Living life in 3D

by Kimberly Greene23 May 2019

As you read this, a 3D home is being printed in Austin, Texas.

Genesis, as the home is called, is being built by Sunconomy using their We Print Houses home technology system. While Genesis isn’t the first 3D printed structure in the country, it is meant to be a showcase for the process, highlighting the possibilities of what can be done with 3D printing.

“We’re trying to through the whole process, we’re trying to go through the design, the engineering, he permitting, the building, the appraisal, and then selling it through a third party to show the industry that it’s really not that far out; it can be done,” said Larry Haines, founder of We Print Houses.

Through its Build division, Thrive Mortgage has partnered with We Print Houses builder Sunconomy in order to facilitate the purchase of 3D printed homes. Nancy Hurd, branch manager and senior loan officer at Thrive Mortgage, said there’s nothing else like it, and to be the first mortgage company in partnership with Sunconomy is exciting.

“We do have internal construction loan products, we do a lot of builder-focused products, and so for us to partner with a company that’s doing something really innovative and different in the marketplace that could revolutionize the entire building industry, that’s a cool space to be in,” she said.

The We Print Houses technology system can be licensed to other builders across the country, who will also receive on-site training, equipment certification, bi-annual site visits and ongoing marketing support. Haines’s goal is to get 100 builders on board or eight builds per month over the course of the year, which he said would make them the 12th largest builder in the country. That goal won’t happen in 2019, which is the first year that the system is available, but with a list of more than 260 builders and developers interested in the technology, he expects to meet that goal by the end of 2020.

The narrative surrounding the potential for 3D printed homes tends to be around creating small affordable homes quickly and efficiently, particularly in the developing world. But there are a growing number of concerns domestically that would allow 3D printed homes to disrupt the home building space, one of which are climate-related factors. From earthquakes, fires, and mudslides in the west to tornadoes in the prairies to flooding in the south and hurricanes in the east, climate disasters are increasing, causing billions of dollars of damage every year.

Sunconomy’s 3D printed homes are built with a high density and strong concrete, they’re hydrophobic, which means they repel water, and they’re built to various fire, wind, and other safety codes across the country. Insurance costs are skyrocketing, and companies that are more hesitant to write policies in high-risk areas will become more inclined to look for ways of building to mitigate those risks.

“It’s not going to replace stick-built housing, but it’s going to certainly make a dent in it—partly from the fast build and the better house and all those kinds of things, but also from the insurance and financing standpoint,” Haines said.

Faster and cheaper are the magic words in a consumer-centric economy, but Haines points out that people building cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean better. In fact, the upfront cost on a 3D printed home may be comparable to a traditional stick-built home, even though the overall life cycle costs are often forgotten: painting, roofing, replacing materials and the like.

“With the houses we have, we don’t have that, so you totally eliminate those costs in terms of the homeowner. We think we can reduce the operating and maintenance costs 25% for the homeowner right off the bat just because of those things.”

From a builder’s perspective, even if the home itself is the same price, they can erect a longer-lasting, more stable, home in a shorter time frame: less than two weeks versus up to 12 weeks with a stick-built home. They will also create less waste and be able to eliminate so-called ‘soft costs’ such as chargebacks, damaged materials, and other trade issues.

Hurd says that there may be a bit of resistance when it comes to changing the paradigm around conventionally built homes, but the market will adapt as necessary.

“Every time there’s some sort of new, different product that shows up in the marketplace, people have to wrap their heads around that and get on board. This is really no different,” Hurd said. “It’s not going to be that much different than any other transaction. . . . There may be some education that needs to go into it from the appraisal standpoint for them to understand the value of the home and the future value of the energy efficiency, [but] I don’t foresee that to be a big challenge.”

Builders may also be resistant simply because they won’t want to change what they’ve been doing for decades. But if external factors such as labor and material shortages won’t budge them, Haines suspects that losing market share will.

“When we go out and start building houses and people start buying them from us, all the other local builders are going to start going, ‘holy crap, I’d better get on board on this because these guys are eating my lunch.’”