a process that has changed minimally, if at all in certain countries, over the past decade. For many individuals the upfront cost of a home is not a feasible economic outlay, resulting in over one hundred and fifty million individuals across the globe living in homelessness, and one in eight people living in urban slums . On the industrial side, the construction industry faces problems that include high accident rates, declining skilled workers, high costs, and low labor efficiency . With new technology and the rise of 3D printing, companies such as Contour Crafting are discovering ways to lower the time and more importantly the cost of building a home, and in the process significantly reducing the waste and environmental impact that results from the necessary and seemingly permanent home-building industry.
Using traditional building techniques, homes are built piecemeal, with specialized labor focusing on the various parts until each is completed and erected as a whole. This requires a multitude of skilled laborers, and significant time devoted to modifying and shaping each piece throughout the process. Utilizing the advent of additive manufacturing, Contour Crafting has developed a layered fabrication process, also known as solid free form fabrication or rapid prototyping that allows construction to occur by processing concrete layer by layer until the walls of a home are completed, followed by the windows and roof through traditional construction methods . This process reduces the cost of home construction to one-fifth of traditional cost and slashes the time to completion to a single day. Additive manufacturing has directly impacted product development for home construction in two critical ways. First, Contour Crafting is able to automatically construct a single house, or colony of houses with a single computer set-up . Traditionally, the scoping and “set-up” time for a home varies drastically by project and requires architectural and engineering skills, hiking up labor costs. Second, in traditional home development, manual construction of layers results in uneven surfaces that are later required to be smoothed and finished. The use of additive manufacturing allows for immediate creation of perfectly accurate and thus smooth surfaces, thereby dramatically reducing raw materials, labor, and time required for each part of a housing structure .
In the short term, Contour Crafting is working on perfecting the technology to roll-out 3D printers that can be easily deployed globally for home development. Creating a printer that can easily be taken apart and put back together, fit into a truck or storage container, and thus reach developing areas of the world that most desperately need quick and affordable housing is the critical task at hand . Under current plans the printers will only need one or two operators to set-up and oversee function on-site. Longer term, Contour Crafting is working on larger-scale technologies, bigger printers, and more flexible machinery that can be utilized by NASA and other space organizations to develop the future of housing on Mars and elsewhere in space.
An integral part of the success of the technology is dependent on the training of workers who can utilize the printer on-sight and equally important utilize the knowledge to understand the mechanics of the process in order to innovate and integrate this method properly in communities, especially when deployed in developing nations. I recommend the company spend significant thought and resources in developing the skills of the individuals that will be overseeing the printers in the field. Additionally, I recommend that management focus on the pressing need of housing before forging ahead with other items such as furniture, tiles, clothing. It is enticing to utilize the technology and computing ability with other materials, but housing is in crucial demand and a fundamental human need.
With Contour Crafting’s available technology that can reduce homelessness and spur rapid home recreation following natural disasters, how should the company think about licensing, leveraging, or donating the technology to municipal and other organizations that are well-placed to allocate to individuals in need?
How should Contour Crafting optimize between time spent driving innovation for housing on Earth to meet current needs vs. planning for the future in developing the optimal technology for 3D printing of homes in space?
 Perhach, Paulette (2016). “Future House: 3-D Printed and Ready to Fly.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 July 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/us/future-house-3-d-printed-and-ready-to-fly.html.
 Warszawski, A., and Navon, R. (1998) “Implementation of robotics in buildings: current status and future prospects,” Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, Vol.124, No.1, pp. 31-41.
 Khoshnevis, B., et al (2001). Automated Construction Using Contour Crafting. Industrial and Systems Engineering, University of Southern California, sffsymposium.engr.utexas.edu/Manuscripts/2001/2001-56-Khoshnevis.pdf.
 Weinstein, David, and Peter Nawara (2015). “Determining the Applicability of 3D Concrete Construction (Contour Crafting) of Low Income Houses in Select Countries.” Cornell Real Estate Review, vol. 13, no. 11, 1 June 2015.
 Scott, Clare (2017). “Contour Crafting Prepares for Series Production of Robotic Construction 3D Printers.” 3DPrint.Com | The Voice of 3D Printing / Additive Manufacturing, 22 June 2017, 3dprint.com/178100/contour-crafting-series-production/.
Student comments on Building Homes for Those in Need and for the Future: How 3D Printing is Transforming the Housing Landscape
While I believe that humans will colonize space at some point in our lifetime, I don’t believe that we’re very close to that point yet. As a result, it would be unwise for Contour – from both an economic and human perspective – to devote many, if any, resources to projects relating to space. As it stands, billions of people are either experiencing homelessness or are living in slums. The imperative is to address this need immediately. If the company is unwilling to do so on its own terms, I would hope and expect the government to provide monetary incentives for Contour to do so.
This is incredible! Not only does Contour Crafting reduce the cost to build a home by 1/5 and completes the process in ~1 day, it also reduces waste, minimizes accidents at home construction sites, and limits imperfections in the structure that would require more capital and time to fix in the future . As with most other 3D printing applications, a concern is the 10.3 million construction jobs in the US and more abroad that will be displaced with jobs that require higher education and engineering expertise.  This is a big concern given rising inequality in the US and beyond.  Overall, I think that this is an amazing invention and a great application of 3D printing. I do wonder how expensive the machines are to produce and what the economics are to Contour Crafting. In any case, the government should be willing to subside some of the costs given the extreme social and environmental benefit. Thank you for posting!
This is a fascinating topic. To your question on investing in development for space vs. on Earth, in some ways this feels like the NASA debate; to what extent should we be focused on solving our current problems at hand vs. future problems and boundary-pushing exploration? In some ways, innovating for space could lead to deeper innovations that could actually help make the Earth homes more efficient or effective – i.e. shoot the moon, land among the stars (no pun intended). However, I would argue to your point that there is a more pressing need to utilize this 3D printing capability for areas on the planet that are in desperate need currently. I like your idea of expanding this technology to humanitarian organizations, particularly in emerging markets where impact could be greatest. My question then becomes how global is the idea, and how transportable across borders from a technological, people, and cultural standpoint?
Thanks for sharing such an exciting topic! I had no idea that companies like Contour Crafting existed and it seems like there is tremendous potential for them to make a real impact in developing countries. Exploring partnerships with governments might allow them to scale the technology faster and more adeptly in unfamiliar settings, but there are clearly some challenges they will need to work through related to cultural and language barriers. Contour Crafting should focus most of its resources on addressing the issue of homelessness around the world and a very small portion of efforts on more aspirational projects like building homes in space. One final concern that I have relates to the quality of a 3D-printed home. To maximize their impact, Contour Crafting should validate that the quality of their 3D-printed homes is comparable to traditionally constructed homes.
I’ve been keeping an eye on this exciting use of 3D printing for a little while as it’s got the potential to change home-building as we know it. I do find it interesting that companies like Contour Crafting or another I’ve been following called ICON (https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/12/17101856/3d-printed-housing-icon-shelter-housing-crisis) both look to building in space when there’s so much need for housing right here on earth. It makes sense that companies should have big aspirations and think big… as long as it doesn’t distract them from all the incredible opportunities they have in front of them right here. Being from Africa my mind quickly starts wondering how and when technological jumps like these will be available in areas with particularly dire need. One company that’s thinking a lot about this — to the extent of building the homes out of mud instead of concrete — is an Italian company called Wasp (https://www.iflscience.com/technology/3d-printer-uses-mud-natural-fibers-make-homes-impoverished-areas/). Mud and natural fibers are likely available in developing areas, cutting costs and making the homes even more affordable to build. All these companies can make a big difference! It’ll be exciting to see where this goes.
I had no idea that additive manufacturing was as advanced to make housing structures! One of my primary concerns with this application is how stable the end product would be. Given how nascent 3D printing still is, do we trust such a technology to create stable homes for us to live in? I am not sure how the general public would accept such innovation at this point in time. However, I see many benefits for this innovation, including elimination of wasted materials, reduced labor costs, shorter construction time–just to name a few. To your point on utilizing the technology to help individuals in need, I think this is the perfect place to begin deploying technology. You can build scale and begin penetrating the housing market by offering the service to those in need and are more agnostic to how the house is made.
This was a very compelling case for the value created in the construction and development business by a radical improvement in process facilitated by additive manufacturing. The author also did a great job of translating the value into meaningful outcomes like the reduction of homelessness.
A few issued I think remain unaddressed: 1- how do printers adapt to different site conditions and environments without creating redundant setup and and manual configuration requirements that defeat the purpose of automating the process, and 2- how will the design ecosystem respond to this new development given that it comes with a set of radical different construction and hence design restraints.
For more information on these challenges, I found the below to be a relatively informative and thoughtful source:
Wow! What an incredible topic and fascinating use of 3D printing! The opportunity Contour Crafting faces is so monumental, I almost get nervous about their focus. To answer your last question, I very strongly feel that the company should focus on housing on Earth before dedicating resources to building on other planets. Not only is the housing opportunity on Earth massive (and as you mentioned, in dire need in some countries), the infrastructure opportunity on this planet could be even larger . In order for Contour Crafting to take advantage of these opportunities though, quality assurance needs to be in the forefront of the company’s mind. Before reading your post, I had no idea that 3D printing had already gotten to the point in which stable structures can be produced (and from looking at the company website and online I am only seeing animations of the process, which leads me to think the trust element of these structures is still a ways away). Do you think that Contour Crafting will face an uphill battle from end consumers about the safety and reliability of 3D printed homes or do you think the timing and cost benefits will ease the acceptance? Do you think Contour Crafting should try and sell to individuals that can afford these homes or to governments providing these homes for people in dire circumstances?
Thank you so much for posting, this was extremely thought provoking!
Housing is such an exciting application of additive manufacturing. I believe that Contour Crafting should partner with both governments and non-profit organizations to scale their impact. The potential for this technology in developing countries is huge, as numerous non-profits work on increasing access to housing but have fallen short in their reach. The low cost of 3D printing a home is particularly remarkable, and governments would certainly be incentivized to partner with Contour Crafting for this reason. One issue that may arise is access to urban land; 68% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050 . Thus, Contour Crafting will need to consider how to apply 3D printing for housing in light of increased urbanization.
 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs. . Accessed 11/14/18.
Thanks for writing on this important topic. The potential of 3D printing to create housing more efficiently is exciting. However, I wonder if this technology is well positioned to address homelessness. Given that homeless populations are typically unemployed and/or have minimal economic means, who would fund such housing projects for the homeless? I understand that Contour is developing 3D printing capacity, but it is unclear to me how their business model will address homelessness while still achieving commercial sustainability.
Great topic and great essay. I know that NASA is investing heavily in 3D printing applications, including to print structures using local materials on the moon and mars, but I do not feel this is where Countor Crafting should focus because the applications and challenges are so different. I believe there are much larger opportunities in applications to the construction markets. The most promising potential in the short term would be in areas where quality standards are lower (3D printing limits the home material to cement) and where homes can be smaller. I don’t think they need to vertically integrate into home construction, but rather could just specialize in developing the technology and selling it to construction companies who can use it at scale. Great article!
To your question about how the company should think about licensing/leveraging/donating the technology to serve those in need, I think they’d have to monetize (instead of donate) given the large upfront investment this requires, and would envision a contracted licensing agreement with governments. I question though the feasibility of achieving profitability by going this route, given the limited budgets of municipal governments as well as the rate of adoption that they might face in working with governments. I do think there’s a broader affordable housing need that could be tackled, even if it’s more upmarket (and therefore serves less acute housing need) than the applications related to homelessness and natural disasters. To your second question, I think Contour Crafting will run into enough roadblocks and challenges as it is driving innovation for housing on Earth, and should focus almost entirely on that in the next 10 years; the iterative learning they will go through building processes that they can disseminate across the world will surely inform their approach more generally.
This is a great essay about one of the most exciting use of AM as of today! However I’m quite surprised about the cost effectiveness of this solution, which plays a key role to give access to accommodation to the homeless. Normally 3D printing simply works best in areas where customization is key. In this case, it seems that the construction would be rather standardized, thus 3D printing would have to compete against scale driven manufacturing process, which benefit from economy of scale. Therefore I believe that this solution could be excellent to fit specific demand but I doubt about his implementation’s success on a larger scale.
I think Contour Crafting should license its technology to big construction companies around the world because it will allow for much faster adoption globally. Convincing these potential partners should be relatively easy since there are a lot of clear benefits to be shared. Most countries are facing increasing labor cost and long construction time. Utilizing this technology will allow them to build houses much faster and cheaper. A portion of savings will be paid to Contour Crafting as licensing fee, creating win-win solutions. Consumers will also benefit from more affordable home pricing. In addition, I strongly believe that Contour Crafting should focus on meeting current needs on Earth as it is much more urgent with over one hundred and fifty million homeless people at the moment.
Well-written article and raises a fascinating application of 3D printing. As the author points out, 3D printing applied to the housing industry can enable reduced building costs through standardization and automation, which can lower the barrier to home ownership with tremendous societal benefits. At the same time, I believe 3D printing can impact the housing industry beyond just lower-cost homes, including enhancing home customization and improving building planning. For instance, one can better incorporate floor heating, piping, electric planning of outlets and wiring through 3D printing because of the huge amount of design and planning required; compared to traditional building, 3D printing centralizes design and building whereas a traditionally built home may have several sub-contractors, the pitfalls of which have been well-documented. Some questions remain to be answered: How will developers react to this kind of disruption? Does location/topography prevent the use of additive manufacturing techniques? What is needed to quickly scale this technology?
I didn’t really understand if the houses that are build using this technology can actually stand the test of time, how do they handle different climates? Does extreme sun and exposure, or intense cold for example make the houses that were build using this technology deteriorate much quicker? Because that will make this idea much less feasible in a lot of developing countries.
Regarding allocating resources to enhance the technology for development of 3D printed houses in space, I think this is bad idea. While it can lead to greater innovations in the long run, the amount of money that is needed to keep funding the project is huge. I would think that for a company perspective (especially a small one), it will be better to improve their technology to reduce their costs and work towards improving their bottom line.
Thanks for your article.
I’d like to focus my comment on the impact that this technology could have in developing countries, as you hinted. It’s really great to highlight organizations that strive to solve the toughest societal problems using break-through innovation. However, I see a long path before this technology can be adopted widely in under-served communities. We have not yet reached an adoption tipping point for 3d printing in developed countries, where capital is widely available to make even marginal improvements to profitability. To be really conscious about effective aid, we should consider the return on investment (ROI) of that aid. In this sense, I think Contour Crafting should be bold enough to find impactful ways of implementing this technology, beyond the first-response relief case that you point out. You could build more things beyond the house, anything from water pumps to toilets to beds! Although several challenges still remain, many organizations are rowing in the same direction . I think it’s promising!
I think this is one of the most exciting applications of 3D printing out there. Home construction is such a labor and time intensive endeavor, and 3D printing solves this problem incredibly well. I do, however, see some potentially negative implications for society should this technology become widespread.
First, 3D printed homes may have potentially devastating consequences on the economy. As home production becomes easier, home prices will also decrease. The vast majority of Americans have their wealth almost entirely tied into their homes – should real estate prices crumble, so would their wealth. This, in turn, might ruin lives and decrease overall consumption / spending and slow down the economy.
Moreover, as with all automation, 3D printing homes also threatens to eliminate an entire industry and class of jobs — hundreds and thousands of construction workers and others involved in the home construction industry might find themselves unemployed.
I wonder how the government might respond to 3D printing houses as well. Will certain cities artificially keep their prices high by enforcing pricing laws or regulating 3D house printing? Will there be a “prestige divide” between a 3D-printed house to a hand-constructed one, similar to that in the luxury goods industry? For example, a “handcrafted” handbag is seen as more intricate and valuable than one that is mass-produced.
How does the company think about deploying this technology in developing vs more developed nations? I’m curious how intensive the training infrastructure needs to be in order to train enough workers to effectively meet the demand. Where does the company want to prioritize its efforts on Earth – I think this is a more pressing question ahead of turning to the idea of space colonization, which will likely happen several generations from now.
Given the disruption potential of Contour’s existing technology, I’d suggest the management team to follow the following strategy: (i) license the technology to charge high-premium prices to the private sector; and (ii) donate the technology to government and municipalities when they face a natural disaster. The benefit of quick home recreation post-disaster can be crucial for millions of people around the world. By implementing that business model, Contour can not only be commercial and sustainable but also help alleviate some of the problems in society. Finally, I think this business model will be well-perceived by local governments and help with the overall scalability and expansion of the company.
Thank you for your illuminating article on the application of 3D printing to building houses
I question the logic of using 3D printing in the developing world to solve a housing shortage. Referencing source 1, you identify the lack of economic resources to purchase houses driving a shortage of housing in the developing world. Reference 2 identifies several factors in the house building industry that increase the cost of housing. How relevant is this source though as it is not specifically referencing house building in developing countries
I’d like to share my own experiences of low cost housing in developing countries. Developing countries often have lots of cheap labour available. Houses are built with local materials (picture mud bricks, huts, corrugated iron, wood) that is cheaper than building materials used in the developed world (steel, concrete). This 3D printing technology is offering to reduce the labour cost (already cheap), while using standard developed world materials (expensive). A relevant question for me is whether the technology and designs can be adapted to local conditions. This would use local materials that are cheaper and more readily available. But also, the design and construction. For example, naturally ventilated houses in hot countries, insulated buildings in cold countries.
This is an interesting discussion on a revolutionary application of AM. I find it interesting that the company is thinking about tackling such disparate problems — on the one hand, providing a pragmatic solution to a dire, current problem on Earth versus developing a technology that may be used for space colonization many decades from now. I’m not sure that the company should focus on both given that the interested stakeholders and presumably materials/types of structures would be entirely different for these two markets. Another interesting point you bring up is around whether the technology should be proprietary or licensed– theoretically, the blueprints for these new low-cost homes could be made available to non-profits and other public agencies which would then be able to print houses at cost. This would be a tremendous boon to increasing the availability of affordable housing around the world. Very exciting!
WOW – we truly live in the future.
Re: your first question about using this business and tech for social good, it seems to me that this is a natural application of the TOMS business model: buy one, give one. If you contract with CC to build your home, you are saving a significant amount on labor and other costs associated with delays; why not offer a “philanthropy option” where consumers can allocate, say, 50% of their savings back to CC to sponsor the building of homes for those in need? This would allow a broader reach for CC than you might think; I imagine that the homes to be given to the homeless or underprivileged communities could be smaller and made with less deluxe materials, enabling a lower “give one” than “build one” cost for CC.
Space is definitely a hot topic right now, but I am a strong believer that we are far from solving countless problems on planet earth. With the resources allocated to space exploration, we can afford to allocate the resources necessary to distribute technology like 3D printers to places that need it most. There are so many communities throughout the world that could benefit from affordable and speedy housing development. I just don’t see any justification for taking that to space.
I love the application of 3D printing to construction. In this context, like many new technologies it will inevitably impact the job market, as less labor is required for the huge market for construction labor. I look forward to seeing the wide range of applications of 3D throughout the economy. One area I can think of is general infrastructure. Can 3D printing be applied to building the roads, bridges, tunnels, water supply and sewage systems and other key elements of infrastructure? As national and municipal budgets shrink, I think 3D printing has the potential to have a large impact on decreasing costs across these essential investments in an economy.
This is a great article and I really enjoyed reading it! The ability to use 3D printing to make homes is an extremely tangible and practical use of this great technology, and one that helps drive very important social benefits. To address your question, I would certainly lean towards focusing on current needs vs. more innovative and futuristic applications that involve venturing into space. I believe that the world today has existing pressing need for such applications and its implementation can be revolutionary. Further, the ability to implement this effectively on Earth versus in space is much more tangible and accessible from an investment perspective. Hence, to drive the greatest possible impact, I would first focus on scaling this on Earth before thinking about applications in space!