3D printed houses might sound like something out of a futuristic science-fiction movie, but since India's first ever full-scale 3D printed house was built by Tvasta Manufacturing Solutions last year, a start-up of IIT Madras alumni, it has become a reality that we're all living in today. As crazy as this idea might sound, a house can actually be 3D printed, and no, this does not involve a giant 3D printer that encompasses the entire house. The principle of how it works remains largely the same as a far smaller desktop printer. Using a technology known as contour crafting, there is a robotic arm that moves around on rails and prints the house layer by layer. What's incredibly interesting about this printer is that it actually prints concrete, something that many people would've never thought possible just a few years ago.
The process of building a 3D-printed Tvasta house is not just different but a lot quicker than conventional construction. It takes two workers just 6 to 8 hours to get the printer ready, and then the machine can print at an average speed of 400 to 700 inches per minute, completing the construction of an entire house in 4-5 days. In fact, the Tvasta house was built in just 5 days! As compared to the 5-6 months (at least) that is now required for the construction of any housing unit, this is a remarkable improvement. With India battling the challenge of the rapid pace of urbanization on one hand and the slow and capital-intensive pace of construction on the other for such a long time, this can be seen as a direct solution. Another major concern that is addressed by this technology is affordable housing. There are nearly 1 million urban homeless in India and about 65 million Indians who live in slums, according to census data, although charities estimate the actual number to be three times higher. Families in slums live in makeshift houses created with whatever scrap materials it is possible to gather, often lacking proper toilets and leaky roofs that let in the rain and cold are ubiquitous. Even for the middle class, ownership of a house is considered a feat, which is generally after long years of struggling through rented houses with soaring values. As traditional construction is tedious and time-consuming, people are increasingly getting left out as affordability is limited or settling for low-quality homes. Enter 3D printed houses - having costs that are at least 30% lesser than that of the houses built with traditional construction material without any compromise in the quality. These printed homes are expected to last as long as or longer than standard concrete masonry homes and are resilient to disasters such as earthquakes and cyclones that people in low-quality homes are more vulnerable to. As per Tvasta, the cost of constructing a 3D-printed house is approximately Rs 5 lakh to Rs 5.5 lakh, which is roughly 20% of the cost of a standard 2BHK apartment. With many experiments underway in the domain of 3D printing globally, it can be expected that the cost of construction will easily come down to at least half of the current cost structure, thus making such houses more affordable for end-users.
What makes these houses more perfect is the promise of sustainability. Take for instance Tvasta's 3D printing technology. The materials used in construction consist largely of recycled material and industrial waste. This reduces the carbon footprint significantly. Further, houses built by this technology can be customized according to the climatic conditions of the geographical area. Thus, cooling requirements (as is mostly the case in India in the summer months) are minimal. That is another brownie point towards the consumption of less energy. Also, these houses are built with a focus on zero-waste construction and optimized production. The concrete mix that is used is a base of ordinary cement which has a lower water-cement ratio. While concrete is the primary material for typical construction projects as well, the energy consumed to mix and transport it is extremely less in 3D printing. When it comes to waste materials, this technology creates only 1/3rd of the waste generated using conventional building methods. The homes are also designed to withstand the country's tropical weather conditions. So, not only does it have a smaller carbon footprint during the construction process, but also over the lifetime of the house. Thus, it is safe to say that this technology is sustainable and green.
Yet another advantage of printed houses is that this technology can enable deep personalization of construction for the ultimate target segment — who is the individual. Printing the homes offers more design freedom than building them with concrete masonry blocks since it's just as easy to print curves and slopes as it is in straight lines. A home can be customized to fit a family's needs and preferences — a level of personal service that most families living in India aren't used to.
While a 3D printer provides a fast and effective method of building, there are some challenges. Weather can be a big obstacle, which can halt a project if conditions aren't suitable. Also, many builders lack education on the 3D-printing process, which prevents more sites from using it. Although the requirement of little supervision or staff on the site while the machine is printing prevents injuries and saves costs on workers' compensation, it reduces demand for jobs in the homebuilding industry.
However, housing remains the biggest driver of economic growth with strong forward and backward linkages. Increasing the supply and quality of housing has a multiplier effect on the economy by boosting the primary sector (raw materials), manufacturing sector (construction materials) and the service sector (architects and engineers, skilled labour, banking and finance). Recognizing this technology and understanding the cost on a large scale to address the problems of affordable housing is vital for our country. As the innocuous-looking 3D-printed houses stand tall not just as a technological marvel. They might just be the answer to our country's housing shortage that remains at 10 million units in urban India alone.