Monday, February 13, 2023

Is There A 3D-Printed Concrete House In Your Future?


In a recent issue of The New Yorker, reporter Rachel Monroe describes the efforts of an Austin entrepreneur named Jason Ballard to revolutionize the construction industry the way the electronics business has been revolutionized by the introduction of integrated circuits. 


In some ways, the analogy is appealing.  Probably the most complicated consumer-electronics item in the early 1960s was a television set.  You can find online videos showing how TV sets were made back then:  dozens of women (the assemblers were almost always women) hand-wired chassis with individual components, one part at a time.  While there are probably some hand-assembly steps in the production of iPads or laptops today, virtually all the "wiring" happens without any human intervention in a series of automated photographic and chemical processes.  That is a big reason why your smartphone doesn't cost ten million dollars and doesn't have to be rolled around on a cart.


Ballard hopes to apply the technology of 3D printing to houses.  He has developed a special kind of concrete that stays in place when it's squirted out of a precisely positioned nozzle at the end of a giant 3D printing frame that builds up each wall of a house layer by layer, the same way smaller 3D-printed structures are made. 


So far, except for the manufactured-housing market, the residential construction industry in the U. S. has been stubbornly resistant to automation efforts.  Most houses built today are done the old-fashioned way:  grading the site, laying the foundation, erecting the frame, closing it in, and doing the wiring and plumbing and interior finish work.  All these are labor-intensive manual operations, which means labor costs are a good fraction of the total cost of new housing.  Which is why Ballard has high hopes for lowering the cost of housing worldwide with his 3D-printing idea. 


Housing is one of the three legs on the stool of humankind's material necessities:  food, clothing, and shelter.  So anything that promises to make better or cheaper housing is worth looking into.  However, there are reasons to believe that Ballard's company may not achieve all that he's hoping it will.


One reason is the regulatory environment.  As Monroe points out, building codes are highly localized, and what is legal in one locality may be otherwise elsewhere.  I think it's significant that Ballard set up shop in Texas, which is one of the most union-unfriendly states in the Union.  I can easily picture picket lines forming around any attempt to erect a 3D-printed house in, say, New Jersey, where construction unions are part of the landscape. 


Another is history.  Speaking of New Jersey, that state harbors several all-concrete-construction houses built by none other than Thomas Edison.  As kind of a sideline to his unsuccessful iron-ore business, in 1899 Edison founded the Edison Portland Cement Company and started to manufacture cement.  To increase sales, he began experimenting with the idea of an all-concrete house made with complicated molds.  He filed patents on his ideas and attracted the attention of a philanthropist named Henry Phipps Jr., who hoped to solve New York City's housing crisis with Edison-designed houses.


The farthest Edison's experiments in concrete living got were the construction of a few two-story concrete bungalows in New Jersey, with a few more in Indiana.  The New Jersey houses are still occupied and in reasonably good shape. 


The problem was not in the quality of the resulting house, but in the complex molds needed to form an entire house in one pour.  After trying a few test houses, Edison realized there was no way to mass-produce houses with the ridiculously intricate molds he needed.  So Edison's concrete houses stand today, a mute testimony to yet another great idea that had an unfortunate encounter with reality.


It's an open question whether Ballard's automated 3D-printing approach will cheapen the cost of housing enough to be attractive to a wide range of customers.  Monroe points out that it's most likely to be used in places where labor is extremely scarce, such as the moon.  If we ever establish a space colony on the moon or other planets, it will be cheaper by far to send up a bunch of machinery that will build housing rather than getting the members of Local 310 of the New Jersey Carpenters' Union to the moon safely and back. 


But the moon is not Ballard's only goal, although he has been in discussions with NASA about extraterrestrial construction.  He hopes that the combination of cheaper construction and the new possibilities that 3D-printed construction opens up—it's just as cheap to print a curved wall as a straight wall, for example—will make his method the next big thing in construction.


Edison's experience may be instructive, in that he, as well as Ballard, tried to substitute a one-time capital expenditure (molds in Edison's case, the 3D printing machine in Ballard's case) for ongoing labor expenses.  Sometimes this works, but sometimes it doesn't.  The basic structure of a house is only part of the total construction costs.  Trim features such as walls and doors, wiring and plumbing, and interior finishes (not everybody will like the coarse-stucco effect that results from the unvarnished 3D-printing process) are still hand-labor items, and no mention is made in the article about how the roof is dealt with.  Icon, Ballard's company, shows example houses on its website, and they appear to have conventional metal roofs, not poured-concrete roofs. 

So it begins to look like 3D printing may find a few niche markets where labor costs are high or peculiar construction requirements make that technique advantageous. But as for taking over the entire construction industry, I don't think the union carpenters in New Jersey, or anywhere else, should be shaking in their workboots for fear Icon will take away their jobs.


I wish Ballard well, and perhaps he can overcome the problems that Edison faced and revolutionize the way we build houses.  But he may stand a better chance in places where building codes and unions haven't shown up yet, and the moon certainly qualifies.


Sources:  Rachel Monroe's article "Build Better" appeared on pp. 24-29 of the Jan. 23, 2023 issue of The New Yorker. The story of Edison's concrete houses is told well at  Icon's website is

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