A 15-Foot-Tall Printer Could Build Your Next Home
A new construction project in Texas will test the ability of and demand for 3-D printed houses. It comes at a time when the U.S. is facing a historic housing shortage. Wall Street Journal housing reporter Nicole Friedman joins WSJ Tech News Briefing host Zoe Thomas to discuss how the technology works and what it could mean for American homebuyers.
Zoe Thomas: The technology for 3D printing has developed considerably over the last few years. It’s being used to make medical equipment, produce art, and even build houses. Now, a major home builder, Lennar, is teaming up with a Texas startup called Icon to create an entire community of 3D-printed houses outside of Austin. The 100 home project set to start next year would be by far the biggest development of this type in the US. So could this be the future of housing? I’m Zoe Thomas from the Wall Street Journal, and joining me to discuss how this tech works and what it could mean for the housing shortage in the US is WSJ housing reporter Nicole Friedman. Hi, Nicole. Thanks for being here.
Nicole Friedman: Thank you for having me.
Zoe Thomas: Can you describe how this works? What does it look like when a 3D-printed house is built?
Nicole Friedman: So the 3D printer is used to print out the wall system. So it’s a one-story house and the 3D printer prints the external and internal walls. And it basically squeezes concrete out of a nozzle. Like you can think of toothpaste coming out of a tube or icing being piped onto a cake. And then it kind of just goes back and forth and prints out layers of concrete on top of each other. And the printers are about 15 and a half feet tall. So they’re really enormous.
Zoe Thomas: So that’s a much larger printer than the one I have sitting next to my desk.
Nicole Friedman: Yes, definitely.
Zoe Thomas: When it comes to living in these houses though, are they different from, say a conventionally built house?
Nicole Friedman: So most houses that are built in the United States are framed in wood and these houses are framed in concrete. So that’s not entirely new. There definitely are a lot of concrete houses in the US, especially in places that are prone to hurricanes, like in parts of the Southeast. So for someone who’s familiar with a concrete house, it might not seem as different. And some of the differences between concrete and wood, concrete is a little bit more resilient to natural disasters, it’s also not as prone to mold or termites. But definitely, aesthetically, these houses do look a little bit different, because of the layers in the printing, there are kind of ridges on the outside of the building, these horizontal ridges, and also on some of the interior walls as well.
Zoe Thomas: Why are these companies, Lennar and Icon, doing this? Why are they building 100 3D-printed houses?
Nicole Friedman: So Icon is the company behind this 3D printing technology. So they’ve created the printer and they have built houses before, but on a much smaller scale. They just recently built four houses in Austin, Texas, they’ve built about 10 houses in Mexico. So for Icon, this is really a chance to kind of scale up and show that they can use this technology on potentially a much bigger scale. And then Lennar on the other hand is one of the biggest home builders in the United States. They build many thousands of homes a year. So for them, a hundred homes is not very many. It’s a small project for Lennar, but it’s also kind of a proof of concept to see how does this technology work and how could it maybe be more broadly incorporated into the home-building process. And Lennar, like many home builders, struggles with shortages of labor and they have difficulty finding enough construction workers. So using an automated process on site to replace some of the work that’s done by tradespeople is appealing to home builders if this technology proves to be reliable on a big scale.
Zoe Thomas: Let’s talk about that a little bit more because I think there are maybe some benefits that a lot of builders are seeing to using this kind of technology as opposed to traditional technology.
Nicole Friedman: So labor has been a really big struggle for the construction industry for several years now, finding enough people who want to work in the construction trades and a lot of these jobs are skilled jobs. So it can take some time in terms of apprenticeship and getting people trained. And there’s just not enough people who kind of come out of high school wanting to work in the construction field to match the demand for home building right now. So this particular process that Icon and Lennar are working on together, Icon’s printers would print the wall system, the external and interior walls, but then Lennar would kind of come in after that and work with the tradespeople that it traditionally works with to build out the rest of the house. So the roofing, the windows, things like that would still be done in the conventional way. So really, the 3D printing process is replacing kind of the framers and the drywall workers on site, which is about six to 12 workers. And instead, there would be about three people involved in the 3D printing activity.
Zoe Thomas: What about the supply chain? I feel every time I talk to somebody trying to do construction on their home or hoping to build a new home, all I hear about are their supply chain issues.
Nicole Friedman: Yeah. That’s a huge issue in the home-building industry right now are material backlogs, supply chain issues. They have trouble getting appliances, they have trouble getting garage doors, they have trouble getting windows. All sorts of materials and parts of the process they’re seeing backlogs. So there’s definitely an appeal to something like this that allows part of the process to be done, first of all, with less waste, that there is not as much waste in the 3D printing process as in traditional wood framing so less material would be discarded. But also, just to have it be kind of one fluid process, as opposed to having to involve lots of different trade groups along the way, which can lead to loss of efficiency and also lots of different materials that are needed.
Zoe Thomas: There is a housing shortage at the moment. A lot of Americans are looking for new homes, they can’t find them. Is this going to help solve the problem at all?
Nicole Friedman: So far, this is maybe a drop in the bucket, that the housing shortage is pretty enormous right now. Depending on who you ask, people have different estimates. Some say we’re a million homes short, some say were more than 5 million homes short of demand. And there are millions of houses bought and sold every year. And this is a 100 home community. So this is really fascinating to watch in terms of how this technology can be applied, whether there are ways that this can then be expanded more broadly, but right now, this is not overnight going to fix the national housing shortage.
Zoe Thomas: And are there other companies that are also piloting similar programs, trying out things on this kind of scale?
Nicole Friedman: There are other 3D printing companies. There’s lots of activity in this field. This project with Icon and Lennar is going to be the biggest so far. So 100 home community is a big step forward in terms of the number of 3D-printed homes. There’s another 3D printed company, Mighty Buildings, that has announced it’s building a community of 15 homes in California, though they said that might grow. So there are other initiatives and it’s something that we’re watching really closely. But for now, this is set up to be the biggest.
Zoe Thomas: So more 3D-printed homes on the way, but we can’t all live in them yet. That’s our reporter, Nicole Friedman. Thanks for joining us, Nicole.
Nicole Friedman: Thanks for having me.
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