A Tempe family will soon move into a 3D printed house

By Katherine Davis-Young
Published: Tuesday, January 4, 2022 - 5:05am
Updated: Tuesday, January 4, 2022 - 9:20pm

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Homeownership is becoming out of reach for more and more Arizonans. So Habitat for Humanity is betting on new technology to reduce construction costs. A family in Tempe will soon move into one of the first houses the organization has built using 3D printing.

Construction began in June. The “printer” was loaned from a German company. It’s a huge piece of automated machinery for pouring concrete, which follows a plan to squeeze out a line of wet concrete a few inches wide. The machine coils one tube of concrete on top of the next to build up inch-by-inch the exterior and interior walls of the whole house. When the walls of the 1,700 square-foot, three-bedroom home were complete, a traditional, wood-framed roof was added to the top of the structure.

3d printed house
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Marcus and Shawn Shivers stand in front of their 3D printed house in Tempe while it was under construction in October.

Homeowner Shawn Shivers said when she and her husband, Marcus, applied for a Habitat for Humanity home, she had no idea her family would end up in one of the first 3D printed homes in the U.S. But she jumped at the chance.

“At first I wanted it for sure, because it was so innovative and new,” Shawn said. But she said her husband, Marcus, was more skeptical.

“I have to worry about internet, plumbing, electricity, who’s going to come and fix it?” Marcus said. “After seeing it now though, I’m a lot more comfortable. It’s actually beautiful.”

3d printed house
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Habitat for Humanity's first 3D printed house in Arizona is seen under construction in October.

The 3D printing technology is exciting, but the most exciting part for the Shivers family is being able to own property in Tempe. They’ve lived in the city their whole lives — they raised their three adult sons there, their jobs are there — but by the time they had saved enough to start looking for their first home, they were afraid they’d have to leave the community they love.

“Prices have been so high in this area, so we were kind of having to look outside the area, Casa Grande, Maricopa, for more affordable housing,” Shawn said.

That’s exactly why Habitat for Humanity wanted to bring 3D printing to central Arizona. The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Home Price Index shows the cost of a house in the Phoenix area is rising faster than anywhere else in the country. Experts say part of the reason is Phoenix hasn’t built nearly enough new houses to keep up with explosive population growth over the past few decades.

Debra Bradley, Habitat for Humanity Central Arizona’s chief operating officer, said the construction industry needs to consider new alternatives.

“If we can get down to where we can build a house in seven or eight hours, the exterior of the home, and the cost makes sense and the product is stable and long lasting, then why wouldn’t we do that?” Bradley said.

Habitat for Humanity doesn’t give away homes, the organization builds them at very low cost with donated materials and volunteer labor, then they sell the homes to qualifying low-income families on an affordable, no-interest mortgage plan. But building materials and land values have gone up so much, the organization says even their low-cost homes are getting harder to afford for many Arizona families.

The hope is that 3D printing might speed up production and lower costs so that Habitat for Humanity can better meet demand. But Bradley said the organization's first 3D printed home in Arizona has come with a lot of obstacles.

“There’s no building code right now that specifically addresses 3D printed homes,” Bradley said. “Then a lot of other things had to be done from an engineering standpoint, reinforcement standpoint, in order to get the building permit.”

The house was originally scheduled for completion in September or October. Now, the Shivers family probably won't move in until February.

3d printed house
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
3D printing technology laid out all of the exterior and interior walls of the house, even the base of the kitchen island. The roof has a traditional wood frame.

The delays aren’t surprising to Mark Stapp, a longtime developer and director of the real estate program at ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business.

“We don’t have sufficient amount of experience to be able to scale this to get the amount of cost savings that people would hope,” Stapp said.

Habitat for Humanity has built just one other 3D printed home in Virginia. Just a handful of other 3D printed houses have been built in the U.S. Stapp said the technology is too new to be efficient. But he agrees, Arizona does need to consider solutions to a worsening shortage of housing for low- and middle-income families.

“There’s nothing out there, I mean the inventory is so small,” Stapp said. “As a first-time homebuyer looking to buy something that’s a median income house or below, you face a huge challenge.”

Strapp said the framing of a traditional house might only come out to 15% of the project's overall cost. So when it comes to 3D printing, he doesn’t expect the concrete walls would reduce the price of materials for construction all that much.

“What you may do is increase the amount of production that can occur, because you’re reducing labor,” Stapp said.

But Stapp expects maybe five years from now, technology like this could help Arizona’s housing shortage by creating options for developers in an industry that is straining under labor shortages and supply chain issues.

“I mean, it absolutely has potential,” Stapp said.

That’s why Habitat for Humanity is still optimistic. Bradley said even if the organization’s first 3D printed house in Arizona came in over budget and behind schedule, the point was to show it can be done.

“Now we can take this and prove to the world we can do things differently and have a better outcome,” Bradley said.

She said change has to start somewhere, so why not start with the Shivers family with their very first home in Tempe?

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