It’s been more than two months since the first 3D-printed home was put on the market in the United States, and society has had a chance to see what’s possible. The question remains: Is it scalable? Can 3D homes become a real option for widescale affordable housing? And beyond that, could it be a solution to balancing the current housing market which very much favors sellers? As a part of the team that designed and planned this nation’s first livable 3D home, we can unquestionably say the answer is “yes.”
With an asterisk.
The International Residential Code, New Jersey edition regulates every aspect of newly built homes, from how tall a building can be to the materials used. The code is updated every three years. Local municipalities then put their own spin on the code, appropriate for that given community. The code is purposely flexible, so new technologies and demand for new spaces and materials can be met.
For example, before May 2020, no single-family dwelling in New Jersey could be legally constructed with less than 800 square feet of space. Then the state adopted a tiny-home provision (Appendix Q) allowing for more housing options, giving rise to 400-square-foot homes and other fascinating real estate trends.
A similar provision for 3D-printed homes could be a solution to the housing crisis plaguing communities throughout the country, including communities in New Jersey. It’s time that the IRC, as well as New Jersey code officials, take a look at incorporating this building type into the uniform code.
Right now, there isn’t enough affordable housing – or housing in general – to meet demand around the country. This shortage contributes to an increased homelessness. The United States produced 7.3 million fewer homes than it needed to keep up with population growth and consumer demand between 2000 and 2015; in 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported there were only 62 affordable rental homes for every 100 “very low-income” households, and a meager 38 affordable homes for every 100 households with “extremely low incomes.”
But it isn’t only low-income buyers who are affected by today’s housing market trends. According to Redfin, the median sales price of homes in New Jersey have increased by 16.3%, with approximately 50% of homes selling over the list price. In contrast, the number of homes for sale decreased by 24.3%. With an increase in demand caused by those in the workforce fleeing cities for suburban living, and a lack of inventory, buyers who previously may have had no trouble are also finding it difficult to break into the housing market. This is particularly true for first-time millennial homebuyers.
As to what is causing the lack of inventory, a hesitancy among homeowners to list during the pandemic is to blame, as well as a slowdown in the production of new construction. A large part of this slowdown is the result of increasing lumber and other product prices, which are at record highs, and a shortage of labor. Production of 3D-printed homes eliminates the need for those products that have increased in price significantly, as it uses concrete, and cCdecreases the number of laborers needed to staff the production with the utilization of 21st century technology. With those challenges eliminated, 3D-printed homes could not only have a positive effect on affordable housing for low-income buyers, but also on younger, first-time homebuyers who are faced with skyrocketing home prices due to the conditions of the market.
The need these homes could meet doesn’t end with those actively in the market for them. The ease with which 3D-printed homes can be built also creates the possibility of them being used as shelters in areas where natural disasters are prevalent. They could provide relief from climate disasters like Hurricane Harvey, which decimated homes in Texas and Louisiana in 2017 and left thousands homeless to this day. Applying this technology could be a solution to quickly rebuild homes and neighborhoods, or at the very least provide safe shelter for those who need it. And because the homes are built by a method of concrete construction that is steady, durable and can withstand hurricane winds, floods, and fires, the homes would likely survive future storms.
There is a reason why buying a home is an integral part of the American Dream, and if this past year has shown us anything in the real estate market it is that that dream is alive and well. But in order to make it achievable for all Americans we need to look to the future and find solutions to the challenges we face in the present. 3D-printed homes have the potential to change the way we look at homebuying. It can level the playing field by increasing the supply of homes at a lower cost with a reduced production timeline, and if municipalities accept this potential and modify their zoning and building codes accordingly, the impact will be long lasting.
H2M architects + engineers has a long history of navigating complicated zoning and code restrictions, and we believe clear restrictions are essential for quality home development. And as much as we want to keep our IP strong, we know the only way 3D-printed homes can become a true affordable-housing option is through new state provisions making their development more seamless.
As architects, these projects are more than just designs. They are proof of concept for what is possible. With this technology, the home is the model, so the only variable is the architect’s creativity and knowledge of how it should be constructed. Even in its infancy, the technology to actually build the home is there – and it’s only going to get more advanced.
We encourage state officials to engage architectural and engineering professionals from every level of home building to ensure the next iteration of the New Jersey Residential Building Code meets 3D-printing capabilities. Supply needs to be increased to balance the housing market and make homeownership accessible, and 3D-printed homes are no longer a novelty. They could be the key.
Kevin Paul is vice president and discipline director in charge of private-sector real estate at H2M architects + engineers.