High-tech addresses housing shortage, climate change

This blog was written by NBI Senior Fellow, David Bloom.

A fully recyclable house in Maine made entirely of bio-based materials. A two-story home in Texas made of concrete. And a community of single-family homes in Arizona. These residences have something in common – they were made with robotics and 3D printing technology.

The U.S. housing market has not kept pace with population growth in the U.S., resulting in a housing and labor shortage. Robotics and 3D printing, also known as “additive manufacturing,” can help by significantly reducing the time it takes to construct a building. Benefits include: lower labor costs, less construction waste, fewer supply chain hiccups, and reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions  due to reduced transportation of building materials.

While still in its early stages, 3D printing and robotics in the construction industry are attracting significant investment. Examples range from Diamond Age, which 3D prints homes more efficiently and with lower carbon emissions, to Agorus, which pre-assembles panelized home systems in a climate-controlled factory, to AssemblyOSM, which uses modular construction to reduce construction time. ​​One study found the 3D printing construction market will be worth $1.5 billion by 2024—a nearly 250% jump from where it was in 2019.

Meanwhile, mounting pressure from consumers, investors, and employees to work toward environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals is leading many of those companies to take a hard look at how to reduce their carbon footprint. As a result, manufacturers, builders, academia, and government are teaming up to develop innovative solutions to find ways to use robotics and 3D printing to create more sustainable buildings.

Lower embodied carbon buildings

More than a fourth of global GHG emissions associated with buildings are embodied carbon emissions, or those associated with the production of materials and products. As buildings become more efficient, there will be increased attention on the emissions caused from building materials, or embodied carbon.

The global construction industry is the world’s largest consumer of raw materials, and constructed entities account for between 25 and 40 percent of total carbon emissions in the world, according to the World Bank Group. Many 3D-printed buildings rely on concrete — the highest consumed product on Earth – due to its durability, moldability, and affordability. Yet the manufacturing process for concrete is responsible for about 8% of human-made carbon emissions worldwide, according to a 2018 report from the Energy, Environment and Resources Department.

Some companies are rising to the challenge. Silicon Valley-based Mighty Buildings uses patented 3D printing technology to reduce waste by 99%, and is working on a solution to the concrete problem. Last year, it announced it is partnering with Fortera, a materials technology company, to produce a low-carbon cement that claims to reduce carbon emissions by more than 60% compared to the traditional material.

Another option: abandon concrete altogether. A research team at Texas A&M University is investigating the possibility of using local soils in combination with 3D printing to lower the carbon footprint of buildings. The team received a $3.74 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to explore this concrete replacement.

On the other side of the country, the University of Maine and Oak Ridge National Laboratory partnered on BioHome3D, made completely of local wood fiber and bio-resin materials. Concrete was used only for foundational posts driven into the ground, which creators’ claim they could eliminate in future designs.

Prefab low energy homes

While 3D printing is not synonymous with energy efficiency, many of the same companies investing in 3D printing are also committed to lowering energy use. Diamond Age homes is working to deliver substantial operational carbon footprint savings over lumber frame construction homes. The company believes its homes will produce 1/3 less CO2 annually compared to a typical new home. This could mean a total of approximately 3.6 tons of CO2 savings annually.

Photos Credit: Argorus | Location: San Diego, CA

Agorus is working to deliver zero energy and zero waste homes. Mighty Buildings is partnering with Culver City architects EYRC to create a zero energy community in Desert Hot Springs, Colorado. And Method Homes, based in Washington state, builds prefabricated homes that meet the world’s most stringent green building standards. The company claims that building off-site at its custom facility minimizes construction waste to less than 10 percent.

And, circling back to 3D concrete construction: there is limited data about the energy performance of 3D-printed concrete composite walls, but early research suggests they offer energy efficiency and thermal comfort benefits in warmer climates.

Now is the time to invest in our future

It’s an exciting time for innovation in the building industry. Prefabricated and 3D-printed homes have the potential to address two of the biggest challenges of our time—the housing crisis and the climate crisis. Not only can high-tech significantly reduce carbon emissions during construction—they have the potential to significantly reduce energy use and carbon emissions during building operations and even at the end of the lifecycle of the building (because some materials can more easily be recycled).

Fully leveraging the technologies for good will require ongoing partnerships between the public and private sector. For example, the Additive Manufacturing Forward (AM Forward) program encourages large U.S. manufacturing companies to pledge to purchase 3D-printed parts from small- to midsize U.S.-based suppliers.

We need more government funding and incentives to encourage developers to use available technologies to improve the efficiency of the building process as well as the buildings themselves. Builders can partner with technology companies to prove these concepts are a great return on investment. And investors can put capital to work by investing in companies that are building homes.

By David Bloom, Senior Associate, Signia Venture Partners

David Bloom is a NBI Senior Fellow and an investor at Signia Venture Partners, an early-stage venture fund dedicated to helping passionate entrepreneurs realize their vision and build impactful, high-growth ventures. David runs their industrial automation/construction focus. Note, Signia Venture Partners has invested in some of the companies included in this article.