'Print' your next home: A possible solution to the affordable housing crisis

Homebuyers facing skyrocketing prices are looking for alternatives to traditional homebuilding that are both sustainable and more affordable. Tactics in the recent past have included reusing shipping containers or downsizing altogether and moving into a van or tiny home.

But an alternative is edging into the homebuilding environment: 3D printing, as contractors see potential for 3D printing as a solution to supply chain issues and affordable housing. 

Here's how it works: A factory houses giant printers that use a special concrete mixture. The machines layer the materials on top of each other to create walls and ceilings. The components are then shipped to the site where the house is assembled with its amenities and hook-ups, with minimal waste – all for nearly half the cost of traditional home construction.

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Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona's first 3D printed house in Tempe.
Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona's first 3D printed house in Tempe.

Can you get a 3D-printed house?

Basil Starr is the CEO of Palari, a California-based developing company, and said 3D- printed houses are also more affordable because they can be mass-produced quickly while maintaining consistent quality.

“Because the process is so outdated, it takes so long to build a traditional wood-frame house, and we’re not building fast enough to meet the demand,” Starr said. “We came into 3D printing with this idea that we want to utilize the latest technology to speed up construction and make it more efficient and affordable.”

Palari is using 3D printing to build housing communities in three different areas in Palm Springs, creating 200 3D-printed homes in total across the three neighborhoods.

Starr said Palari wanted to test run this kind of housing community in California because of the state's strict building regulations and because of the urgent demand for housing that can be built quickly and sustainably.

He also said Palari wanted to first test run its communities in Los Angeles, but because the price of land was so high, the company turned to Palm Springs.

Prices for homes in the communities will start at $495,000 for Desert Hot Springs, $895,000 for La Quinta, and $995,000 for Rancho Mirage. Starr said in each of the markets Palari is building in, the homes are priced at about 10% below comparable, new construction homes.

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Inside the Habitat for Humanity 3D-printed home in Tempe, Ariz.
Inside the Habitat for Humanity 3D-printed home in Tempe, Ariz.

Another tool in the toolbox

3D-printed housing is also starting to emerge as a potential solution to helping low-income families get housing.

Two Habitat For Humanity chapters in Arizona and Virginia tried and tested 3D-printing technology to build houses for a family in need in their area.

Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg worked with 3D-printed housing company Alquist and Virginia Tech University to build a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom 3D-printed house for a family in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Using a 3D printer that was shipped from Denmark, and navigating through the difficulties of the pandemic, it took 30 hours to fabricate 156 layers of concrete printing material that made up the house’s exterior.

USA TODAY reached out to Alquist but did not get a response.

Janet V. Green, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg, said that as the technology keeps improving, 3D-printed housing could save homebuyers about 15% per square foot on a home. And, because the houses are made with a concrete-like material (Quikrete Brand Proprietary 3D Concrete, according to Green), the house is able to retain heating or cooling better than a regular house.

“People are really struggling to find affordable homes that they can buy, or pay affordable rent,” she said. “I like to say that 3D printing could be another tool in the toolbox to help solve the affordable housing crisis that we’re in right now.”

Jason Barlow, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona, said the organization printed a 1,738-square-foot home with three bedrooms and two full bathrooms.

Barlow said with the right time and in the right circumstances, 3D printing could be game changing for the affordable housing market. But, because of challenges with the pandemic, funding and zoning, many hurdles remain.

Both Habitat projects had to work closely with city officials in design and execution because there aren’t permitting or zoning laws created to cover 3D printing.

“Every single thing about this project was unique and new,” Barlow said. “It was a lot of work, but it was a super neat experience.”

The affordable housing crisis and the housing inventory shortage

Multiple factors contribute to the affordable housing crisis, including escalating values and a small inventory of houses that people with standard incomes can afford.

Nadia Evangelou is a senior economist and director of forecasting at the National Association of Realtors. She said according to the association's data, there are currently 170,000 homes available for sale across the U.S. that households earning $100,000 can afford to buy. That's down from  240,000 homes last year. The U.S. median family income last year was $79,900.

“We don’t expect home prices to slow down, they’ll continue to rise but at a slower pace,” Evangelou said. “We have a severe housing shortage, and even though the mortgage rates will be higher, demand for housing will remain strong.”

Evangelou said mortgage rates are the highest they’ve been since 2008, with 30-year fixed mortgage rates rising to 5.8%, further hurting affordability and decreasing the purchasing power of many homebuyers.

She said that at the beginning of 2022, the typical buyer could afford to buy a home for $360,000 with a $1,400 monthly payment. Currently, buyers can afford a home of $270,000 with a $1,400 monthly payment.

“A higher mortgage rate now means a lower price tag,” she said. “Home prices continue to rise significantly, making it even more difficult to find homes at this price level of $300,000 and under.”

3D printing will be faster and could be part of the housing solution

Evangelou said 3D-printed homes may not be the solution to the housing supply shortage, but that it could help and, if there is strong funding for this type of home manufacturing, production will be higher.

Habitat for Humanity was able to partner with Alquist and Virginia Tech University for the project, providing the land for the house to be built on. Green said community members of Williamsburg donated items like plumbing, windows and doors, which brought down the cost significantly, and the family was able to move into their house last December.

Green said the family is taking a break from the media and could not be reached for comment.

“Soon, we will know more about this technology and we will be able to do it faster, cheaper, and more affordably while keeping safety guidelines and environmental impact guidelines in mind,” she said.

Green said Habitat for Humanity Greater Peninsula and Williamsburg plans on 3D printing two more homes with Alquist in 2023. She and Starr both say that as technology develops, 3D-printed houses can be produced much faster.

“There are a lot of manufacturers that are coming up and building things with the latest technologies and utilizing the best material,” Starr said. “So, the product that is coming out from the factories is really high quality, much higher quality than you would get on a construction site.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Affordable housing solution could lie in 3D printers