Using concrete and giant printers, home building may one day be much faster and cheaper.
In a forested patch of Garrison, N.Y., on the Hudson River, a giant robotic arm looms over a platform. Later this month, the platform will start to rotate while the arm pumps out a gooey concoction of basalt and biopolymers. Round it will go, receiving layer upon layer, until the arm, like a demonic pastry chef, has extruded an entire egg-shaped house.
This 24-foot-high, 500-square-foot, two-story construction will have a sleeping pod, a bathroom with a shower, a study area and other amenities you might expect from a cool short-term rental. In fact, it will be a cool short-term rental, as well as a demonstration of the future of home building.
The project, called TERA, is one of the latest experiments in 3D-printed houses. Innovators in this arena are seeking to reduce the expense, environmental impact and hazards of construction methods that have remained fundamentally unchanged for more than a thousand years. They are adapting a now-commonplace manufacturing technique in which a computer-controlled dispenser spews a malleable material that hardens into the shape of a pipe fitting, a chair or an internal organ â or, one day, a whole inhabitable building, with its myriad components and systems robotically extruded.
Architects and engineers are edging closer to this goal, by printing portions of houses and assembling or finishing them conventionally. (In TERAâs case the exterior shell will be printed on site and a separate birch plywood interior inserted.) They are testing different structural, surface and insulation materials and struggling to clear one of the highest bars in this technological obstacle course: the 3D-printed roof. (Itâs a problem of weight. For TERA, the 3D-printed roof is an easily supported half-inch-thick dome.)
And many of these pioneers have their heads in the clouds.
TERA, which was designed by AI SpaceFactory, a Manhattan architectural studio, evolved from a prototype Martian habitat called MARSHA that won a NASA competition in May. (You can see details at the exhibition âMoving to Mars,â through Feb. 23 at the Design Museum in London.) MARSHA was destroyed as a final test of its stability â NASA wanted to see how much force it would take to crush it. AI SpaceFactory is recycling the crushed material in TERA to demonstrate its commitment to zero waste.
Marsâs atmosphere, about 100 times thinner than Earthâs, determined the habitatâs tubby shape: As pressure within the structure is equalized, the building envelope bulges. Because the cost of shipping construction materials more than 30 million miles is prohibitive, the design makes use of volcanic basalt rock, which exists on Mars, below a layer of dust. The vision is of an autonomous robot that collects, processes and prints what it finds.
Designing for extreme conditions in space helps solve terrestrial problems, noted David Malott, AI SpaceFactoryâs co-founder and chief executive. The strategy of building homes on site with hyperlocal materials could have tremendous environmental benefits for our own planet. âItâs a high-tech way of going back to the Stone Age,â he said.
Last year, in a widely publicized collaboration with the San Francisco-based housing nonprofit New Story, ICON introduced a 350-square-foot house in East Austin that has a conventional flat roof with standard framing lumber. The structure was printed with a machine called Vulcan I using a proprietary concrete-like material called Lavacrete. Construction took a total of 47 hours over several days and cost $10,000 for the printed elements.
In May, ICON and New Story again made news with their plans for a village of about 50 printed houses for a poor community in an undisclosed location in semirural Latin America. (An ICON representative recently declined to identify the site out of concern for the privacy of the families who will be chosen to occupy the houses, which are still awaiting construction.)
Now ICON is working with the nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes on Phase 2 of Community First! Village, a 51-acre development that accommodates former members of Austinâs chronically homeless population in RVs, tiny houses and, soon, several 3D-printed cottages. In September, ICON produced the first printed building for the complex, a 500-square-foot welcome center, in a total of 27 hours over several days. The job was done with a Vulcan II, ICONâs next-generatio