Few construction methods have been as feted as additive manufacturing (AM) – 3D printing in more colloquial terms – and few have had as many false dawns. Consider how long you’ve been reading about AM’s transformative potential for the architectural profession, and then ask yourself when was the last time you read about (let alone visited) a project that was more than a prototype or proof of concept? But now that state agencies are grasping the role AM can play in resolving an almost universally pressing concern – affordable housing – they’re finally supporting enterprise to help make the technology practicable.

Up to now, real-world applications have been slow to catch up with the hype. It wasn’t until 2018 that the first family moved into a 3D-printed house, created as part of a collaboration between the University of Nantes, the city council and a housing association. That same year, construction technology company Icon became the first in the US to print a dwelling that even satisfied local building codes.

But things are now starting to move much more quickly. In December, Icon and partner New Story – a housing non-profit – revealed that they’d completed several properties in what they dub the world’s first 3D-printed neighbourhood, situated in Southern Mexico. Three of the 46.5-m2 homes can be printed at a time using Icon’s 10-m-long Vulcan II system, each offering two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. The target total of 50 units is planned to be completed and occupied by the middle of 2020.

The residents selected to live in these homes earn a median income of $76.50 a month and have been selected by the local government – which has provided the land and attendant infrastructure – based on greatest need. Most will be leaving behind basic metal-shack-style dwellings that, apart from having few modern amenities, are far more vulnerable to local environmental threats such as flooding and earthquakes.

But it is Vulcan II’s ability to operate in unpredictable field conditions that is the real news story here. Unlike previous iterations, Icon’s machine can leverage AM’s key advantages – speed, cost and adaptability – in housing contexts where they’re most valued, such as remote communities and disaster relief zones. New Story says it’s already had several enquiries from several Latin American governments keen to replicate what’s being achieved in Mexico.

December also saw construction company Apis Cor complete what it claims is the largest 3D-printed building in the world – a 640-m2, two-storey office for the Dubai Municipality. As with Icon’s Mexico project, the real production breakthrough was in being able to print the building without putting in place any environmental controls, no easy task on the Emirati coast. The state-backed venture is part of the city’s expressed aim to have a quarter of all new buildings constructed via 3D printing by 2030.

Crucially, lessons learned in Dubai will help Apis Cor in its plans to build affordable housing in the US this year. Projects are slated in several states and advanced discussions have taken place with the Housing Trust Fund of Santa Barbara County. Similarly, Icon has just started printing 37-m2 homes for a community of previously homeless residents in Austin, Texas. And analysts believe the rest of the sector will start to take note. Market forecaster SmarTech is predicting that the 3D-printed construction industry will be worth almost €36 billion by 2027, up from just €0.27 billion in 2019.



This piece was featured in our March/April 2020 issue Frame 133. Get your copy here.