Our View: If you print it, they will come

This 600-square-foot home, named BioHome3D, was made with wood-based polymer using the University of Maine’s giant 3D printer. Photo courtesy of University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center

UMaine’s 3D-printed house is, for starters, fun to think about.

The timelapse video of its creation by the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center is an impressive piece of footage. A structure that resembles the frame of a car wash zips back and forth in a recognizable “printing” motion.

The printer head creates walls from ink on paper. Something that looks like a gigantic cake-frosting machine can be used to build a house in a matter of hours – this is what building with robots looks like.

And there’s more to the prototype unveiled in Orono last week than meets the eye.

The concept of 3D-printed housing has been around for a while – the first such home was printed back in 2018. Today’s architecture and design magazines are brimming with examples of what is considered to be the best in the form. These include trendy dwellings that have layered walls as style statements.

The precision inherent in the 3D printing process (or “additive manufacturing,” as it’s sometimes called), is praised for wasting far fewer materials and being easier on the environment. Even though the materials are not environmentally friendly, it eliminates the large amount of waste in traditional building.

The 3D-printed houses are generally built with concrete (works in the cake-frosting-style extrusion) and have regular concrete foundations. Concrete, due to its major contribution to climate change – its production is reportedly responsible for at least 8% of global CO2 emissions – is a material builders need to get away from.

UMaine succeeded in getting away from it … and then some.

The entire printed house, from the foundation to everything, is entirely made of renewable materials. “Bio stuff,” as Gov. Janet Mills joked at last week’s ribbon-cutting.

More specifically, the UMaine house’s primary component is “wood flour,” a mixture of sawmill waste and a corn-based substance that binds it together. If this particular “stuff” sounds like an opportunity for our state’s forest products industry, it could well be; the director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center told reporters last week that more than 1 million tons of “wood residuals” currently sitting in regional sawmills could go to print housing.

The housing of the future is going to look much, much different than what most of us have grown up in and around – not just when it comes to fabrication (the global 3D construction market is expected to balloon in the next 10 years), but also composition. The days of leaning on old materials are fading away.

In a recent interview, Zachary Mannheimer, the chief executive of an Iowa-based net-zero 3D-printed housing company, put the vision for homes made of recycled materials this way: “It’s kind of like the end of “Back to the Future,” where Doc pulls up in the driveway and he just grabs random things out of the trashcan and throws them into the flux capacitor to make it work, that’s where things are headed. Probably not tomorrow, but very soon.”

There’s the compelling environmental promise of the UMaine house, and then there’s its even nearer-term economic promise.

What stands in the way of the construction needed to alleviate the nation’s pernicious housing crisis? Access to labor and materials are two of the most important issues on a complicated list.

The university’s own report on the house last week highlighted the crisis with a few arresting statistics: by one estimate, a need for more than 7 million affordable housing units nationwide. By another, a need for 20,000 housing units in Maine alone – a number that’s climbing each year. Moreover, 60% of low-income renters spend more than half their income on housing. The situation is indeed “untenable.”

The potential for radically changing the way we build is in our ability to do so quickly, efficiently, economically, and with local focus. By doubling down on bio-based materials that can be sourced nearby and technology that eliminates the need for teams of construction workers on sites, 3D-printed housing offers a shot at, in the words of MaineHousing director Daniel Brennan, “housing units in a fraction of the time with a fraction of the workforce.”

The sensors were installed at the UMaine house so that the team can monitor how it does during winter. Future design work will benefit from the data. For all the benefits it stands to confer on Maine and beyond, we should all be hoping for an impressive performance in the face of this winter’s extremes.

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