I’ve seen many articles recently about the future of 3D printed homes. It sounds extremely exciting – pick a design, and the 3D printer goes off and creates the home with less waste and less labor and hopefully less price. There have been several recent articles such as this home listed on Zillow for a low price, this new startup that’s starting to build 3D printed communities in the desert, and these 3D printed homes in Austin which aim to be a more mid-tier offering.
Wait a second – aren’t 3D printed homes this just another name for manufactured housing? Seriously. Compare the picture above (3D printed home) with another graphic of a manufactured home from Cavco.
Tying this into this blog, which is investment related, I just did a post on Skyline Champion and Cavco, which prefab homes in a manufacturing site and then send it along to the plot of land desired by the customer. The difference seems to be having a cool name for your process and doing most of the manufacturing onsite.
This home listed in Long Island was for sale for $300k – lauded for its ability to sell at a material discount to homes in the area. But my guess is that’s probably the same price / more expensive than what manufactured housing offers from Clayton, Cavco or Skyline. And the 3D printed house looks…. mehhhh. In this case, the true cost of this home likely came down to lot value in Long Island.
Let’s call a spade a spade…
I struggle to see how 3D printed homes will disrupt current manufacturing processes, especially in comparable product categories. A lot of these 3D printed homes still need fabrication work onsite after they are completed, too.
Here is the cement-based 3D printed home. The machine builds the structure by adding layer and layer of cement, but it looks like the guts of the home are still fabricated without machines. Not to mention you still need someone to install windows, doors, cabinets, countertops, and electrical work.
My guess is that, today, you can only build these structures where the land is very flat – otherwise it will throw off the machine. Technology improves, but it will improve in the manufacturing process in “traditional” areas too.
Many prefab techniques already exist and are continuing for onsite construction. For example, distributors like BuildersFirstsource often assemble the trusses for a home, or they will precut the wood ahead of time so the frame can easily be stood up on the home (BuildersFirstsource has a brand called Ready Frame which is an interesting watch if you have the time).
This same thing happened in Japan, where manufactured housing and 3D printed homes are more commonplace. Much has been written about applying what Japan does to the US.
But outside of low-cost housing, however, Americans desire too much choice and they might as well choose a Clayton Home over a “Google-backed startup” 3D printed home. Japan differs a bit too, in that their homes depreciate over time, whereas everywhere else they appreciate. So it makes sense to build cheap and quickly, raze it later, and start fresh.
We clearly need housing solutions. There is a housing shortage in the US, as I discussed in this post. I worry about that shortage leaving groups of people in the US behind. And I am afraid our employment trends mean that the shortage in construction trades will likely get worse. This will continue to drive up the cost of building. It’s no wonder why there are growing calls to democratize housing.
But solutions have been discussed in the US literally for 90 years. Architect Buckminster Fuller had the idea for a “Dymaxion House” which was a aluminum, grain silo-looking house that could be shipped and easily assembled with less waste. Frank Lloyd Wright did as well. The idea being that if the automobile was being democratized, so should housing.
Obviously, it never panned out.
The undertones sound exactly the same as today as the 1930’s, though. We need to improve cost, we need to save energy, we need to become more efficient. Democratize housing.
We have solutions to that today, but either consumers aren’t choosing it, there are zoning issues, or something else.
I personally have trouble seeing 3D printed homes offering a meaningful solution in the near term.