Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: Brick houses, prefabricated houses… how about printing them using a 3D printer?

The concept of 3D printing has been known for quite some time. For some, 3D printing is a fun hobby where they occasionally make something, while others have created a business out of it and sell products or fulfil orders to other companies.

Ever since 3D printers became quite popular with the general public, their availability has greatly increased, and prices have dropped with it. Now one can start 3D printing for just a few hundred euros.

Using three-dimensional printing, we can, of course, expand the spectrum of possibilities tremendously. 3D printers can print with plastic matter, partly also with wood (which has admixtures of plastic), some more powerful printers can also work with metals. Every new material brings fresh potential for wider use.

In principle, the credit for the first such printer belongs to Dr Hideo Kodama, who, in May of 1981, presented it at a Japanese government research institute in the Chubu region. However, he was unable to file the patent requirement for this technology, as experts did not find his research interesting enough. In 1987, the start-up company 3D Systems from California developed the first commercial 3D printer. It used filaments made of special resins that were hardened by ultraviolet light.

As mentioned above, 3D printing can be used for many different reasons, including healthcare, clothing, and use in space. Today, however, we will focus on one of the most unimaginable – 3D printing construction.

Back in 2003, Ma Yihe, a Chinese entrepreneur, founded the company WinSun which specializes in 3D printing architecture in Shanghai; in late 2014, they built a 10-meter-tall, five-story apartment building using 3D-printed concrete material. To date, this technology has been used in more than 400 public construction projects across China.

3D printing of an apartment building in Germany. Photo: Waldemar Korte, LinkedIn.
3D printing of an apartment building in Germany. Photo: Waldemar Korte, LinkedIn.

.WinSun fabricates the fibreglass concrete components at a factory, the structures are then assembled on-site. The process is similar to the construction of prefabricated houses. New start-up companies are also investigating 3D printing buildings directly on location. Of course, using a much larger printer than what we can buy for home use.

A construction 3D printer uses a massive nozzle through which it extrudes quick-drying cement-based materials. In this way, the object is built layer by layer, which the engineers have previously designed using a computer program.

Many construction companies have already started 3D printing public buildings, warehouses, and residential buildings. The costs are usually much lower compared to conventional methods, even though 3D-printed concrete is more expensive than conventional construction concrete.

For COBOD, Denmark’s leading 3D construction company, the average material cost was 1,300 euros for some of its main printing projects. This, of course, only includes concrete for the structure of the houses. However, the figure may become even more attractive in the coming years, as building materials for conventional construction become more and more expensive, and concrete prices for 3D construction fall even more.

Construction 3D printers use special concrete that dries quickly and is more expensive than usual concrete. Photo: SQ4D.
Construction 3D printers use special concrete that dries quickly and is more expensive than usual concrete. Photo: SQ4D.

3D construction printing also requires far fewer workers, as a normal size residential building can be erected by two or three operators. In addition, such a house can be printed in a few days.

However, it should be noted that this is only about building walls. At least for now, 3D printers can’t build a foundation or a roof. Windows, doors, electrical installations and plumbing, and other finishing touches still need to be taken care of in the “traditional” way.

There is also much talk about energy savings in 3D construction printing. In traditional construction, for example, refined petroleum products are of great importance for powering trucks and construction equipment. Instead of fuel, 3D printers run on electricity. The power usage used by the ARCS 3D Printer is said to be about the same as a standard hairdryer.

But that’s not all. Due to the construction technique and the material used, it is estimated that 3D printed houses are more energy efficient and easier to maintain a stable temperature in the rooms. Some homes can even achieve net-zero energy consumption by adding solar panels to their roofs.

In 2017, the University of Nantes in France built a 3D-printed house, which, a year later, a family moved into. Curved-wall structures built using a patented 3D printing method called BatiPrint3D improved thermal resistance and air circulation, and the house has wheelchair access. In addition, due to its curvature, the house was built to curve around the plot’s 100-year-old protected trees.

The printing took 54 hours, and the house has an area of 95 square metres. The contractors then needed another four months to add in things such as windows, doors, and a roof. The cost of building the house amounted to just over 200,000 euros, which is 20 per cent cheaper than an identical construction using more traditional solutions. After completing the project, the team expressed their belief that the next house could be built in 33 hours.

In September 2020, the construction of Germany’s first 3D-printed residential building began in Bavaria, Germany. The five apartments over three floors with around 380 square metres of living area were built using a 3D construction printer called ‘BOD2’, reportedly the fastest on the market. It took 100 hours of 3D printing.

Finished apartment house in Germany that took 100 hours of 3D printing. Photo: AG, Aleksej Keksel.
Finished apartment house in Germany that took 100 hours of 3D printing. Photo: AG, Aleksej Keksel.

The building consists of three-layer hollow walls filled with insulating material. The BOD2 can complete 1 square meter of double-skin wall in under five minutes at a speed of 2.2 mph (1 m/s). Printing requires two operators.

The system they used includes a print head that travels along three axes on a sturdy metallic frame, allowing the printer to move to any location within the structure and only needing to be calibrated once; the family-owned construction company PERI, which managed the project, said in a statement. This saves both time and money.

In addition, the printer can operate while other tasks are being done in the printing area. This way, manual tasks such as installing pipes and connections can be completed while 3D-printing the structure.

3D printing of houses works by printing materials layer by layer. Photo: COBOD.
3D printing of houses works by printing materials layer by layer. Photo: COBOD.

A US start-up company, Azure Printed Homes, went one step further and began 3D printing houses with recycled plastic. Prices for a simple backyard studio, which includes a small kitchen and bathroom, start at $40,000 for residents of the state of California.

Their 3D printer can print the floor, roof, and two walls in a single day. In the walls, the printer includes channels for plumbing and wiring. The two other walls aren’t 3D-printed but are pre-engineered panels with doors and windows.

At this point, it is still difficult to assess the durability and feasibility of 3D-printed structures. Only time will tell whether such a construction method is feasible in a broader sense, and, of course, building regulations must also be considered, which in many places do not allow such a construction method.

Author: Marko Želko

Keywords: 3D printing, home construction, construction, digitization.


This article is part of joint project of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Anton Korošec Institute (INAK) Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe. This project receives funding from the European Parliament. 

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union institutions/Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies/ Anton Korošec Institute. Organizations mentioned above assume no responsibility for facts or opinions expressed in this article or any subsequent use of the information contained therein.