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Could 3D printed homes help Ohio's affordable housing shortage?

A nearly fully constructed home sits in a rural area in northwest Ohio. Its base is made of 3D printed concrete.
Sustainable Concrete Innovations
Sustainable Concrete Innovations says their 3D printed home just north of Wapakoneta is the first of its kind in the state.

In the small northwest Ohio city of Wapakoneta, one house stands apart. While it looks like those that surround it, its construction is different. Instead of being built brick by brick, it was 3D printed.

Its creators, Sustainable Concrete Innovations, believe it’s the first one of its kind in the state. Founder John Smoll said it’s just the start: the company plans to use 3D printers to spur on a wave of home building in the region. They hope to 3D print another three to six homes this year, and another 20 next year.

“It's going to completely change, at least, a segment of the market. Not everybody is going to want to live in a 3D printed house, and we certainly understand that,” Smoll said. “But for those who have a need and can't find a place, I think it's really a game changer.”

They’re not the only ones with the idea. In Youngstown, Pantheon Innovative Builders is partnering with Ohio State University to research 3D printing. And, in Columbus, Vitruvianis looking at bringing the concrete homes to Central Ohio. Cleveland’s city council has even floated a proposal to buy a large-scale 3D printer for housing. All hope the technology can be a strong tool in creating more affordable housing across the state.

“I think everyone understands that housing is one of our basic needs,” Smoll said. “And now we have a product that we're hoping makes that more accessible to more people.”

Printing a home

Unlike the traditional stick frame houses, 3D printed houses are constructed out of concrete.

Lisa Burris, a OSU civil engineering professor who is researching the technology, said it functions similar to the way a kid’s Play-Doh system would.

“You put concrete material in the top of an essentially an extrusion machine, and squish it out into a very specific shape. We're going to lay it down layer by layer and kind of go around the outside and the inside to create all the normal walls and columns and beams that we would have in a typical concrete house,” Burris said.

Walls of concrete make up the interior of an unfinished, unroofed home.
Sustainable Concrete Innovations
Sustainable Concrete Innovations used a large-scale 3D printer to construct the walls of a home outside of Wapakoneta.

No one should be afraid to live in a 3D printed house, Burris said. But there are questions around installing reinforcements and weather-resistance that many researchers are still in the process of answering.

“It’s a Wild West,” Burris said.


Still, Burris said it does offer some promising construction benefits. 3D printing is cheaper than typical construction and it requires a lot less labor.

There’s a massive shortage of construction workers across the country. The construction industry needs to attract half a million more workers to adequately meet demand, according to a recent report by the Associated Builders and Contractors. Burris said 3D printing could help fill that gap.

“Instead of having a team of people to build a house, and do individual components at a time, we can use this machine, program in the design and the shape that we want, and hit a button. And the machine will do a lot of that construction work for us,” Burris said.

Ohio State University has a large-scale 3D printer, a large metal machine that stretches to the rafters.
Ohio State University Center for Design and Manufacturing Excellence
Ohio State University has a COBOD International's BOD2 Printer on campus, the most widely used 3D construction printer.

In addition to less workers involved, Burris said 3D printing requires fewer materials, less waste and less time. All of which equals a lower cost in construction. Sustainable Concrete Innovations estimates their 3D printed concrete home cost 20% less than a traditional stick frame home of the same size.

“Hopefully we can produce homes and, and businesses, other buildings, fast and cheaply, and make affordable homes more accessible to the general public,” Burris said.

Bringing them to market

In other states, like Texas, Colorado and Virginia, 3D printed homes have already made their way to market. Just north of Austin, there’s a whole neighborhood of 100 3D printed homes underway.

It’s not possible to buy a 3D printed house in Ohio yet, Burris said. With some more investment, it could be on the horizon. But a lot more research is needed to get there.

She likens it to phone technology. 3D printing plastics is at iPhone level: it’s advanced, smart, efficient. But 3D printing concrete is more like the early suitcase-style mobile phones. They just don’t have the same capacity.

“We're just not quite there yet. We'll get there. But we need a little more time. We need a little bit more work and honestly, just more people doing 3D printing,” she said.

She’s excited to see more Ohio companies, like Sustainable Concrete Innovations, investing in the process. That, she said, sets the stage for progress.

“Their first products probably aren't going to be at the level that we will achieve in five or 10 years from now. But they're really essential for us to get towards that sort of optimized, perfected concrete 3D printing design.”

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.