Printing a house? A Virginia first takes shape.

By: - June 24, 2021 7:36 pm

A 3D printing machine starts pouring the concrete walls for a house in South Richmond, the first of its kind in Virginia. (Malcolm Ferguson/ Virginia Mercury)

In a state that has been facing a major affordable housing shortage, a new alternative to brick and lumber homebuilding could be emerging 3D printing.  

Funded by a $500,000 grant from Virginia Housing, formerly the Virginia Housing Development Authority, designed by the Virginia Center for Housing Research at Virginia Tech and printed by Iowa-based construction company Alquist, the first 3D-printed home for sale in Virginia is set to be on the market by October, roughly half as much time as it would take to construct a stick-built home.

The coalition, along with Richmond-based housing nonprofits project:HOMES and the Better Housing Coalition showcased the home Thursday, allowing media to view the printing of the exterior walls. (The foundation, roof and interior walls will be built using traditional techniques.)

The grant money covered Alquist’s purchase of the $370,000 BOD2 3D printer, the key to the project. The machine runs on a gantry system that allows it to be assembled on site in four hours and disassembled in three, which avoids the hassle of shipping large, pre-built construction materials. Recycled concrete mix is transferred from the large mixing vat to the printer nozzle with a pump and mixed with water along the way, minimizing cracking and chipping. It can also use open source technology that allows for new sustainable materials to be implemented into the process.  

The 1,550 square foot, three-bed and two-bath house on Carnation Street in South Richmond will have concrete exterior walls, which the developers say will allow the house to better retain temperature (saving on heating and cooling costs), resist extreme weather and cut down on maintenance. The house will also be equipped with indoor environment sensors and an alarm system, as well as other features designed to optimize energy consumption. Virginia Housing expects the house to be 50 percent more energy efficient than state code requires. The target construction cost is $180,000 and it will be listed at about $210,000.

A house under construction in South Richmond will be the first in the state to be built using 3D printing. (Alquist 3D)

The Better Housing Coalition, a Richmond nonprofit housing developer that manages rental properties and has helped first-time homebuyers get into new or renovated single-family houses, is spearheading the next step in the 3D home process: fielding potential buyers. BHC Vice President Lynn McAteer wants to showcase how the energy efficiency of the house can help with saving time and lowering energy bills. BHC also plans to heavily subsidize whoever ends up buying the home. “BHC is providing a down payment assistance grant for the buyer,” McAteer said. “This is a prototype, the total cost of it wouldn’t be affordable to that first-time home buyer, so we’ve raised private philanthropy to give a grant of fifty to seventy-five thousand dollars to the buyer for an affordable mortgage.”

The BOD2 modular 3D printer being used to build a house in South Richmond. (Virginia Housing)

Alquist CEO Zachary Mannheimer anticipates that finding and incentivizing buyers will be a straightforward process. “We’ll show them the numbers. Your utility costs are going to be 50 percent less than a lumber home, plus the affordability of it is less. We know we can save at least 10 percent across the board versus a stick-built, likely higher than that once we look at the numbers.”

Mannheimer said the only real barrier keeping 3D-printed housing from becoming the next big thing is scalability. While they plan to construct additional homes in Williamsburg, Exmore and Stanton, Iowa, this year — with more projects planned for 2022 — an additional BOD2 printer would allow a major expansion of the operation.

“This is the future, and many people will not accept it,”  Mannheimer said. “We’ve been building homes the same way for a thousand years. The industry needs to adapt and change. Housing wasn’t affordable before the pandemic, now it’s really not affordable. We have to adapt, and technology is the way to do that.” 

In 2018, Virginia had a shortage of 400,000 affordable housing units, a problem that’s only worsened, the National Low Income Housing Coalition says. Exploring 3D printing is part of other approaches to fill the need, including modular and factory built homes, said Susan Dewey, Virginia Housing’s CEO.

“The lack of affordable housing impacts every family and every community and we won’t stop until every Virginian has a safe, affordable place to call home,” she said in a statement.

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Malcolm Ferguson
Malcolm Ferguson

Malcolm Ferguson is an intern with the Virginia Mercury. He's a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, where he majored in English and political science, and is pursuing a graduate degree in urban planning. Contact him at [email protected].