MAGAZINE Printing the future one building at a time

3D printing is slowly becoming embedded in property design and construction, but is Europe losing ground to other world regions?

What do quarantine rooms for coronavirus patients in China, a metal foot bridge for Amsterdam city centre, and a home in a low-income French neighbourhood, have in common? Answer: they were all constructed using 3D printing technology.

Printing a physical space has a touch of science fiction about it and it may not be obvious how 3D printing actually works in real estate. This is no surprise because printing has been a resolutely 2D process for centuries, mainly involving flat sheets of paper and ink.

But for no longer. Indeed, additive manufacturing – the formal name for 3D printing – is a revolution that has already arrived in the property world, at least partially. Advocates predict its influence is only set to grow in the areas of design and construction.

Erik Ubels, chief technology officer at Dutch developer, Edge, says: ‘It will definitely happen that 3D printing goes mainstream. There’s a lot of innovation happening. It’s a matter of time and money.’

So what are the applications of additive manufacturing in property sector’s industrial value chain? At present, it is used in three broad areas. In the design stage, for example printing 3D models of planned buildings. For manufacturing components, such as casing for temperature or motion sensors in the new generation of ‘intelligent’ buildings. And for constructing buildings’ external and interior walls, using a concrete-dispensing nozzle attached to a robotic arm or an above-head gantry.

With demand for personalisation rising, the freedom to build in any shape and size is key to 3D printing’s appeal. No more must the façade of a building conform to a concrete mould. 3D printing can produce uniquely shaped panels, or integrate solar panels discreetly. This is good for companies seeking a ‘statement’ office which helps them stand out in the war for talent.

Laser and resin technique
Last month in London, the largest 3D model of a planned development yet seen in the UK, went on display.

Made from 35 litres of resin and depicting around 1,000 residential units and a portion of the River Thames, it took creators at Hobs Studio nearly five weeks to print the model of Barking Riverside, a joint venture between L&Q and the Greater London Authority.

The printing technique used a strong ultraviolet laser to draw a 2D image onto a resin bed, following the lines of a digital 3D drawing. The laser turned the liquid resin hard and this newly formed layer was coated with more liquid resin to allow the process to be repeated on top. The many built-up 2D layers created the model of Barking Riverside. This method of building in layers is why 3D printing is called ‘additive’ manufacturing.

Meanwhile, the process of ‘printing’ the walls of a building looks very different. The world’s first occupied residential unit constructed by additive manufacturing was built in Nantes, France, in 2018. ‘Project Yhnova’ was a joint venture between the local council and the University of Nantes, in a low income neighbourhood. 

The single-storey residential unit was designed by architects and scientists on a computer in a studio. The ‘3D printer’ – a moving robotic arm with a printer head, or nozzle – was delivered to the building site, where the computer guided it to create double external walls, layer upon layer from the ground up, using a fluid polymer dispensed through the nozzle on the robotic arm.

The team behind the development hopes to erect 18 more affordable homes in Paris. The aim is to reduce building costs by up to 25% in the next 10 years. But these plans remain on paper.

Indeed, since Project Yhnova received its occupants almost two years ago, there have been next to no examples in Europe of more liveable 3D printed homes. Indeed, the most ambitious work in 3D printing seems to be taking place in other parts of the world.

Progress outside Europe
Saudi Arabia wants to 3D print 1.5 million homes by 2030. Meanwhile, in Coronavirus-hit China, quarantine rooms have been constructed by 3D printing. Winsun Building Technique Company – a national trailblazer in the technology – erected 15 of the 10 m2 units in the past weeks, for patients with the illness.

Meanwhile, in the US, start-up business Icon believes it can 3D print a one-bedroom home for $4,000 (€3,665). The company constructed the first 3D printed home in the US to win planning permission and has attracted $9 mln in seed funding from investors.

Capital investment data collected by Pitchbook and analysed by Savills, shows Europe lagged behind the US and Asia in winning financial backing for the technology, last year.

In 2019, more than €1.2 bn of capital was invested in 3D printing in the US, the highest level globally. In contrast, in Europe the figure was €122.5 mln. The figures reveal the high point in Europe for investing in 3D printing was four years ago, back in 2016.

Project Milestone in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, exemplifies the snail-like pace in development of additive manufacturing for construction in Europe. Announced in a blaze of publicity in mid-2018, the project - a joint venture between construction firm, Van Wijnen, and Eindhoven University of Technology – has plans to construct five homes, each to a unique design. 

But the wait continues for the first unit to be constructed. Indeed, at time of publication the project still has no building permit, but one is expected to be granted soon. The first unit is slated to be standing by September, a spokesperson for the project told PropertyEU. It will take five years before all five homes are built.

Steve Lang, director in Savills’ commercial research team, says: ‘Global investment into 3D printing has increased from £61 mln in 2010 to £1.6 bn in 2019 showing the scale of the sector’s growth.

‘While European investment figures were slightly down in 2019 on the previous years, this can be explained by the maturing and consolidation of the market.’

Some of the hurdles 3D printing faces on its journey from prototype to building the homes and work places of tomorrow, could be due to the fact that it is disruptive to ‘business as usual’.

 Risk adversity among property professionals can hold up adoption of the technology, according to industry figures PropertyEU consulted. There is also a commercial risk in investing in expensive 3D printing technology, in a sector which is highly sensitive to the ups and downs of the economy.

Also, why should developers and builders rush to adopt additive manufacturing, when the sector is  doing well and demand is high; If you’re doing well, then why change?

Breakthrough imminent?
However, there are hints that 3D printing of homes is a technique whose big breakthrough could yet be to come.

The cost of building the Project Yhnova unit in Nantes was just over €200,000, a 20% saving compared to an identical construction using traditional techniques, according to the team behind it. Printing took just over two days - 54 hours – for the robotic arm to lay the walls for the 95 m2 living space. In contrast, it took four months to install fixtures and fittings such as doors and windows and plumbing – the vast majority of total construction time.

Another tick for 3D printing is that the technology uses less material and requires around a third of the human labour, compared to traditional techniques, according to Danish 3D printer manufacturer, Cobod.

It makes a printer called BOD2 that employs a gantry system, in which the nozzle hangs down and runs along scaffolding up to 10 metres high and 15 metres wide. Prices start at €200,000 per unit. Last year, Saudi Arabia paid more than €500,000 for the firm’s biggest printer to date. 

In 2019, Cobod sold five of its printers and it has sold two more so far this year. Customers include concrete manufacturers eager to experiment with the technology, universities doing research and construction companies.

Asger Dath is Cobod’s head of customer relations. ‘It’s still very young and there’s a lot of demo projects,’ he said. ‘Almost every month we find out new things and I think that’s going to continue for a couple of years.

‘We need a consistent printing speed. The faster we can print, the cheaper it gets and we have better arguments for companies to use it. We also need regulations in each country to accept the technology, because complying with these rules dictates the design.’

In the future, 3D printing’s value as a construction method may be in assembling logistical facilities such as warehouses, predicts Dath. Meanwhile, the relatively small size of 3D printed residential units could make it attractive in developing nations – if the cost is low enough.

Freedom of design
Edge’s Ubels believes in time the built environment will be freed up in terms of design. 

‘In the future you will see buildings of crazy shapes and sizes because it gives you architectural freedom,’ he says.

Edge has employed additive manufacturing for three years in its industrial chain, 3D printed models of developments, and the components which fill the new generation of ‘smart’ offices, such as its latest development, Valley, located in the central business district of Amsterdam.  

‘3D printing is amazing for making models and making components and for making awkward parts of a design,’ says Ubels. ‘It helps to hold a physical product which is easy to visualise in your head, compared to it being a screen.’


Latest news

Best read stories