3D printing could be set to revolutionise housebuilding – and bring with it significant environmental benefits – as a family in France are claimed to be the first to live in a 3D printed house.

By Mark Richards.

We seem to be living with a permanent housing crisis. There are not enough affordable homes for young people. Locals cannot buy a house in the Lake District because of second homes. Our increasing population is putting pressure on the housing stock…

The problem is, houses take a long time to build. You cannot fix the problem, overnight.

Or maybe you can…

There was a story on the BBC this week about the ‘first family to live in a 3D printed house.’

We have all heard of 3D printers and how they are going to revolutionise manufacturing. As far back as 2013, a rather ominous milestone was reached when the first gun made by a 3D printer was fired in – where else? – the USA.

But it is Friday: despite England’s woes on Wednesday, let us be optimistic. 3D printing may well make a very significant contribution to our housing problems and the environment.

The BBC story concerned a French couple, the Ramdanis, who have moved into a four-bedroomed property which is a prototype for bigger projects aiming to make housebuilding easier, quicker and cheaper. The house took 54 hours to print – so only marginally slower than the average office printer – and then four months for the contractors to add in the doors, window and roof. In total it cost £176,000 to build, which was around 20% cheaper than the same house would have cost using conventional construction and, having done one, the design team now think they could print the same hose in just 33 hours.

How much could a printed house reduce costs?

The Ramdanis’ house has been built in Nantes, part of a collaboration between the city council and the local university, where the project is headed up by Benoit Furet.

Furet thinks that in five years they will be able to reduce the cost of construction of printed houses by 25% and by 40% in 10 to 15 years, thanks to improvements in technology and economies of scale as more houses are printed.

Printing also allows architects to be more creative, and to design more environmentally friendly buildings – for example, the Ramdanis’ house has a curved wall to go around some 100-year-old protected trees. And – inevitably – everything in the house can be controlled from a smartphone.

But it is not just France

As you might expect, other countries are also looking closely at the technology – after all, it is not just Europe and the UK that has a housing problem. And I think we can cast some doubt on the BBC claim that the Ramdanis are the first family to live in a 3D printed house.

As long ago as 2014 there was a story in the Guardian about a Chinese company printing homes for just $5,000 (around £3,800 at today’s exchange rate) – and in a country where a tiny apartment in Beijing or Shanghai can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, that has to be good news.

But now it appears that another Chinese company has gone one better, 3D printing a 400 square metre, two storey house in just a month and a half – against a standard construction time of six to seven months.

What are the advantages of 3D printing?

Simply put, they are considerable. HuaShang Tengda, the company that built the house I have just mentioned, spelled it out very clearly.

“This technology will have immeasurable social benefits. Because of its speed, low cost, simple and environmentally friendly raw materials it can be used in developing countries [and will] significantly reduce administrative costs and operating costs.”

Will the Housing Market be Disrupted by 3D Printing?

With HuaShang’s technology supposedly able to withstand earthquakes of up to eight on the Richter scale this could be a significant development: the housebuilding industry could be facing the fabled ‘disruption’ in the same way that so many other industries have been disrupted by modern technology.

The environmental benefits

Leaving China and returning to Nantes, the Ramdanis’ house not only curves around a tree, it has better air circulation than a conventional home, thereby reducing humidity and improving thermal resistance, and is completely accessible to disabled people. But the principal advantage of the home – and of 3D printing generally – is that there was no waste in its construction. The 3D printer prints what is needed to build the house – and no more.

This differs from traditional construction methods which ‘cut away’ materials, often generating significant amounts of waste. Advocates of 3D printing claim there is virtually nothing it will not be able to do – even down to helping to save the Great Barrier Reef by creating models for scientists.

The technology is not yet perfect – as you can imagine, a 3D printer capable of building a house uses huge amounts of electricity, which is not going to be good news in countries reliant on fossil fuels as opposed to renewables. But 3D printing is going to be an integral part of the future, with all governments committed to significantly reducing greenhouse emissions.

This was evidenced when the UK government stated that every new build house may soon be required to be fitted with an electric car charging point. The UK government’s target is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. And where there is on-street parking, ministers also want new street lights to double as charging points.

It is likely that this will be backed up by a commitment to banning the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040.

So welcome to the future. You come home from work, plug your car into the streetlight or your house – which has been built by a 3D printer and is 100% powered by clean, renewable energy. But don’t worry: your very traditional dog will still need taking for a walk…