Homes now rising from a dusty subdivision in Desert Hot Springs may be at the forefront of future homebuilding.
Unlike the dozens of houses surrounding this 20-home development on the east side of town, these houses aren’t made from wood and stucco.
They’re “3D-printed” at a Mexican factory, using a huge robotic arm to layer recycled glass into sturdy wall panels that are assembled like Lego blocks at the home site.
Proponents say 3D printing can produce homes faster and potentially cheaper than traditional construction. Since they can use recycled materials, they’re more eco-friendly and generate less waste.
The process, 3D developers say, could be one solution to the housing crisis.
“There is no way in 10 years we’ll be able to be building like we are today,” Chris Murphy, chief strategy officer for Oakland-based Mighty Buildings, which produces the houses for the Desert Hot Springs developer, Palari Group of Beverly Hills.
“Even if we didn’t have a massive shortage on the supply side, which we do, we don’t have the labor to continue building as we would want to today, and we have an environmental crisis.”
Azure Printed Homes uses a 3D printer to build small homes at their factory in Culver City on Monday, May 22, 2023.(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)
Construction with 3D printers was one of several housing innovations on display during the Pacific Coast Builders Conference held last month in Anaheim.
Others at the Building Industry Association-sponsored show discussed modular and “panelization” techniques that use factories to replace on-site carpenters wielding hammers and nail guns. Another developer touted his high-density, single-family-home project in Ontario as a way to provide detached houses at more affordable prices.
With prices going through the roof and builders able to produce just a fraction of needed housing, new techniques are needed to speed up the process, conference speakers said.
“We’re still using the rotary-dial phone if you look at how we do things” in the homebuilding industry, said Rob Corbin, vice president of operations for Newport Beach-based Trumark Homes.
Like Mighty Homes, Trumark is transitioning to factory-built wall panels for housing, but with wood rather than 3D printers.
“We assemble (our walls) in a controlled environment,” he said.
Housing experts believe, however, that 3D printing will play an increasing role in that modernization.
To date, the process is just “a drop in a drop in a drop in a bucket,” Murphy said.
But, he said, “3D printing represents a fundamentally disruptive technology that has legs and is gaining traction.”
Azure Printed Homes constructs 10-by-18-foot housing modules at its Culver City factory and then trucks them to the housing site. Modules can be coupled together to make homes as big as 900 square feet.
The startup has built just 10 homes so far, but claims to have $27 million in orders from customers in 20 states. They include “build for rent” developers and “glamping” camp resorts.
Azure’s process uses recycled plastic bottles mixed with Fiberglas and carbon fiber, said company co-founder Gene Eidelman. They take five to 10 days to build, and less than a day to assemble on a finished foundation.
The larger modules sell for just under $44,000, or $220,000 for a 900-square-foot home. Delivery, installation, heating and air conditioning and a new foundation add about 20%-40% to that cost, for a total of $264,000 to $308,000, not including the land.
Estimates for a similarly-sized home using conventional building techniques range from $270,000 to $450,000, according to Homelight.com.
“The process is much faster. … It’s less expensive,” Eidelman said. “There’s a tremendous need for affordable housing. If you can imagine it, you can 3D print it.”
Most U.S. homes are built on-site, with wood-frame construction dominating in states like California and Texas.
Globally, 3D-printed homes are not new, and one producer said China has been using the technique for a decade.
But even in the U.S., builders have been experimenting with 3D printing for several years.
Homes using 3D printing have sprung up in Long Island, Tallahassee, the Dallas area and Detroit.
While most 3D-printed homes are small — ranging from 120- to 1,200 square feet — the first big subdivision involving a major homebuilder is underway near Austin.
Lennar, the nation’s second-biggest homebuilder, and construction technologies firm ICON announced in November they have begun construction on the 100-home Wolf Ranch development in Georgetown, Texas, with sales scheduled to begin on June 10.
Starting prices for three- and four-bedroom homes range from $476,000 to $566,000, according to the homebuilder’s website. Homes will range from 1,600 to 2,000 square feet.
“Lennar has always expanded the boundaries of technological innovation to keep quality homes affordable,” Eric Feder, president of LenX, Lennar’s venture capital and innovation unit, said in a statement. “3D printing is an immensely encouraging approach.”
Culver City innovator Eidelman cited reports saying the global 3D printed construction market is projected to reach $750.8 billion by 2031.
For now, the market is small, said Dan Dunmoyer, president and CEO of the California Building Industry Association.
“The percentage of homes built through 3D printing is still in the low-digit percentages,” Dunmoyer said. “The market doesn’t bear it out yet.”
“I think it does have a future,” said Carole Galante, founder and adviser at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation and a former Federal Housing Administration commissioner under President Barack Obama. “The challenge for them is the initial infrastructure to have a 3D printer on-site is expensive. So, to be cost-effective, it has to be a large subdivision.”
Layer upon layer
Three-dimensional printing, which dates back to the 1980s, uses computer-generated designs to create objects layer upon layer. A nozzle at the end of a robotic arm extrudes concrete or other materials like a soft-serve ice cream machine.
There’s a wide variety of techniques. Homebuilders use both on-site and factory-based 3D printers to manufacture homes.
A professor at USC began experimenting with 3D-printed homes in 2014.
During the pandemic, the method was used to manufacture objects like test swabs, protective gear and respirator parts. The New York Times cited a report by 3D printing platform Hubs saying that the 3D-printing market grew 21% in 2020 and was projected to double by 2025.
China-based Winsun Technology Inc., which had a booth at the Anaheim builders’ show, claims to have been manufacturing 3D-printed homes and buildings since 2012.
The company uses a 40-foot-long, trailer-mounted 3D printer that extrudes recycled construction materials to build corduroy-patterned concrete walls right at the building site. The company completed a 10,000-square-foot villa in China using the technique, said Winsun Chairman Yihe “Mark” Ma.
Speaking through an interpreter, Ma claimed his technique costs 30% less than traditional construction methods. And they’re durable, he said.
“It’s fire resistant, flood resistant, tornado resistant, mold resistant and also earthquake resistant,” he said.
Winsun can build the exterior walls of a 2,000-square-foot home in a week, Ma said.
“It saves labor, material and time,” he said. “It’s very efficient.”
U.S. builders “are so far behind,” added Lily Zhou of San Diego, a Winsun marketing adviser. “In China, we’ve done it for a long time.”
Proponents say 3D-printed homes also show promise for providing homeless housing, accessory dwelling units and for rapid reconstruction in disaster zones.
Eidelman, originally from Ukraine, hopes to use the technology to rebuild his home country.
Some local builders attending the Anaheim show said they weren’t aware that 3D-printed homes existed but see its potential.
Harriet Rapista, a project management vice president for Long Beach-based Comstock Homes, said concrete 3D-printed homes could be a solution to building in areas prone to wildfires.
“It’s fascinating. I’m very interested in it,” she said. “In our most recent project, fire has been the big issue.”
Irvine-based architect John Dandelian said that while his firm has been interested in the technique, “it’s in the infant stage at this point.”
“But,” he added, “we’re definitely going to watch it evolve.”
200 3D-printed homes
Palari has the most ambitious plans for 3D-printed homes in Southern California.
In addition to building 20 homes produced by Mighty Buildings in Desert Hot Springs, the company is seeking approval for a 29-home, 3D-printed development in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs. It hopes to break ground next fall.
Each Rancho Mirage home will be on a 10,000-square-foot lot, with a pool, spa and backyard accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, said Palari CEO Basil Star. The main houses will have 2,400 square feet, plus the 800-square-foot ADU.
Prices for the net-zero, solar-powered homes will start at $2.1 million.
The 1,200-square-foot houses in Desert Hot Springs, under construction for about a year, will have 9,000-square-foot lots and also will come with pools and 700-square-foot ADUs. Prices start at $995,000.
All the homes will have backup batteries and water and air filtration systems. Ultimately, Palari has 200 3D-printed homes in its pipeline, according to its website.
Murphy, the Mighty Builders executive, said 3D-printed homes solve a variety of problems: the labor shortage, the housing shortage and the climate crisis.
“There are significant tailwinds pushing us to more and more market share,” Murphy said.
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