Why 3D-printing is not the answer to the world’s housing problem.

3D printing is a really cool technology. Unfortunately it is also an over-hyped technology. In future I may consider this from a more general point of view, but in this post I want to focus on one example of the hype: how 3D-printing is going to solve the world’s housing problem.

“About 1.6 billion people live in substandard housing and 100 million are homeless. We can solve this problem using 3D Print technology.”

Thus begins the Kickstarter page of 3D Print Homes International. Their proposed solution? Build 3D printers capable of building an entire home within a day and ship them off to developing countries. Sounds good right? So why is it not actually a solution? To answer that, let’s think for a moment about what makes up the cost of a house.

3D Print Homes house printer concept Image credit: 3D Print Homes International, via: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/894655292/3d-printed-homes-house-building-using-a-3d-printer
3D Print Homes house printer concept
Image credit: 3D Print Homes International, via: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/894655292/3d-printed-homes-house-building-using-a-3d-printer

The cost of a house can be broken up into 3 components: land, labour, and material. If you want to build a house, first of all you need to pay for the land it will be built on. Then you need to pay the people who will build it. Finally you have to buy the stuff that the house will be built out of. It’s plain to see that a 3D printer will only tackle one of these costs. Automating construction by using a 3D printer will significantly reduce the cost of labour, but it won’t do much for the cost of materials, and it certainly won’t bring down the cost of land. Of course labour is the one thing that is in cheap supply in developing nations, so is that really the best place to save money? Replacing labour by capital-intensive automation is something we typically see happening in highly developed economies, not developing ones. Furthermore, wouldn’t it be better for the local economy to hire local workers (who will then spend that money at local stores) rather than just parachuting in a robot to build free houses?

A project that goes further towards cutting cost is the Wasp (Word’s Advanced Saving Project) 3D printer, which can build houses out of locally available material , specifically, mud; albeit at the cost of now taking weeks to print a house.

WASP printer prototype in action. Image credit: WASP press release http://www.wasproject.it/w/en/2014/10/wasp-press-release-rome-maker-faire/
WASP printer prototype in action. Image credit: WASP press release http://www.wasproject.it/w/en/2014/10/wasp-press-release-rome-maker-faire/

Assuming for the sake of argument that suitable material can indeed always be sourced on site for free, that just leaves the cost of land. Many of the areas with the worst housing conditions are the shanty towns that spring up around cities that are rapidly expanding. However, not only is this expansion attracting many people to the city, it is also driving up real estate prices. For example in Mumbai, land prices in some areas have reached nearly $875 per square meter. Meanwhile half of India’s workers earn less than $2 / day. No matter how inexpensive to operate your house-building robot is, if you have to work more than a year (including weekends and holidays) to be able to afford a plot of land you can just lie down in, it’s not going to help much.

It’s not just the price of land that the issue either. Let’s go back to the statement by 3D Print Homes. They identified the issue as not just people not having homes, but as having a substandard ones. What makes a home substandard? Well the quality of the material making up the walls and roofs is of course part of it, but more important is connection to infrastructure like electricity, running water, and sewerage. While the printing robots can print walls and ceilings, adding in all the required cabling and piping will have to be done separately (i.e. by hand), increasing costs again. That’s assuming there’s a power grid and water mains for those cables and pipes to be attached to in the first place of course. In most shanty towns this is not the case, an issue which a house-printing robot does nothing to solve.

While the idea behind developing 3D printers to solve the world´s housing problem is admirable, the problems are far more complex than just needing to be able to build houses more quickly and with fewer people. 3D printing is a cool technology, with a lot of potential, but it does no one any favours to pretend that the world´s housing shortage can be solved by just pressing print.

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