The Future of Housing: Chris Craiker Explores 3D Printing in The Napa Valley Architex Angle

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An Oakland company is making houses using 3D printed parts. And Napans are buying. How does that work? What do they look like?

Craiker

3D printed building structures have captured the attention of just about everyone, especially the housing industry. But will it produce affordable housing? If you ask 10 so-called experts, you’ll get 10 different answers. To define advantages and costs, we need a magician’s hat to pull out a rabbit, or the truth, as well as a lot of voodoo and hocus-pocus.

3D printing works off AutoCAD drawings to create a physical structure by gradually printing the material, whatever it is, in layers. The theory is more cost and time efficient than traditional construction techniques, but consistency is the key. 3D construction mainly focuses on the fundamental basic structure. All the other housing components such as windows, doors, plumbing and electrical systems are installed after the printing process.

3D printers aren’t big Xerox machines popping out houses.

Actually, the concept of building structures by machine layering concrete has been around, going back to 1939. An inventor and contractor, William E. Urschel, created a multi-layered concrete building in Indiana. He called it the “Wall Building Machine,” and patented it, consisting of a moving machine that rammed compressed concrete between spinning discs as layers of concrete were extruded to create walls. It’s not exactly the same as today’s process, but the concept of layering horizontal strips of concrete to make structural walls is pretty much the same process: a prototype very similar. He also created geometric free form buildings that are still occupied today and ahead of their time. 

3D printed products are gaining worldwide appeal. In 2018 the International Space Station printed the first tool in space, using a low-gravity 3D printer. Space workers can access tools needed for maintenance vastly quicker than waiting for deliveries from Earth.

This is not a cure-all for housing but a way to build a house shell quicker. Like any other construction process, a foundation or slab must be poured first, a robotic arm layers the buildings exteriors leaving hollow spaces for electrical wiring and plumbing that’s later filled in either with more concrete and/or other finished material. Ultimately, the exterior walls are up to 12 inches thick and have very high insulation ratings.

Besides speed, the construction site is cleaner with less waste. Currently, over 60 million tons of construction and demolition debris is produced annually across the country and any method to reduce this is ‘Earth Friendly’.

3D homes are potentially energy efficient to run, build and are Earth Friendly as they lower heating and cooling costs. While construction labor is reduced, in theory more construction workers will have to be tech savvy running the machines and spreadsheets.

One alternative to on-site field 3D construction is pre-built factory produced panels that can be customized to any floor plan. They are shipped to the site and assembled reducing construction time in half according to one builder, Mighty Builders.

The actual costs of 3D printed construction are difficult to pin down. While multiple construction companies insist it is faster and cheaper, there’s little hard proof or evidence of saving money dramatically. Like all manufacturing, scaling up in quantity could reduce overall costs by 20 to 30%, depending upon who you ask. With the average cost of construction in California between $400 per square foot and $600 per square foot, the fast speed of construction has to result in lower costs.

If one is interested and considering a 3D printed house, there are questions that should be asked:

One problem I’ve always found in construction is whenever an alternate building technique or component is introduced, all the subcontractors increase their prices accordingly. They anticipate delays, additional labor requirements and other factors that will drive their prices up. Not to be skeptical of 3D printing, but I think building homes, multistory apartment and commercial buildings and new communities may be too far into the future.

Mighty Buildings of Oakland is making modular homes using parts created by a giant 3D printer. This unit is on display until June 17 at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott in South Napa. It’s located in the parking lot behind the hotel.

Mighty Buildings of Oakland is making modular homes using parts created by a giant 3D printer. This unit is on display until June 17 at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott in south Napa, in the parking lot behind the hotel.

Mighty Buildings of Oakland is creating modular homes using parts fabricated by a massive 3D printer. The homes arrive fully completed and ready for move-in, excluding furniture.

Mighty Buildings of Oakland is producing modular homes with components made by an enormous 3D printer. Here’s a look inside the studio unit, which is priced at $187,000.

Mighty Buildings of Oakland is manufacturing modular homes using pieces crafted by a giant 3D printer. This particular unit is available for viewing until June 17 at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott in South Napa, situated in the parking lot behind the hotel.

An interior view of a modular home constructed with 3D-printed parts.

Mighty Buildings of Oakland is innovating the construction industry by creating modular homes with parts produced by a large 3D printer. You can view one of these units at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott in South Napa until June 17. The unit is situated in the parking lot behind the hotel.

Mighty Buildings of Oakland is utilizing advanced 3D printing technology to produce modular homes. Chao Chen, a member of their sales and marketing team, engages with a potential customer.

Chris D. Craiker AIA/NCARB humorously notes that he is still attempting to use his Xerox to print a house.

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An Oakland company is making houses using 3D printed parts. And Napans are buying. How does that work? What do they look like?

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