Does a 3-D Printing Startup Have a Solution to the Affordable Housing Epidemic?
Will 3-D Printing of Homes Become a Viable Tool for Social Impact and Addressing Unaffordable Housing?
Does additive manufacturing have the potential to resolve the affordable housing epidemic in our country? Dr. Berok Khoshnevis from the University of Southern California and founder of Contour Crafting (“Contour”) certainly believes so. He is currently working on completing a robot that uses additive manufacturing to create structures with applications ranging from housing construction to space colonialization. Additive manufacturing, commonly referred to as 3-D printing, is the process of creating 3-D items using digital code and this advance in manufacturing is emerging as a megatrend affecting industries from fashion to medicine. However, instead of printing plastic objects, Contour plans to print buildings with a computer-controlled robot that creates hollow walls and then fills them with concrete until the structure on the code is complete. Critics argue that 3-D printing will only serve a niche market within the construction industry allowing for new architectural experimentation, but Contour believes differently as it seeks to harness the technology to drive social change.[i]
Contour Crafting is focused on using 3-D printing to transform the construction industry by reducing costs, saving time and increasing accessibility. Some of the key cost components of a development project include raw materials, financing expenses and labor costs, and Contour’s 3-D printing approach proclaims to be more cost efficient compared to traditional construction by achieving cost savings in each category. The 3-D printing approach eliminates waste of raw materials because each raw material is close to 100% utilization due to the precision from the computer enabled machine. By comparison, traditional construction creates over $30 billion in wasted raw materials annually since resources are not utilized as efficiently.[ii] 3-D printing can also shorten the project length from months to one day and thus reduces the required financing costs needed to fund the project as well as the opportunity cost of pursuing the project. Finally, 3-D printing reduces the amount of physical labor needed to complete a project and instead requires more “intellectual” labor to supervise the machine and construction progress. As a result of these cost savings, Contour believes it can construct a house for $50 per square foot compared to $150 per square foot for traditional construction in a fraction of the time.[iii]
Contour believes this potential breakthrough technology could impact the industry not only by reducing costs and project durations, but also by altering consumer behavior and transforming the industry into a do-it-yourself (DIY) consumer market for development. In theory, this technology could radically improve the accessibility of home development by allowing people to rent the equipment in order to print their own homes in a day. In addition, the technology could be applied to address the affordable housing epidemic in our country where millions of low-income citizens are spending 70% or more of their income on shelter and new housing construction caters to more affluent citizens.[v] Contour’s technology could also print homes quickly as part of natural disaster recovery plans following earthquakes, wildfires or hurricanes and the US Department of Defense recently awarded Contour with a Rapid Innovation Fund contract to fund research supporting these technology applications.[vi]
In the short term, the company needs to focus on R&D and the development of a working prototype that can demonstrate the building process, all of the proclaimed efficiencies and ultimately complete a home that people would be willing to inhabit. In the medium term, Contour will need to identify its main target market since the target customer will influence the product development iterations. For example, Contour could develop the printers and license them to housing developers, market them directly to consumers and establish a DIY market or it could print houses itself and collaborate with the government to provide housing in areas most in need. Each strategy would impact the development of the product because each potential user could have varying needs from the level of customization of the project to the scale of the potential construction project. In addition, there would be different regulatory hurdles associated with each path since the construction industry is burdened with regulation from zoning requirements to permits. Finally, Contour needs to emphasize quality control when designing these homes if its long-term goal is to provide a solution for unaffordable housing. Without top quality, there will be a distrust of this product and it would be difficult to garner support of these printed homes from the government and the public as a viable solution to unaffordable housing.
Some additional questions to consider include:
Can construction ever truly become a consumer DIY market? How should Contour Crafting think about employment in the construction industry and the negative consequences of job displacement from this new technology? Who should be part of the decision-making process if this technology is used to solve affordable housing shortages and what is the best approach for designing that process?
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[i] Mims, C. (2018, Apr 01). 3-D printed buildings are a tech twist on ancient construction techniques; 3-D printed buildings are finally happening, in concrete jail cells, foam homeless shelters and earthquake-proof bungalows.Wall Street Journal (Online) Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/2020273112?accountid=11311
[ii] Tim Blackwell, “The Future of 3D Printing in Apartment Construction,” propertymanagementinsider.com, January 30, 2017, https://www.propertymanagementinsider.com/the-future-of-3d-printing-in-apartment-construction, accessed November 2018
[iii] Fox Business News, “Money and Contour Crafting,” YouTube, published Feb 3, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FE2ajNXL7Yw&feature=youtu.be, accessed November 2018.
[iv] Contour Crafting, “Animation of Contour Crafting In Whole House Construction,” YouTube, published November 23, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_LLSsNnHn8#action=share, accessed November 2018.
[v] Glenn Trush, “As Affordable Housing Crisis Grows, HUD Sits on the Sidelines,” New York Times, July 27, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/27/us/politics/hud-affordable-housing-crisis.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FAffordable%20Housing&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=14&pgtype=collection, accessed November 2018.
[vi] Contour Crafting, “Awards,” http://contourcrafting.com/rapid-response-construction-award/, accessed November 2018.
Student comments on Does a 3-D Printing Startup Have a Solution to the Affordable Housing Epidemic?
One regulatory hurdle that you aptly addressed in your additional questions is the technology’s potential to displace over 700,000 construction laborers and carpenters within the construction industry in the US (https://www.bls.gov/iag/tgs/iag236.htm). When reviewing this technology, the government will be faced with competing priorities – improving accessibility of affordable housing versus aiming to maintain full-employment across the US. As this technology continues to develop it will be interesting to see how the government weighs these competing priorities and how they engage with labor unions and industry lobbyists.
Fascinating article! I agree that quality of housing will be paramount no matter what go-to-market strategy Contour chooses. To win a government-sponsored project, the Company will need to demonstrate a minimum level of quality. Similarly, if a developer is going to license the printers for construction, they will be putting their brand on the line and will demand high-quality.
Related to your question on if construction can be a DIY market, I’m skeptical. In the medium-term, I suspect most construction decisions will continue to be made by homebuilders who will build cost and benefit analysis of traditional projects vs. printed projects. Even if printing catches on in a big way, a home will still be a major investment for an individual, so I suspect an individual’s desire to utilize an expert will still be high.
Thanks for sharing!
To your questions, construction can become a consumer DIY market. In many developing countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Turkey, construction is done by families. For example, in Turkey, by 2011, there were around 4 million DIY houses out of 20 million total . Contour should not worry about employment in construction industry at this point. First, set up effort required for the equipment that would be used for a home would create new jobs. Second, construction is one of the most hazardous industry for workers. As reported by occupational safety and health administration, 991 out of 4693 workers killed on job were working in construction industry. That being said, safety benefits of such a development would likely to outweigh unemployment costs. Third, currently job openings outnumbered unemployment . In such an environment, releasing construction workers to do other jobs would even boost the economy.
Wow! What an awesome idea for making housing more affordable, by helping to reduce the costs of materials and labor. To your question about who should be involved in whether these materials and practices should be used to create affordable housing, I think it’s very important to get grassroots support from the community of individuals that would be most likely to live in these homes. Of course, improved affordability is very important to them, but so is having a home that feels . . . homey. What part of the home construction process can be 3D printed with very little impact (e.g., hidden infrastructure of a home), and what components need to be sourced from traditional supplies?
As to the point about labor, I’m not sure. Because there is such a shortage of affordable housing today, if we’re able to significantly increase the affordability of materials, we may be able to build 2x as many homes, keeping a constant number of laborers employed (if 1/2 the labor is needed on a 3D printed home).
Incredible potential for 3D printing application. Great article!
Contrary to what the previous post says, I do think job displacement should be considered. Construction workers tend to be very specialized in a particular trade (drywall, plumbing, electric) which makes their skills hard to transfer. Maybe a potential solution would be to gradually train those workers to perform the intelectual tasks the article mentions are needed to operate the printing structure and supervise the project.
I think that is not Contour Crafting that has to think about what are the job displacement from the new technology. I think is a bad idea to stop the technology research and improvements because of reasons like job shortage. The government has to worry about this issue and create the mechanisms/policies that society should use.
In my opinion the company’s job is to advance technology as much as possible and make profits. The decision making process of where are these houses going to be used has to be decided from the government policy makers. It would be great if these houses can be used to help people in need, but this is not the company’s priorities unless it is operating in the social enterprise or non profit area.
I am skeptical that construction can become a truly DIY market in the US in the short/medium term because it will require drastic shift in consumer behavior. I think only individuals with construction expertise would even be willing to take on such a project because people tend to rely on experts regarding investments as critical as their homes. We saw even in the Aqualisa case where there were DIY solutions for the showers but people still tended to rely on the plumbers.
The issue of unemployment that could result from additive manufacturing advancements is not unique to this company or this specific use case. I think it’s ultimately the role of the government and policy makers, not individual companies to address it.
This technology will probably revolutionize the construction industry. However, I would be very interested in analyzing and understanding better the economics of this business model, as I wonder if this technology will actually result in cheaper housing because:
(i) housing prices is often highly influenced by land prices;
(ii) I guess that companies like Counter, which offer customizable houses, will probably charge a premium to its customer; and
(iii) renting this machine in developing countries could be more expensive than using labor to build houses in areas with low labor costs.
Plus, if the implementation of this technology is generalized, I believe that governments and labor unions should start thinking how to retrain construction employees.
The first thought that came to my mind – Can we apply this technology (after perfecting in the long-term) to developing countries where there is a mass population that still don’t have a roof over their head and sleep on streets or live in poorly constructed hazardous (and dangerous) houses?
I agree that there would be regulatory hurdles, but in developing countries those hurdles would be far more lower and would be much easier to get government buy-in than compared to US.