3D Printed Houses: Not the Innovation You're Looking For

A "3D Printed" house.

A "3D Printed" house.

3D printing is one of the most promising and coolest new technologies that has taken hold in the last few years. It’s helping product designers quickly prototype, which saves time and money, and it’s potential to improve manufacturing seems huge. But it’s also the most over-hyped technology of the moment. 

Case in point: Three recent headlines.

Children Can 3D Print Teddy Bears on Demand
Giant 3D Printer That Prints Entire Frames of Other 3D Printers is Created
How 3D Printing Can Help To Cure Cancer

Never mind that the Teddy bears “do come apart quite easily,” or that the “3D Printer that Prints Entire Frames of Other 3D Printers” is another way of just saying that a 3D printer prints plastic parts. And as for curing cancer? Well, you be the judge. 

But perhaps the most annoying example of over-hyped 3D printing technology is that of 3D printed houses. Various versions of this story have been circulating for months. Most recently here. Kevin Roose cited 3D printed houses as a counterpoint to the failures of American innovation. Roose’s piece is really excellent and I agree with his main argument, but totally disagree with his chosen counterpoint.

First off. Are these houses really 3D printed? They are in the sense that this cement mixer is a 3D printer. These 3D printed houses in China are actually made off site with concrete and glass and then assembled on site. 

Also, prefab is not a new construction technique. 

Any number of prefab companies build parts of buildings in a factory and assemble on site to reduce waste and control costs. Project Frog, for example, is focused on building high-quality prefabricated structures that will last and are also energy efficient. Real innovation.

More importantly though, are 3D printed houses really the innovation we need? As far as I can tell, the WSJ article is short on details. These 3D printed houses have windows but do they have electricity? Plumbing? HVAC? And how solid is the foundation? 

We already have the ability to make cheap structures really quickly. Just look at any storage unit facility where aluminum panels are brought in from off-site and quickly assembled into simple structures. 

In the U.S. we do have a housing problem, but it’s an “affordable housing” problem. We don’t need to build housing super quickly, and we definitely don’t need poorly made housing that won’t last. 

It’s easy to imagine a situation where 3D printed houses are used to house displaced victims of a natural disaster. That’s nice in theory. But it’s also easy to imagine how the use of this temporary kind of solution could quickly resemble a Katrina-like situation where displaced families are stuck living in FEMA trailers inhaling toxic vapors from, you guessed it, cheaply made structures.

I’d argue that we need to focus on creating quality structures that will last. Truly innovative solutions are not temporary. Our focus should be building goods that don’t end up in a landfill.    

So let's not get too excited about 3D printing crappy homes in the name of "innovation." There's nothing innovative about building cheap shit.