By Glen Martin | May 09, 2022
3D printed buildings
It's no secret that the country is facing a housing crisis caused by a conjunction of challenges: skyrocketing demand, supply chain bottlenecks, labor shortages and, of course, spiraling prices for everything. It's hard to build your way out of a predicament like that. But it just may be possible to print your way out.
That's what Gile is banking on. His company, Emergent 3D, uses 3D printers to construct homes, churches, and other structures. The impetus for the business, says Gile, was the confluence of three trends: housing shortfalls, the increase in catastrophic wildfires, and the power of late-generation 3D printing technology.
"I've worked on humanitarian projects in the Middle East, and I've established two real estate investment companies, so I've been sensitive to housing needs for some time," says Gile. "My wife and I moved to Redding in 2018 with our four boys to start a private school. As it happened, that was the year of the Carr Fire."
The Carr Fire was a catastrophic wildfire that killed eight people, scorched almost 230,000 acres, and destroyed 1,604 buildings, 1,077 of which were homes. It was a devastating blow to Redding and its satellite communities, and Gile signed on with FEMA to lead the agency's case management program for the area.
"And then the next year we had the Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in state history," says Gile. "That destroyed 18,000 homes in and around Paradise, which is less than a hundred miles from Redding. Those of us involved in response were really scratching our heads on how to get our arms around this massive housing stock crisis. Labor was in short supply, and costs for construction materials were shooting up.
Before the fires, you could build a mid-market home in Redding for between $180 to $200 a square foot. Now it costs between $300 to $350 a square foot. After all these hits, many people just can't afford a home."
By 2019, it was clear to Gile that things were going to get worse before they got better. With fewer people going into construction as older tradespeople retired, labor would stay tight. Lumber, sheetrock, Romex -- all the basic materials of the construction business -- remained limited in availability. It was at that pivotal moment, when the fires were long out but their full impact was just settling in, that Gile decided to launch Emergent 3D.
"I had been following 3D printing for several years before we got to Redding, and I've watched as it's grown in sophistication and capability," says Gile. "Because it's based on digital technology, it essentially follows Moore’s Law, doubling in capabilities every couple of years. For housing needs, this is 3D printing's hour."
3D printing is not new. It has been around for four decades but as Gile observes, its applications have taken a dramatic jump in recent years. It can employ a variety of feedstocks to print everything from customized medical implants to pizzas -- and now, houses and other buildings.
Gile has partnered with COBOD, a leading company in construction printers, to address Emergent 3D's hardware needs.
"COBOD has the top tech in this sector," says Gile. "They're easily a generation ahead of the competition."
There are other construction companies printing houses, of course. Many of them take a "modular" approach, Gile says: printing portions of each home in a central factory, then delivering the components to the home site for assembly and finish work.
"That's not our approach," he continues. "We print all walls on site. There are several advantages of doing it this way, including the fact that traditional site-built homes have a different -- and preferable -- classification for lending. If fact, we've just received word that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have approved our onsite homes for loans. That's a tremendous boost for us."
Emergent 3D's COBOD printer uses a specially formulated cement to print interior and exterior walls, with insulation blown into the gap between the two barriers. This technique provides optimum insulation, says Gile -- far superior to the insulative value typical for standard "stick built" home construction.
"With our approach, there's no thermal bridging," Gile adds. "Redding gets extremely hot in the summer. The outside wall can be cooking at 110 F, but temperatures will stay cool and pleasant inside our houses."
Fire resistance is another big advantage of printed homes, says Gile -- particularly for Redding and other areas in the West located close to forests and grasslands.
"It's simple," Gile says. "Concrete doesn't burn."
And what about labor? It takes a three-person crew to print a home, Gile says: one to run the construction printer from a laptop, a "materials master" who assures the aggregate is running smoothly through the device, and a support person to respond to any exigencies.
"That's it," Gile says. "The savings on labor are huge. Right now, we estimate total project cost savings will run at about 15 percent compared to standard home construction. But as Emergent 3D's efficiencies improve, the cost ratio will improve as well -- dramatically. By next year, we should be able to print with conventional concrete formulas, and we'll be printing foundations and sidewalks, as well as walls. That should bring the cost savings differential to 30 to 40 percent."
Emergent 3D has negotiated a contract with the City of Redding to print up to 24 new homes in conjunction with a local nonprofit housing group and has partnered with Habitat for Humanity in California's Tuolumne County to print senior residences.
Emergent 3D also has been commissioned to print a church in Redding; construction will tentatively begin this fall.
"We collaborated with a top acoustical engineer on the church, and he designed the sanctuary walls to mimic curtains," says Gile. "They'll provide really superlative acoustics."
Gile is convinced construction is about to undergo a secular change -- one that will transform the way houses are built, construction materials are sourced, labor is deployed, and people are sheltered.
"This sector is really poised for a boom," opines Gile. "If we ran a printer continuously -- which we wouldn't, given the need for the crew to rest -- you could print the interior and exterior walls for a house in 31.5 hours. But call it a week or so of work. That's still a huge labor and time advantage, given such a small crew is required. And I think this is going to spark a resurgence of interest in the trades. We've partnered with the California State University at Chico to teach students 3D printing construction. We're finding that young people who aren't interested in climbing up on a roof with a nail gun like the idea of building a home from their laptop."
Challenges: "Labor is a challenge for anyone in construction," says Gile. "There is a shortage of men and women in the construction trades across the nation. For every five construction workers retiring, only one is coming in. So, we're concerned about labor. On the other hand, our homes need much smaller crews than traditionally constructed houses, so I anticipate we'll fare pretty well."
Opportunities: "Our opportunities are clear," observes Gile. "Globally, 1.6 billion people lack adequate housing. In California alone, 3.4 million homes will need to be built through 2025 to keep pace with housing needs. Further, more than 50,000 structures have been destroyed by wildfires in the state since 2017. Finally, traditional 'stick-built' construction is slow and labor-intensive. We can build at scale at far lower cost."
Needs: "We've closed our funding round, so capital isn't a concern," Gile says. "But if we scale as we are anticipating, we'll need many 3D printers and operator teams to meet the demand for both homes and commercial buildings. Making sure we have the means to meet that demand will be our focus."