Why 3D Printed Homes Are Promising, But Will Have A (Very) Limited Impact

A 3D printed house is for sale in New York. Builders say it will cut  housing construction costs

I’m generally a fan of technology. The frequency with which I talk about artificial intelligence, brain implants, biotechnology, and sex robots should make that abundantly clear. I believe that many of the problems we face today will and must be solved through technology.

At the same time, I try to maintain a balanced perspective. I don’t deny that certain technologies are grossly overhyped and doomed to fail. Just ask anyone who bought a Zune. I’m as prone as anyone else from succumbing to that hype, but there are times when it’s either empty or shallow.

Every now and then, a technological advancement comes along that has potential, but is hindered by one too many opposing forces and I’m not talking about conspiracy theories. I’m not among those who think the governments of the world are censoring technology that allows a car to run on water. I just don’t trust governments to be that competent when it comes to keeping technology.

Sometimes, technology is just too late or has too many things working against it. Maybe if it had come a few decades earlier, it could’ve been a bigger deal. It just entered a world that could not accommodate it.

That’s generally how I feel about 3D printed houses.

Now, a lot has been made about 3D printing. It’s a legitimately exciting field that is producing real-world advances. It’s one of those emerging technologies that is just starting to grow. It’s already developing into a wealth of new fields and, with some refinement, this technology will have a profound impact.

When it comes to houses, though, I think it’s too late and too limited. That’s a shame too because housing is a real social issue. As of this writing, there is a major housing shortage from those actively seeking to buy new homes, as well as an ongoing homelessness problem that has plagued many major cities.

It’s true that we need to more homes and the current processes for making them just isn’t cutting it. The idea of using 3D printed homes is a novel method of addressing that issue, but I have a feeling this is one of those methods that just can’t get the job done.

That’s not because it doesn’t work. In recent years, the process has actually been refined considerably. It is now possible to erect one-story, 400 square-foot house in a manner of days at a cost of as little as $4,000 to $5,000 per unit. I know people whose monthly rent is higher than that.

This technology is real and there are people actually living in these houses. The problem isn’t the hardware, the software, the logistics, or even the materials. The problem is the nature of the market it’s trying to impact.

Mass producing houses is not like mass producing your typical widget. Just making lots of units isn’t going to drive down the price or the cost of living in them. Housing is one of those products that is constrained by forces beyond its control, namely location.

That old saying about location, location, location among realtors actually carries weight here. Even if a 3D printed house only costs $15,000 compared to a typical $115,000 unit of similar size, it’s not going to sell if it’s located in the middle of nowhere. People generally want to live close to where they work, where they grew up, and where their family resides.

That’s not a technical limitation.

That’s just human nature and market forces.

I say that as someone who has had to navigate that market. Several years ago, I bought my first home and I can attest that location matters more than style. Some of the homes I saw weren’t exactly appealing, but the price was right. There were also some very nice-looking units, but they were way out of the way for me.

It really didn’t matter to me whether the home was 3D printed or not. What mattered was its location, its proximity to important areas, and having connections to quality utilities. Those are all factors that 3D printing can’t do much to address.

Then, there are the building codes.

There are a lot of building codes.

Granted, those codes are there for a reason. They’re important with respect to ensuring your home won’t collapse on you one day, but they add complexity to the process. Even though 3D printed homes can be built up to code, they still add more moving parts to the process.

Even without those parts, there’s still the matter of general market forces. Like I said, housing is a unique product. You can make all the 3D houses you want. You can’t change the location or the nature of the land.

That’s why housing is so expensive in certain areas, like San Francisco and New York. The demand is high, but you can’t increase the amount of space for homes. Even if you used 3D printing to make all those homes as cheaply as possible, the demand will keep those prices high. You’ll still end up paying six figures for a unit that might have only cost a fraction of that to make.

You can call that unfair or price gouging all you want. That’s just what happens with market forces. When you have a limited amount of space to work with and a location that everyone wants to live in, it really doesn’t matter how cheap it is to make a home. The cost isn’t going to change that much.

That’s not to say this technology is completely useless. I can definitely see 3D printed houses serving a purpose, especially in areas that haven’t been well-developed over the past decades. I can also see it help with developing nations that need a cheap, quick way to make lots of units in an area with limited infrastructure. I just think that if you’re hoping for this technology to reduce the price of a home, you’re hoping for too much. Technology can do amazing things. It can take us to the stars, cure disease, and literally reshape the face of the planet. It just can’t do squat about basic market forces.

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Filed under futurism, technology

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