People and Community Science and Technology

Building with 3D printers may hold promise for affordable housing

A collaborative project to rebuild a home in historic Coconut Grove using a 3D concrete printer lays the foundation for the School of Architecture to explore new construction technologies and may serve as a prototype to address the housing crisis.
A collaborative project to rebuild a home in historic Coconut Grove using a 3D concrete printer lays the foundation for the School of Architecture to explore new construction technologies and may serve as a prototype to address the housing crisis.
The photo shows the process of 3D concrete printing. Photo and video: Max Jarosz/Special to University Communications

A University of Miami School of Architecture team is advancing a collaborative project with the 3D construction firm Printed Farms that will provide an innovative living space for a Miami family while offering the opportunity to improve these new technologies that hold such promise for the future of housing. 

“The construction industry has a lot of room for improvement—it’s basically the same today as it was 100 years ago,” according to Armando Montero, an assistant professor of professional practice who’s overseeing the project team. “We’ve been looking at the use of construction technologies in our curriculum, and this research project is a great opportunity for the University and for us to explore a technology that could seriously impact affordable housing.” 

Montero noted that the advisory board overseeing the development includes members from the top construction companies in South Florida and even some global representation. 

One of those members, W. Robert “Bob” Miller, who earned his Bachelor of Science in architectural engineering from the University in 1977, was instrumental in engaging the school’s team in the reconstruction of a home located in one of Coconut Grove’s Neighborhood Conservation Districts. 

Miller, who serves as chair of the Master of Construction Management Advisory Board at the School of Architecture, is a director on the national board of the nonprofit Rebuilding Together and has collaborated for years with Rebuilding Together Miami-Dade, a local nonprofit organization that provides free rehabilitation services for low-income, elderly, and disabled homeowners. Rebuilding Together had identified a Coconut Grove home, badly damaged years ago, for reconstruction and negotiated with the City of Miami to engage a builder. 

Miller approached the City of Miami and suggested using the new 3D printing technologies for the rebuild instead of traditional construction, Montero acknowledged. 

“This opens the door to use this technology and to go in and design and build a house,” he said. 

Max Jarosz, director of fabrication and an adjunct lecturer, is heading the small team engaged in the collaborative Coconut Grove project. While the school is working most closely with Printed Farms, which touts having “the fastest and most flexible 3D concrete printers globally,” Jarosz said collaborations with other firms are also advancing. 

The team shared initial designs last week and, based on feedback, is now redesigning plans to satisfy the client and fit the flavor of the historic Bahamian neighborhood where the home is located. The documentation process should be completed, and the permit process launched this semester, according to Jarosz.

The new technologies pose some challenges to permitting, but the University’s participation and support should facilitate the process, he said. The 3D concrete printing—which takes only 10 or so days—should begin by April or May. 

Montero explained that the first connection with Printed Farms was made several years ago. Architecture students traveled to a site in Wellington, Florida (central Palm Beach County), to view a 3D barn the firm was building. 

“The students were mesmerized—it’s a wonderful technology with a lot of promise in the construction industry,” Montero said. “We decided to look into it further to start a collaboration and highlight our program in some way.” 

The home reconstruction in Coconut Grove and the current economic situation have presented the opportunity. 

Montero cited the labor shortage and rising costs of lumber and other building materials. 

“It’s not getting any better with the lack of workforce and increased costs. 3D gives us the advantage of not wasting materials—you don’t have lumber that’s thrown out,” he said. “And a 3D printer doesn’t get tired after 10 hours of work, so the productivity is better.” 

Several years ago, the school participated in a mission in Haiti to try to help residents redevelop after an earthquake, Montero reported. Utilizing resources that were available in the natural environment was pragmatic and essential. Part of the problem at the time was finding something they could build with—soil, rocks, what could be useful? The new technologies are better suited to address this challenge. 

The technology has improved since then, but there are a range of challenges and complications that must be explored before it can be truly competitive. 

“That’s one of the reasons were jumping in, so that we can help solve these issues,” Montero said. “We can start experimenting. We have the lab and students already printing on a smaller scale, printing architectural models in miniature,” he added. 

“It’s pretty much the same thing, just a matter of scale and materials,” he continued. “This technology has a development curve; and while it’s not the most feasible right now, it shows a lot of promise for addressing industry needs.” 

With 40 years in the industry, Montero said that poor productivity and waste of resources are a couple of his major pet peeves. These increase construction costs, which inhibits more affordable housing projects. In this crisis area, he pointed to a range of benefits and the “hidden plus” that 3D structures offer over traditional construction. 

“In addition to issues of sustainability—labor and materials—resiliency is much higher for wind loads, and it’s insect free and fire proof because of the nature of the material,” he explained, adding that even home insurance would be lower because the house would be assessed as more secure and a lower risk. “These are all things that affect a family on a tight budget.” 

Jarosz added that the 3D printer construction addresses a stigma often associated with affordable housing that it generally doesn’t look as fancy—and still keep the cost competitive.

“A concrete 3D printer allows for more complex geometries. We can change a wall from straight to being curved in different ways to highlight different site conditions and move around trees,” he said. “We don’t have to cast molds and concrete.”

The shorter time frame for construction also helps reduce the cost. 

“Time is money in terms of construction,” Montero noted. “If we work out some of the kinks in the experimental phase of using this technology, you could print a house probably in a couple of days, depending on what percentage can be printed and how much hand finished,” he said. 

“We believe it can soon be very competitive pricewise,” Montero added. “These are formulas that still need to be worked out and this project gives us the chance to do just that.”