Wednesday, June 7, 2023
Home Business Leads A concrete house, printed: Is this the answer to America's housing crisis?

A concrete house, printed: Is this the answer to America’s housing crisis?

April Stringfield has rented apartments since her early twenties, and often worked two to three jobs to make ends meet. 

Fueled by the desire to own a home, she applied for affordable housing provided by Habitat for Humanity. 

She and her teenage son just moved into their new, 1,200-square-feet-home in Williamsburg, Virginia, constructed with the help of a 3D printer.

“It’s unbelievable,” Stringfield, 35, said. “It’s like a dream come true.”

Habitat for Humanity selected her home as its first 3D-printed project. Initiated between a partnership with Alquist, a 3D-printing construction company, it is the organization’s effort to confront the nation’s affordable housing crisis, which increased due to multiple factors including the heightened costs of materials during the pandemic and a booming demand on the housing market.

The printer head of a giant 3D printer begins laying cement for the foundation of a Habitat for Humanity home.Consociate Media

According to a March 2020 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, extremely low-income renters — households with incomes at or below the poverty level or 30 percent of the area median income — face a housing shortage of 7 million available and affordable rental homes. The report also found that the lack of affordable housing is prevalent in communities of color with 71 percent of Black, extremely low-income renters spending more than half of their income on housing.

Organizations like Habitat for Humanity are betting that 3D printing could help alleviate the increased demand for low-cost housing. 

Alquist 3D CEO Zach Mannheimer with new Habitat for Humanity homeowner April in front of her new home.Habitat for Humanity

Tawkiyah Jordan, senior director of housing and community strategy for Habitat for Humanity, said the organization adopted this method of building to meet the need to innovate, while also keeping high-quality homes affordable. It costs approximately $150,000 to construct a typical home with wood. By using concrete to construct homes with a 3D printer, it saves Alquist up to 15 percent on building expenses.

“What really drives us is that mission for everyone to have a safe, affordable place to live,” she said, “and we’re also interested in multigenerational wealth being developed through homeownership, which is one of the primary mechanisms for wealth generation in our country.”

Using 3D printing to build homes provides numerous benefits, including a decrease in construction time due to the machine’s efficiency. During the process, concrete is extruded from a large machine into layers that form the walls, foundation and footing of the home. While the machine is printing, it requires little supervision or staff on the site, which prevents injuries and saves costs on workers’ compensation, said Kirk Andersen, director of operations for the New York-based 3D-printing company SQ4D.

He said he’s completed about 40 percent of a home in just under six months by using one 3D-printing machine, compared to completing a project within six to 12 months using the industry’s standard building practices.

Habitat for Humanity’s first 3D-printed house in Williamsburg, Va.Habitat for Humanity

Andersen said he thinks 3D printing will eventually become the go-to method for building rather than with wood because it’s a more efficient way to build. NBC News reported that lumber costs rose by about 154 percent in May 2021 due to shortages of materials and labor. Cement also provides better protection for homes against mold, termites and moisture compared to wood, he said.

While a 3D printer provides a fast and effective method of building, there are some challenges. Weather can be a big obstacle, which can halt a project if conditions aren’t suitable. He also said many builders lack education on the 3D-printing process, which prevents more sites from using it.

Stringfield, as a future homeowner, said she was in doubt at first. When she was informed that her house would be built with a 3D printer, she said she was nervous because the method was so rarely used. She also had concerns about having a house made out of concrete. She remembers her great-grandmother’s concrete house was always cold, but she decided to follow in her footsteps. 

“So I figured this was kind of like, traditional — she had one and now I live in a concrete home,” Stringfield said. “I’ll be a homeowner of 3D printing.” 

Her new home has three bedrooms and two full bathrooms. It is also furnished with appliances and equipped with monitoring systems to control temperature, security and more.

April and her 13-year-old son working on the construction site of their future 3D-printed home.Consociate Media

While all Habitat for Humanity applicants must demonstrate a need for affordable housing, they also must partner with the organization while their home or someone else’s home is being built. This process, called earning “sweat equity,” also includes enrolling in homeownership classes or participating in Habitat ReStore, a program that refurbishes donated household items and sells them to the public.

In addition to working consistently at her current job as a laundry supervisor at a Great Wolf Lodge resort, she said she had to pay her bills on time and maintain her credit score.

Like many low-income Black renters, Stringfield works a full-time job, yet her income is a fraction of Virginia’s median family income, which is $93,497. The gap had prevented her from being able to afford to buy a home. Through Habitat’s homebuyer program, her monthly housing payments, including taxes and insurance, will cost less than 30 percent of her income.

April volunteering during installation 3D-printed house walls at a Habitat for Humanity site.Consociate Media

Jeff Olivet, co-founder of Racial Equity Partners, a racial equity training company, said homelessness and the lack of affordable housing are inextricably linked. In a March 2018 report by the Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities initiative he co-authored, the unavailability of safe and affordable housing is one of the key factors that influences homelessness and creates barriers in exiting homelessness for people of color. 

According to him, homelessness increased during the past few years due to a number of factors, including the pandemic, which had an outsize economic impact on communities of color. Nonetheless, people of color have been disproportionately impacted by homelessness for decades due to structural racism, discriminatory housing policies and job discrimination.

“The reality is the opportunities that people have in this country for economic mobility and economic stability cut across racial lines,” Olivet said, “and Black and brown people have been excluded from opportunity for decades, for centuries; and what that results in is really precarious housing situations with very little economic flexibility to withstand any catastrophes that might arise.”

April volunteers during installation of 3D-printed house walls at a Habitat for Humanity site.Consociate Media

He said that homeownership is a protective factor against homelessness. While homeownership programs like Habitat for Humanity are actively working to solve the affordable housing crisis, he believes that it’s only part of the solution. Providing more affordable housing is a national collective effort that also involves fixing housing policies and expanding services.

“It’s absolutely possible for everyone to have a home,” he said, “but we’ve got to fix the housing affordability crisis — and we’ve got to close that gap in units and get us back to where we were before massive cuts in federal spending on housing started getting enacted in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Living in an affordable home eliminates some of the financial worries Stringfield experienced as a renter and allows her to focus on her future goals. She anticipates becoming a registered nurse while making memories in her new home, including in her large backyard.

“We can have cookouts now,” she said. “We can have family gatherings.”

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