How an 11 foot tall 3D printer helps create a community

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Almost any object can be created using three-dimensional printing. A partnership in Mexico is testing this theory and building a village for people living in poverty.

Pedro García Hernández, 48, is a carpenter in the southeastern Mexican state of Tabasco, a rainforest-covered region of the country in which around half of the population live below the poverty line.

He makes a living on about 2,500 pesos ($ 125.17) a month from a tiny job in the house he shares with his wife Patrona and their daughter Yareli. The house has dirty floors and is prone to flooding during Tabasco’s long rainy season. Dust from his construction projects covers almost everything in the house, clinging to the bedroom walls, the pump toilet and the countertops of his makeshift kitchen.

But that will change soon. In a few months, Mr. Hernández and his family will be moving into a new home on the outskirts of Nacajuca, Mexico: an elegant 500-square-meter building with two bedrooms, a finished kitchen and bathroom, and an interior installation. The most unusual thing about the house is that it was made with a 3 meter high three-dimensional printer.

3D printing, a manufacturing process in which objects are built up layer by layer from a digital file, is set for explosive growth. After a pandemic-induced boom in printing items like test swabs, protective gear, and respiratory protection parts, the 3D printing market will be valued at $ 55.8 billion by 2027, according to Smithers, a technology consultancy.

Almost any object can be 3D printed; In construction, it uses concrete, foam, and polymers to produce full-size buildings. The real estate industry is warming up to the trend: Construction company SQ4D listed a 3D-printed house in Riverhead, NY, for $ 299,000 this year. It was billed as the first 3D printed house for sale in the United States, but it was older from similar projects in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

And now the era of the 3D printed community has dawned. Mr. Hernández’s home is one of 500 owned by New Story, a San Francisco nonprofit that focuses on providing housing solutions to communities in extreme poverty, in partnership with Échale, a social housing company in Mexico, and Icon, a construction technology company based in Austin, Texas.

When New Story first laid the foundation stone for the village in 2019, it was dubbed the world’s first community of 3D printed houses. Two years and a pandemic later, 200 homes are either under construction or have been completed, 10 of which were printed on-site by Icons Vulcan II printers. Streets, a soccer field, a school, a market and a library are planned.

Single-family homes are a good test bed for the durability of 3D printed structures because they are small and offer a repetitive design process without a lot of height, said Henry D’Esposito, who leads construction research at JLL, a commercial real estate company. They can also be built to tolerate natural disasters: Nacajuca is in a seismic zone, and the houses there have already weathered a 7.4 magnitude earthquake.

The technology is promising, but some investors remain suspicious and are closely watching the rise of 3D apartment clusters.

In March, Palari Homes and construction company Mighty Buildings announced a planned community of more than a dozen 3D-printed homes valued at $ 15 million in Rancho Mirage, California. The community has a waiting list of over 1,000.

That same month, Icon announced that it had partnered with developer 3Strands and DEN Property Group on four 3D-printed homes in Austin for prices ranging from $ 450,000 to $ 795,000. Icon has also printed houses in Austin Community First Village, a project by the nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes that provides permanent shelter for homeless men and women.

Updated

9/30/2021, 9:45 a.m. ET

The 3D printing market grew 21 percent over the past year, and Hubs, a manufacturing platform, predicts its size will double in the next five years.

“It really is a very effective and efficient way to build a small segment of real estate, but it doesn’t apply to the wider commercial real estate ecosystem,” said Mr D’Esposito. “We don’t know exactly how these buildings will behave over decades or how long-term value retention will be for them. So when you talk to an investor or a lender, it’s a big yellow flag. “

In Nacajuca, building a house with Icon’s Vulcan II printer looks like a giant bag of soft ice cream: Lavacrete, the company’s own concrete mix, is poured one after the other in long vortices. The printer is controlled via a tablet or smartphone, requires only three workers and can complete a house in less than 24 hours.

“We know that if we are to be able to build faster without sacrificing quality, we have to make big leaps if we are to bring the subject of housing forward in our lives at all,” said Brett Hagler, New The Managing Director of Story and one of four founders .

The organization was founded in 2015 shortly after Mr Hagler went on a trip to Haiti and saw families there who were still living in tents years after the 2010 earthquake. According to Habitat for Humanity, 1.6 billion people worldwide live with inadequate housing.

“We are really looking for the greatest ways to have both impact and efficiency,” said Alexandria Lafci, one of the founders of New Story. “3D printing offers a significant gain in speed without sacrificing quality.”

Speed ​​is only one factor in completing a village – New Story has partnered with local officials in Tabasco to provide sewage, electricity and water to the community.

Mr Hernández, who is planning to expand his construction business to larger spaces in his new home, said he was not focused on a move-in date. He cares about the home’s long-term impact on his daughter, who is training to be a nurse.

“If we get the house my daughter can count on it,” he said. “She doesn’t have to worry anymore.”

Échale, who has worked in Mexico for 24 years, helped New Story select residents for the new homes as needed. She decided not to sign the titles of each house to an entire family, but to the woman of the house.

“It is there to protect the family,” said Francesco Piazzesi, CEO of Échale. “A man will sell a house if he has to. A woman will do whatever she has to do to save the house for her children and her family. “

Échale hires local workers to build their own communities. So it was a move to put a 3D printer from an American tech company in the heart of a rural village.

“If you came to Nacajuca when the 3D printer was there, you would see machines that looked like a RoboCop movie,” said Mr Piazzesi. “It creates opportunities for people because something comes into the community and it lasts.”

Icon has supplied more than two dozen 3D printed homes in the United States and Mexico. The upcoming projects range from social housing to disaster control and real estate in line with the market. A project is also in the works with NASA to develop space-based construction systems that it hopes will eventually serve as habitats on both the Moon and Mars.

When Icon was founded, the biggest hurdle was convincing skeptics, said Jason Ballard, one of Icon’s founders and managing directors.

“I’ve had builders and developers explaining to me that it’s not possible to get concrete for it, even after leading them to our 3D printed house,” he said. “Now our biggest challenge is just building more printers.”

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