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Cheap 3D-printed home is a start for the 1B who lack shelter (theverge.com)
139 points by Dangeranger 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 113 comments

Hard to tell, but it sounds like they're 3-D printing the building envelope, minus vapor barriers and whatnot. But nowadays the envelope is not the expensive part of a building, although it is the most visible. Plumbing, electrical, HVAC, floor finishing, decor, and so on accounts for most of the building cost. For some reason they aren't mentioned in the story, probably because nobody has a credible automation approach to them yet.

If you want to reduce the cost of the building envelope, possibly superadobe, shotcrete on airforms, ferrocrete, and flexible domes are better bets than 3-D printing of concrete. (The geodesic dome was conceived specifically as a solution to this problem, but I'm not convinced it actually does a good job at it.)

What's the current solution these things are competing with? Here in Argentina, the standard low-cost construction approach in the villas miserias is masonry with hollow bricks (18×33 cm), which cost 50¢. So a 6m×6m×3m building envelope requires about 1200 bricks, costing US$600 (AR$12000) if you buy them new instead of scavenging, plus some mortar and a corrugated-metal roof, which add a bit to the cost. It takes several days or even, at times, weeks to finish the construction; usually the family who live there build the house themselves, which is less of an opportunity cost than it sounds like with the unemployment rate as high as it is, especially among youth. Some families pour concrete slabs, others use dirt floors.

So, roughly speaking, this approach has to come down in cost by 10× to even compete with our current vernacular architecture, let alone improve on its pricing.

The concrete-3-D-printing approaches I've seen, like Andrey Rudenko's https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQ5Elbvvr1M, all share the drawback that they require a long time, because you have to wait for the lower layers of the construction to cure a bit before you can add more layers. Their big advantage is not that they're cheaper than pouring concrete into forms — although they may be, especially if you're building a large building or a dense construction — but that they have a lot of freedom of geometry.

Not to mention the cost of the land...

Short of a radical change in how our society works, the only realistic solution to homelessness is going to have to be some kind of decent social housing. Maybe it will somehow be cheaply 3D-printed but the government is going to have to buy the land first. (That, or stop making it exclusive to the rich.) Access to land was the original problem here (since Enclosure Acts) and it has to be part of the solution.

In the last few years I've lived in Cleveland OH (5 years in college), Denver CO / Colorado Springs (3 months), and San Jose / SF Bay area (1 year). All 3 of these places had homelessness issues and the root causes were very different in each.

In Cleveland, the homeless seemed to be mostly folks who grew up in low-income neighborhoods (median reported household income $14,000 [1]) from very broken families, who find themselves adults with few skills no motivation to help themselves because they've never known what hope is.

Homelessness in Colorado seemed to stem more from veterans with PTSD who can't hold down a job, or those with other forms of disabilities.

Homelessness in the SF Bay area was the most confusing to me. I met people there who could've been myself in 10 years, but they were homeless or had once been homeless just because they couldn't afford a place to live there. I don't know if this area just lacks housing or if it attracts the homeless but I know for certain that being homeless here is nothing like being homeless in Cleveland.

It's really not a one-size-fits-all problem.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hough%2C_Cleveland I'm using this neighborhood as an example because I used to volunteer at a school here, but there are many neighborhoods like it.

Similar bg: Minneapolis, short time in Denver, probable lifer in BA (currently by the beach in Sunset SF where vagrants abound).

It’s just too nice here to leave, even with offers of couches in swank condos in other cities. Wealthy vs. poor, the BA has endless amenities to cultivate the former. Housing is a nice feature. I am literally teetering on the edge, rent 6-7wk late and without real food for weeks (in comm w landlord + 24lbs of Huel stocked and 2x all my products). I’ll move into my car if I lose my appt. I’ve a YT channel/vlog documenting the plight to poverty in SF, “iSpooge Daily” channel.

My answer to why is that SFers are aggressively passive, and quick to call abberant behavior any label that kinda fits (“worst possible explanation”) which creats a class of people who can comfortably be treated sub-human. I’ve always remained open to chatting with sober houseless folk, and indeed it could be anyone. I know some guy who’s slept in the same doorways with his cats for all yea years I’ve been in SF while I’ve been pushed around. Makes me question who’s homeless.

Green Day was OG from Oakland, their song Android has stuck with me and I’ve come to resonate with this part strongly “hey old man in woman’s shoes / I wonder if he knows I think he’s crazy / when he was young did he have dreams of / wearing woman’s shoes and being crazy” — in truth the crazies are reacting pretty reasonably to their conditions of sub-human treatment and filth. If not for my long term communities and in-tact families and skills, it’d be a lot harder to keep it together mentally. It’s the sense of hope as I’ve never asked for much, thankfully good will and faith etc has life rafts float up as needed.

> Homelessness in the SF Bay area was the most confusing to me. I met people there who could've been myself in 10 years, but they were homeless or had once been homeless just because they couldn't afford a place to live there.

Mental illness and drugs (which really should probably be folded into mental illness) is actually a bigger factor.

1) Saint Reagan (/s) dismantled a bunch of the infrastructure to help those with mental illness in the name of, say it with me now, "Efficiency of the private sector". Consequently, the mentally ill wind up on the streets or in jail--neither of which is actually a good solution. We've only had about 5 years since removing most of the nitwits from the state legislature/Congress (the jungle primaries and redistricting commission have been in effect since 2010 and it flushed most of the Republican nitwits--and Mueller may get the remaining ones), and building/fixing takes more time than dismantling.

2) It also didn't help that some places were actually busing in their mentally ill population to San Francisco.

3) San Francisco weather doesn't kill people. Morbidly, being sufficiently mentally ill in, say, Pittsburgh or Cleveland, probably kills you in winter (and possibly summer).

> Saint Reagan (/s) dismantled a bunch of the infrastructure to help those with mental illness in the name of, say it with me now, "Efficiency of the private sector".

De-institutionalizing the mentally ill was broadly supported across the political spectrum; the institutionalized system was both ineffective and often inhumane.

That both community mental health treatment and poverty support was and remains inadequate are problems, and de-institutionalization certainly highlighted those problems, but let's not create a false historical narrative that de-institutionalization was a policy forced on the country by one political faction.

> Saint Reagan (/s) dismantled a bunch of the infrastructure to help those with mental illness in the name of, say it with me now, "Efficiency of the private sector".

"Saint Reagan" hasn't been President for about 30 years, and hasn't been governor of California for about 40. Perhaps it's time to stop blaming him for things?

Why didn't Saints Clinton and Obama (on the national level) or Saints Brown, Davis, or Brown II: Electric Boogaloo (on the state level) fix these problems?

> building/fixing takes more time than dismantling.

It doesn't take 40 years more time.

The Democrats have controlled both chambers of the California Assembly since 1959 (except for two short periods from 1969-1971 and 1994-1996) and have controlled the governorship several times in that period.

But yeah, the California homeless situation is still totally the fault of Reagan, who hasn't been governor of California for 40 years. Totally.

I think a big draw for homelessness in SF specifically is the abnormally mild and consistent climate. It rarely gets colder than 45F, or warmer than 90F.

America is not an undeveloped nation, yet it still has homelessness. This does not bode with peace in my mind.

I lived on the streets when I was a teen. Many people start off there because it's safer than being at home. Not an easy problem to solve, and has nothing to do with how developed the nation is.

There might be many ways in which people fall below the threshold of being able to afford housing. But the fact is that they can't afford it. The government tends to support landowners in keeping land value high and letting them build luxury housing on it to make more money on rent/speculation, rather than making it possible for everyone to afford housing.

Do a search for land/housing, you can buy a ton of it in rural places for pennies compared to areas like San Francisco. But I think SF is expensive just from market forces alone.


Right now on Zillow.com, there appear to be 735 houses for sale at $50k or less in Iowa alone. (this is not auctions or forclusures either)


These aren't cramped dinky places, these are full multi-bedroom homes with land. And this is one single state.

The issue isn't land, space or housing, it's jobs, knowledge and opportunity. (and I am sure other social dynamics...)

Edit: I did not verify pricing, so who knows how many are bait-and-switches... but it's still a high number to start with.

In the last few years I've lived in Cleveland OH (5 years in college), Denver CO / Colorado Springs (3 months), and San Jose / SF Bay area (1 year). All 3 of these places had homelessness issues and the root causes were very different in each.

Claims about homelessness having multiple root causes have always seemed flawed to me. I would claim the root cause is the lack of supply of houses at a price people can afford.

It's not this root cause that varies from location to location, it's the particular way it manifests that varies from place to place.

IE, a relative shortage of housing prevails everywhere, both places with depressed economies and places with active economies. This shortage means those with low skills can't and don't think of leaving depressed areas for greener pastures and even those with high skills wind-up homeless in the areas of high economic activity - and note that the experience of homelessness can "break" people through deprivation and anxiety, leading the "temporarily homeless" to winding-up looking more like the "hardcore homeless".

I know somebody too mentally ill to keep up a house. Even if you gave him a million dollars and a free place to live, in just a few years it would not be inhabitable because he doesn't have the mental ability to think about getting anything broken fixed.

You make some good points, the problem with 3D Printing houses, shotcrete and some of these other methods is that they cost less in the US where labor costs are high and more in 3rd world countries where labor costs are lower (at least for the types of homes things like this are trying to disrupt).

A really interesting alternative approach is earth bag building. It uses locally available dirt as a material and would generally work out to be even less than the brick building price you estimated.

Here's a family putting up a 30' diameter building out of earthbags: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5Xl8f2J3sY&t=130s

It is _very_ labor intensive and as you said, it needs time to dry between courses.

> this approach has to come down in cost by 10× to even compete with our current vernacular architecture, let alone improve on its pricing.

I'd like to be wrong, but that seems like a kill shot to me. Not only does the new system need to be objectively competitive with the vernacular, but it needs to be so much better that it can overcome the myriad cultural and institutional inertias which have hitherto kept the vernacular locked in place.

Which is why this is a Hard Problem. I doubt that 3D printing alone can solve it. Would love to be pleasantly surprised, however.

Also, thrilled to see another superadobe shoutout on HN!

It is technically possible to do a very basic bungalow from prefab panels if you really really want to for under $1000 in a low income country.

This will be a much bigger change to people whose only other alternative is a carton box.

But I do not see this being a solution. Affordability of housing in developing nations is rarely comes as a number one issue, it is almost always comes after ruined economies, and disfunctional basic civic/municipal institutes: it is no use building those things in countries where a person will never ever earn even those USD $10k.

Prefab panel buildings simply beat every alternative for moderately comfortable, entry level housing from single family to low-rise.

If the goal is simply to transform a slum into something less of a slum. There are no better alternatives if any much big economy of scale be realized for the project.

This $600 house in Argentina sounds interesting. How much does the land cost?

That is a very complicated question, because typically in the villas miserias the people who build houses do not have any officially recognized title to the land. They may or may not have paid protection money to a local gang for a title, but these are not officially recognized. They may end up paying for the land several times over the years, or not at all, and they may end up being evicted from the land — sometimes with bulldozers — despite having paid someone for it.

On one occasion a few years back, some crackheads who had started building a villa near Ecovillage Velatropa stabbed one of the Velatropans, shortly after allegedly setting fire to one of their outhouses. The Velatropans called the police, who evicted the crackheads and the mentally ill man who had invited them to move in. The next couple of weeks, the Velatropans stood 24-hour guard to ensure that the crackheads did not return. One night I calmed down an extremely excited Cuban who was running to get the village machete — he thought he had spotted one of the crackheads hiding in a tree. By the time we returned in a group to chase the crackhead off, he could not be found.

Velatropa itself is built on a site that previously housed the "villa gay", where a group of some 300 people, initially transgender prostitutes, had lived before being ejected en masse with a judicial order in 1998. The city paid to house them in a hotel thereafter — but only for a week. I don't think the "villa gay" was bulldozed until shortly afterwards, but none of its buildings remained when I started going to Velatropa around 2008.

So the answer to your question is not as simple as a range of numbers of dollars or pesos per square meter. I think it's better understood as an ongoing social process of negotiation of land tenure, among whose elements may or may not be quitclaim deeds, warranty deeds, and fee-simple title.

Hi, this is Matthew, one of the cofounders at New Story (YC S15). We're the nonprofit developing this 3D printed home. I'd like to share why we decided to invest in an innovation like this and where we're headed. For context, in 3 years, we've built over 1,000 homes in 11 communities around the world through local partners.

The challenge we face is monumental; there are more than a billion people across the globe living without safe shelter. To make a dent in that number, our ability to scale up has to change.

Steady, linear improvements will never reach the total addressable market of families in need.

We believe R&D and product innovation is essential with a problem of this magnitude. We have to take big swings with forward-thinking technology to achieve a quantum leap in speed, affordability, and quality.

Our goal is to help power anyone building homes for the poor — governments and non-profits alike — to do their best work. As we make these strides, it means more families around the world will have safe shelter and can better actualize their potential.

We’re looking at a one billion person deficit of a basic human need. We believe maintaining the status quo is irresponsible — it’s terrifying to us — as it’ll never tackle this deficit. Our hypothesis today is that this breakthrough to reach more families can be achieved through robotics and 3D home printing.

A year ago, the technology we needed didn’t exist. That’s when we began working with ICON to create a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. The exciting result is “the Vulcan,” a 3D Home Printer designed to print a home for less than $4,000 in less than 24 hours. This robotic breakthrough delivers:

* Cost decrease (from $6,500/home to ~$4,000 and even lower future cost) * Speed increase (from ~15 days to 12–24hrs to build one home) * Improved quality and customization of the home unit for families

More here -> newstorycharity.org/3d-home

We'd love to answer any and all questions.

With all due respect for your work and intentions, please explain to me (hairy reasoner) two things:

1) How would the hypothetical 15 days/home reduced to 24h/home be relevant [1]

2) How the new machine is compatible with the statement on your site:


>Built By Locals

>By training local labor and buying locally sourced construction materials your donation not only builds a home, but it stimulates local economies and teaches skills in the process.

[1] Please consider also how the 24h are per home is also per machine/robot, if you assemble 15 teams of local builders you have exactly the same production

I am similarly cynical. Can you explain why it is not better to use something simple, like cinder blocks, and put people to work in low wage/low employment/low skill environment? My only guess is because there is no place for your tech in that equation but, it seems better if you are really trying to make this a social mission.

First of all, I really genuinely hope that you succeed. You're attacking a Hard Problem, and one that very much needs to be solved. That said: I'm fairly skeptical that your approach will work. Maybe you've seen an angle that I've haven't, so I ask this in a hopeful and constructive spirit: what differentiates you from other initiatives that I've seen fail to transform the world?

Two points of comparison.

First, the Hexayurt[1]. The inventor of the Hexayurt system is a good friend of mine. He created it to provide higher-quality shelter for the bottom billion, particularly in refugee camps. It is actually cheaper than a tent, not much harder to set up, and provides a far more durable and climate-controlled experience. Unfortunately, although it's made a fair impact at Burning Man, it has failed to take root in the context it was designed for. The gatekeepers at refugee camps don't want to provide housing which conveys a sense of permanence; therefore the tents have stayed even hough they're worse in every possible metric.

Second, the CalEarth Foundation's "superAdobe" technique[2]. I also have personal experience with this, having built a dome with its founder Nader Khalili over 20 years ago. This system allows the construction of spectacularly beautiful high-quality homes using nothing more than dirt, barbed wire, sandbags, plaster, and quite a lot of low-skill labour. Although there have been pilots around the world, it has notably failed to make any large-scale changes in housing the poor. (The reasons for its lack of broad adoption are complex, and I'm not actually sure I have a good diagnosis. But it's a good point of comparison nonetheless).

Compared to Hexayurts, you're undoubtedly higher-quality -- but also two orders of magnitude slower and more expensive.

Compared to CalEarth, you need much less manual labour -- but that's the one resource that the developing world is rich in. After accounting for a larger workforce (paid at local wages), you're easily an order of magnitude more expensive, as well as less customisable and maintainable by the local populace. I don't see any compelling advantages offhand.

So what's your edge? I've been interested in 3D printed buildings since making that a major focus of my architecture degree in the 1990s, but I've always seen it as becoming competitive in places where the cost or availability of human labour was a limiting factor for construction. In the developing world, that just isn't the case. So how is this a solution to the developing world's problem?

1: http://hexayurt.com/

2: http://www.calearth.org/

+1 for the Calearth approach.

Really glad to hear you are working with local partners. As stated elsewhere in this discussion, I am skeptical. One of my concerns is lack of localization, basically, though I imagine that is not really the correct term in this case. Vernacular architecture tends to be suited to local climate and culture. This type of approach tends to be not.

Here is my other concern:

Our goal is to help power anyone building homes for the poor 

Every time I hear people talking about designing housing for the poor, I hear them floating ideas that will essentially help them remain poor. Student housing, senior housing and other housing aimed at demographics that are perceived as having a full life, but not much money, tends to be designed very differently from housing for the poor. Housing for the poor often has poor access to transportation, education, jobs, etc. This can help people trapped in poverty.

Best of luck and I hope you succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

I’m curious about how the concrete is reinforced and how using reinforcing materials interacts with the printing process.

Definitely impressive. I think the challenge once the construction is completed is who will handle the ongoing maintenance for the homes. Without the proper HOA type agreements in place, once the newness wears off, it could become like an suburban version of an SRO.

Also if the houses are built where land is affordable, then they will by definition be built where there are not many options for nearby employment. Fortunately, I do feel like technology (i.e. remote work technologies such as always-on video conferencing at a we-work type setup for the community and/or employment at fulfillment centers outside the urban cores) could play a key role in resolving this paradox.

Are local regulations / building codes congruent with this type of building? Any constraints? (e.g. would you build them in earthquake / hurricane / tornado prone zones)

Your project is great! When will they be ready for consumers? Will they be available in the US?

One of the problems with such schemes is that it is not vernacular housing. It is a top down, one size fits all scheme that contains zero local knowledge and no means to incorporate local knowledge.

Vernacular housing is local traditional housing built with local materials and suited to the local climate. So, adobe in the American Southwest and deep porches in the American Southeast so you can have windows open in rainy weather.

It typically winds up working about as well as transplanting a New York apartment to a farm. A New York apartment makes sense in New York. It doesn't make sense on a farm.

In addition, what happens to the local building trades, whether established or nascent? Are they integrated into the scheme or made redundant?

After watching the video, it's evident this method of construction has another disadvantage over the lifecycle of the structure: The walls cannot be easily modified. (And this is a characteristic and complaint of nearly all poured-in-place concrete construction, often cited by institutional caretakers of brutalist buildings.)

An economical house should be able to change and grow according to the needs and means of its owners. That's much more difficult when adding a door or window requires a diamond-blade, water-cooled saw to cut through a thick structural concrete web while avoiding embedded service conduits. In comparison, walls of concrete block, brick, and wooden studs are more readily modified, though each has other favorable and unfavorable characteristics.

... and there was even just a discussion a few days ago on HN about Fordlandia: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16537630

    "one size fits all scheme"
Considering the innovation is in 3-D printing a home, I think it can be customizable

The missing key ingredient will be local information. The hoi polloi from 1st world countries are unlikely to listen to uneducated 3rd world peasants.

In the Great Depression, they gave free bathtubs to dirt poor people in shacks in Appalachia. The shacks had no running water. The locals stuck them on the front porch and used them to store coal, fuel for cooking and winter heat. The monied types that gave them the tubs mocked them for their idiocy. What kind of fool puts a bathtub on the front porch and fills it with coal?

Coming up with multiple variations of top down templates doesn't fix the essential problem here.

> The hoi polloi from 1st world countries are unlikely to listen to uneducated 3rd world peasants.

Kind of harsh and presumptuous.

I spent nearly 6 years homeless. I am American and have about 6 years of college. The hoi polloi didn't want to listen to me as to what I wanted.

I found the degree to which I was given a deaf ear rather harsh. Other than my lack of money, I am essentially one of the hoi polloi. I'm even recently decended from low level German nobility. My maternal grandmother's maiden name started with von and the family sold the title when it fell on hard times.

But I'm poor, so I must be an incompetent dolt who has no clue what is best for me. I'm quite confident that prejudice runs all the deeper towards people who have more differences than just income from the powers that be.

I don't think you are a complete dolt, nor do I think that you are always right in every discussion.

You are making assumptions about large groups of people who I highly doubt are carbon copies of each other.

Sounds like a myth to me.

People in houses without running water do, in fact, own bathtubs and do, in fact, take baths. I know, because I've been one of them.

This is not about Appalachia per se. My recollection is this also occurred in Appalachia. That detail may be inaccurate and is not really terribly important to my point:


There has been talk about coals being kept in the bath. I know how that story began. In the East End of London, 25 years ago, some well-intentioned people built houses for the working classes and put in baths. The baths were put in the scullery, and had neither a water supply nor a waste pipe. The rents were very high, and the tenants found it necessary to let some of the rooms, and as in those circumstances the fixed bath was found to be more trouble than a portable bath, and as there was no adequate coal cellar, the bath was used as a coal store.

Why give baths to miners? Why give baths to agricultural labourers? They will put coals in the baths.” Why does any woman put coals in the bath? Because she has not been provided with a coal cellar. So long as you are not willing to give her a coal cellar, it is a proper form of protest to go on putting coals in the bath.”

>The hoi polloi from 1st world countries are unlikely to listen to uneducated 3rd world peasants.

Not just unfair/ungrounded, but incorrect as a matter of usage: "hoi polloi"[0] means the exact opposite of what you're using it to mean.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoi_polloi

Yup, I took Greek in college. I am well aware that it originally meant the people and has come to mean the exact opposite -- the high falutin types. My Greek professor covered that ironic history.

The possibility for misunderstanding is part of why I usually avoid the expression. But I will leave it. I think people here know what I mean by it, and never mind the opening for pretending I don't have a point because we don't agree on this one term.

>>1st world countries are unlikely to listen to uneducated 3rd world peasants.

There's a balance - it's reasonable to think that the civilizations in the 1st world do have some expertise to offer.

build one, iterate. the local knowledge will come.

The folks that put together this 3D printer maybe should have visited a country like Mexico to understand the houses are already put together ad-hoc with cinder blocks. You can put together a cinder block house for about $10,000 [1] and pay as you go over months or years requiring no loan or interaction with a bank. You can carry cinder blocks by hand or truck up the side of a mountain and it doesn't require much skill to put together.

[1] https://www.curbed.com/2015/1/2/10006114/mexico-affordable-h...

And that is including the massive cement markups found in Mexico thanks to PEMEX. Imagine if Mexicans could purchase cement at the prices their neighbors to the North do.

See https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB1019426769244153760 for a dated explanation.

I used to be in the home-building industry...

With a team of three carpenters a hand-saw and hammers I could build a house like the one in the picture in 48 hours out of a sustainable material - softwood. With a nailgun I could go quicker still.

I could use a 4x2 studding wall, plywood, breather membrane, counter-batten, clad with larch featheredge. Once up a vapour barrier could stapled inside and recycled paper insulation blown in. Inside that I could line out with fire resistant plasterboard (drywall to my transatlantic cousins) (backed with urethane if extra insulation is needed). This design is easily prefabricated if desired.

To contrast with the concrete one this would

a) use sustainable materials

b) meet the building code of a developed nation.

If you are dead set on a concrete wall then just build a set of plywood forms (shuttering as it was called in my day) and cast it in place. A day to put the forms up and pour. The forms are reusable too once set. Now you have a bunker to insulate, waterproof and line out. In the UK you would need to build some kind of studding inside your pill-box for insulation and damp control, much like the 'barn-conversions' the UK is full of. This makes the concrete bit semi-redundant.

Sorry but I think this is a poor application of 3d printing. All we need now is a start-up to build a house with a cloud-based block-chain to get the VC's really excited.

If you want to look at some really quick constructions there are the brilliant post war 'pre-fabs' of the UK, designed to replace housing lost to bombing. Some could be assembled on-site in 4 hours! There are many still in use today. If it wasn't for the amount of asbestos used there may have been many more still remaining. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prefabs_in_the_United_Kingdom

Isn't it the case that the vast majority of people lacking housing are really lacking in land (or at least, stable land)?

$10K on a permanent structure is only viable if you have permanent title on the land below it.

There are places in the UK in which you could buy brick-and-mortar constructed homes, fully wired in to electricity, water, gas and telephone lines with a freehold for approx 5x that - the cost usually isn't prohibitive as such, it's the fact that they're in the wrong place (local jobs pay barely anything, or the community is bad).

Similarly I can go out and buy a car for 300 GBP, but the insurance costs (especially if young), excise duty, fuel costs, ongoing maintenance absolutely dwarf it.

I suppose what I'm saying is that I don't feel construction costs are relevant here, there are a whole bunch of regulatory / community / cultural issues in play.

It's just poured concrete. Building house shells from poured concrete is done worldwide. Edison started that; his system for low-cost housing used standard forms that locked together. Then you pour in concrete, wait, remove the forms, and you have a house. He even built in concrete furniture, which wasn't popular.

Much of the world lives in poured-concrete apartment blocks. It's just so cheap. The main problem is crap concrete mixes. If you want to improve concrete construction, come up with a hand-held device where you stick a probe into the mix and it tells you if it's OK.

This has been tried a few times.[1][2] Just pouring on concrete like that doesn't compact it properly. Compare the Lil Bubba curb making machine, a simple machine which makes concrete curbs.[3] It's a slip-form machine; the form gives the concrete a smooth edge and top, and as someone shovels in more concrete, it compacts it and pushes itself along. The 3D concrete printing people need to develop something as good as the Lil Bubba. Then they can make flat, solid walls in place. Some of the competing machines have some slip-form guides, so they get a flat surface.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQ_WqvjJtDw [2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8z-iebHRxJk [3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJZMpu4MKn8

>It's just poured concrete. Building house shells from poured concrete is done worldwide. Edison started that; his system for low-cost housing used standard forms that locked together. Then you pour in concrete, wait, remove the forms, and you have a house. He even built in concrete furniture, which wasn't popular.

Totally true. And these days it is possible to go even further than that.

Concrete construction can be made even cheaper if the cost is a genuine impediment. If material cost is the issue, you can use large aggregate filler, foaming agents, flyash based cements. If it is the time that is at premium, than you can go for SIPs or stay in place formworks. If workforce is the limiting factor, go for larger concrete pours with concrete flowability enhancers.

How much homelessness exists in developing world because houses are too expensive to build? $4,000 already builds a nice house in many areas, especially when labor is very cheap.

To build a house one must first own or rent the land where to build the house. Investing $4,000 for a house you build illegally is stupid. When city planning and zoning is inadequate and ownership uncertain, slums naturally emerge.

I have seen a lot of these "neat" solutions over the past few years. And the counter arguments I've seen are "we already have this, it's 10x cheaper, faster to setup, etc...". These arguments are based on things like the Ikea shelters/homes, or other prefab stuff that's _super_ cheap.

But, the arguments against these is that it doesn't provide income for local labor, or use local resources... but neither does this 3d printed house.

So, where is this all really going, when we have multiple solutions right now that could help people, but they are not being used?

Is the problem actually political and corruption, and not technical or monetary? Or are these other solutions just as much hot air, and we really do need a new tech to fill in the gap?

Housing is rarely limited by construction, it's limited by land rights and infrastructure buildout. Oh, and credit availability; even down to "microcredit" for the really poor places.

Then doesn't seem like then the most likely successful solution will be the _easiest_ to get past the bureaucracy?

Seems like a discouraging thought. Maybe a fancy 3d printed solution would appeal to some politicians ego, and that's the trick to getting it to happen?

There's an excellent discussion of this in The Other Path : https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Other_Path:_The_Economic...

Basically the author points out that so much housing in Peru was slums built on illegally occupied land that technically belongs to the government, what was needed was a route to legitimacy. Give people proper title to the land they had already had possession of for decades and suddenly they can use it as collateral.

Legitimacy also causes people to choose more durable building methods. If there's a risk of being thrown out there's no point making anything more than a tin shed.

> Give people proper title to the land they had already had possession of for decades and suddenly they can use it as collateral.

Makes you wonder how the municipality keeps track of titles and tax assessments. Without collecting proper taxes how can the local government provide water/sanitation/energy/education? Perhaps what these people need more than affordable housing is affordable yet sustainable government.

Give the people the tools they need to self organize, trade, set up courts and resolve disputes. With the basics in place it might be possible to attract capital via municipal bonds to invest in critical infrastructure. Having running water and electricity makes it easier to attract business which in return generates taxable revenue.

I'm never quite sure what these approaches add to prefab. This process costs $10k to produce up to an 800 sq ft (74m^2) home. They say this is a fraction of the cost of the average American home, but the average new American home since ~2013 is 2500 sq ft (232 m^2), so of course its a fraction of that, and I guess it cuts out the labor. However, I would imagine that even in El Salvador, the principal cost of a new home is acquiring the land. Surely labor and materials are cheaper there, so what am I missing here?

Outside of cities land is not a big component of the cost.

There's acre lots near town here that are $10,000; further away prices go down.

But is there much homelessness to solve outside of cities? When I think of poor rural areas I think of abandoned houses, not of people sleeping under the stars for lack of novel construction techniques.

The "help the poor" angle could be a clever attention hack though, if the technology is fast and cheap enough there might be a nice market in civil engineering somewhere between concrete and gabions to pivot to.

I was just making a narrow point about construction of homes in the US. People that want to live in exclusive areas pay a lot for land, others not so much.

And for homelessness, the problem isn't really that housing costs a lot to build, it's that no one wants to build it. This is probably true in a lot of places that aren't as wealthy as the US.

The town planning commission here just rejected a $10 million project that was mostly low income housing. Some of them had the brass to come right out and say that they didn't want low income people living in that part of town and some of the others used the "historic character" of the shoddy commercial building presently on the site as a fig leaf. One guy dissembled, saying that the project should happen somewhere else. But of course the developer has a different set of concerns and won't necessarily be willing to make the same investment in a different location.

At first sight it seems to me like it is the usual "flawed" approach to third world problems by people having only first world experience.

Loosely building a house is made of costs coming out of:

1) base materials (and the plants to make them and the logistics to bring them on site)

2) equipment

3) labour

In "first world" countries they can be roughly weighted (as percentage of building costs) as:

1) 40%-50%

2) 10%-15%

3) 35%-50%

So everyone is trying to make more "industrial" the building using prefabricated components, standardized parts, etc, attempting to reduce the labour on site, it is logical.

In not-developed countries, usually pure labour is extremely cheap, while materials (and the logistics) are extremely expensive, besides equipment that (not being available for rent or sub-contracting on the local market) needs to be imported and is only justified on larger projects.

It is not unusual that the same percentages in a not-developed country become:

1) 70%-75%

2) 15%-20%

3) 5%-10%

Additionally the problem might be finding locally skilled labour capable of managing the high tech equipment.

This is a very thoughtful breakdown and we appreciate the interest. We (New Story) have been building houses in developing countries using traditional methods for over 3 years now. Developing this tool is in direct response to the issues we've encountered on the ground. As we look at the 1 billion+ people without adequate housing, this and innovations like it are designed to increase the speed, efficiency, and quality with which homes can be built for those in need.

Couple thoughts on those who would criticize.

To those who would say the problem is global organization and the will to end homelessness is not sufficient. Its a good point, but the Internet did not explode onto the global scene from a UN commission. Rather an extraordinary technology was unleashed and the world participated, then it became essential. This is a technology.

The cost of land? At one point in history, it was not unheard of for the government to grant land to people, for free. Not purely out of generosity but in the long term interests of society. Radical?

This is a good example of a worthwhile technology and should be supported.

The danger is, when you get the banks and intermediaries involved, now you have an government contractor building the 4000$ house for $40000. Or more! Prices will rise to meet credit availability. The loans are distorted by the Govt guarantee. This is the sad truth of the housing market and 2008 taught us nothing.

And a 30 year loan to a very poor person? Ultimately a high risk loan guaranteed by the state. Just like the US housing market today.

Skill is a significant factor.

Tech can mitigate it as can mentoring and enabling at scale.

Quality matters. The better the homes are, the better the return on investment and quality of life is, both being necessary goals.

I'd say technology can also increase the burden of skill. I.e. an average jigsaw and pencil line requires less skill and is safer than operating a CNC router, until the router gets a ton of failsafes, sensors, etc implemented. the Anti-crash features probably cost more in a CNC than the rest of the machine does (and that is why mine doesn't have any except the minimum).

You're right that quality matters. My take on this is designing for poor tolerances to still yield strong structures. This 3D printing approach looks good for some aspects, but the lack of a roof seems disqualifying for me. The roof is the hard part, and potentially the easiest part to do incorrectly/unsafely. I'm surprised they didn't just print in crenelations in the top edge to allow drop-in roof joists. a simple shed roof seems like it could have easily been integrated.

Agreed. They could also make a similar process to create roofs. Building some support structures maybe a layup type thing, print over the top of that and now you got roofs that can drop in maybe be drilled and bolted together.

This is possibly a valid point but where are those numbers coming from? Citations please.

>This is possibly a valid point but where are those numbers coming from? Citations please.

Well I was not attempting to write a Wikipedia article, the numbers are "simplified" and "generic enough", only to provide an "order or magnitude" on the matter.

Of course they will change on a country by country base and of course they depend on the kind of building, the local availability of material, equipment and personnel and the scale of the project.

They come from some 35 years of experience in the business, across Europe, including some of East Europe and Northern Africa, besides a few other countries.

You won't find easily (on the public internet) similar breakdowns, as the only people actually interested in them are contractors and - to a lesser extent - developers, all the rest of industry is based on proposal by contractors or sub-contractors that do not specify how much of this or that goes into each offered price, and even large contracting firms cannot nowadays compute similar breakdowns due to the amplitude of sub-contracting.

The most expensive resource at least in India is land, followed by water, electricity and other usual needs that cannot be solved merely by solving the housing problem.

They want to get costs down to $4,000.

You can already build a home of that size for $4,000. The lack of permanent shelter for the world's poorest isn't a technology problem.

Comparing the price to a "typical" American home is ridiculous. The typical American home is not a small rectangle.

Compare the price to a similar structure built using the same techniques used to build a home and you end up right in the same ballpark:


The typical American home is not a small rectangle.

So we should just compare it to the typical Bay Area home then?

(I kid, I kid)

Technology is not always the solution to all problems.

1. You could ameliorate the misery of homelessness by providing a low cost "locker" system where people could store a cubic meter of so of goods while homeless. 2. There are various low cost home plans, shelters made from a single sheet of plywood, hot-bunk and ultra high density housing plans. 3. So far, no one has a sustainable economic model that would encourage an municipality to compete for the existing homeless.

Both architecture and civil engineering are the wrong advances to solve this problem.

How is this in any way locally sustainable. If you want to shelter people then the people need to be able to build and sustain that level of technology.

I applaud the intention behind it but it would be yet another addition to such endeavors. Problem is not the lack of such ideas, the problem is lack of any organized approach to address this problem at a Global Stage.

Similar to World coming together to fight against measles and polio, basic human needs such as shelter, etc. need to be met.

This is ludicrous.

It's the solution one comes up with if they haven't given a minute to ask why 1B people don't have adequate shelter. I don't think this will move the needle a bit.

Constructing walls by laying down layers of cement does not constitute a 3d printed home. How does this automatic wall maker compare to El Salvador labor in cost and quality?

This is exactly what I think of when I think of "3d printed home." I'm curious what you think it would mean?

I think of a house as more than just concrete verticals. A house has insulation, wiring, wood framing, windows, plumbing, heating, flooring, siding, roofing, ventilation not to mention all the decor that is considered part of a house. Just look at the picture in the article and ask yourself what was "printed" in that image. I think the only thing that was printed was that ugly concrete vertical layered stuff.

So, how about "3d printed house frame"?

A house, any house, needs to be placed on some plot of land. So as for those who lack shelter, do they already have a piece of land and just can’t cheaply build on it, or is it not having land at all that is the problem

This seems like a better solution for the massive homeless populations in the United States. These could be govt funded and placed on state owned land. I'd love to see it tested out in California. Los Angeles funded the $1.2b proposition HHH. We have around 58,000 homeless. For less than half the allocated funds, you've built a house for all of them. Yes, it's more complicated than that. But it's a start.

They need jobs too, so if you're going to house homeless people it probably makes more sense to have dorm style housing somewhere close to jobs they can do, rather than individual homes farther out.

Interesting idea. What's the cost of this home vs a timber home? Life span, cost of upkeep, R factor, etc.

From my observations building the frame of the house is relatively quick here in the states. I would be that the habitat for humanities groups could put up a similar size house frame in less than 8 hours. So what is the advantage here?

Article says they hope to bring the cost down to to $4000 from $15000. Meanwhile projects like this exist: http://www.300house.com/ That's $300. So what's revolutionary about $15000 or $4000 for a "cheap" home?

I could be wrong but clicking through that website I got the impression the $300 house was a specification they haven't got a design for.

So this could be revolutionary in that it exists.

Interesting article, but odd to frame the cheapest possible house as the last word in ultra-affordable housing. Has anyone actually built one of these? Would Americans live in one?

It is built. v1 was built in Austin,TX (sxsw) and we'll be rolling out to the developing world later this year

Replace "concrete" with "lunar soil" and we're talking.[1]

[1]: https://www.space.com/19602-moon-colony-3d-printing-lunar-di...

There's a reason concrete isn't generally used for housing : it retains heat very well in the summer, and transmits cold in the winter just as well. A double shell or foamy concrete could solve this, however.

Well god bless good intentions, and it's a cool idea, but it seems better-suited to the first world than the third.

None of the naysayers have yet mentioned the fact that concrete (especially its ingredient Portland cement) is one of the most energy- and greenhouse-gas-intensive building materials available. (It's made by baking certain minerals in an oven at high temperature.)

We who live in large, energy-intensive houses would actually do better for the environment, and for global housing inequity, by living outdoors and in improvised huts of natural materials, rather than trying to get the people who are doing it right to come "up" to an Austin, TX standard of living. But nobody wants to hear that kind of idea. Therefore, we wait until nature imposes that solution on us.

> Using the Vulcan printer, ICON can print an entire home for $10,000 and plans to bring costs down to $4,000 per house.

OK, according to the "global wealth pyramid" [1], a graphical representation of global wealth distribution, the bottom 3 billion own less than 10'000$. I'm not saying that being poor is equal to lacking shelter, but there is probably a correlation there.

3d printing homes is cool and might have potential, but it won't help a poor farmer in rural Azerbaijan get shelter. It would be great if the media could stop presenting this as a panacea to homelessness.

[1] https://www.credit-suisse.com/corporate/en/articles/news-and...

Sorry, I'm confused by this.

Almost no one in the United States owns their homes. Can't the poor farmer in Azerbaijan finance this just like we do?

The payments on a 30 year loan like we have for $4,000 would be like $10 a month before interest.

No. Generally speaking, this kind of low-cost financing only exists in rich countries. In poor countries, interest rates, default rates, and often inflation rates are high and unpredictable. (There may be exceptions, and in particular I've never been to Azerbaijan, but I don't know of any exceptions.)

One element that contributes to the unavailability of financing is the unpredictable nature of many people's land tenure; I wrote a bit about that in https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16569078

Then wouldn't a low cost way to introduce proper land title and efficient banking systems to third world countries be a better use of our first world technology/skills/knowledge?

As it turns out, invading "third world" countries, overthrowing their existing institutions, and installing "proper" systems designed in "first world" countries has been tried. It was, broadly speaking, the foreign policy of Europe toward poor countries during roughly the period 1600 to 1950. It was called "colonialism", and it caused the problems we see there today, as well as much worse problems (up to and including the extermination of entire populations) while it was going on.

I do not think that attempting to re-establish colonialism, as you propose, would be a good use of our technology, skills, or knowledge. However, Peter Thiel and the current government of Honduras seem to disagree.

I'm really glad you replied. I hadn't realised that it was impossible to offer help and technical support without invading. Strawman-of-the-month-award goes to....

It's not a strawman. You didn't propose offering help and technical support. You proposed introducing “proper” systems of banking and land title. If you can decide how a country’s systems of banking and land title work, you are governing that country. Thus, your proposal is that “third-world” countries be governed by people from “first-world” countries. That's nothing more or less than colonialism. It is a terrible idea.

Perhaps you think that poor countries don't have existing systems of land tenure or credit. We do. We aren't monkeys banging on rocks. The problem is that those systems suck. You might think they suck because nobody here knows how better systems work. But in fact, not only do we have internet access and universities, many of us have studied overseas in rich countries and even worked there, some even in banking and real estate. They suck because of resistance to change by the people in power, who are not entirely wrong, because change often looks like the Congo Free State, the Khmer Rouge, the Second Opium War, or Donald Trump.

Far better to enable so they can do it on a labor investment, debt free to the maximum extent possible.

If tech is indicated, invest in that in ways that encourage, local reproduction, again as debt and capital free as possible.

Doing those things means improving their ability to labor to a better state of affairs, and as they are worth more, able to do more, it also means they get the returns, and agency that goes along with them.

Over time, we get an economic peer, not another nation of debtors.

One problem in some less-developed countries is that you can't get secure title to the land. So if you build a $4000 home on it, and someone else takes the land, you (or the lender) is out $4000. That makes the lender much more reluctant to make the loan. (Note: I do not know if Azerbaijan is one of the countries where this is a problem.)

They don't have well developed financial systems.

I agree - this is very cool, but it's hard to imagine that the kids depicted running around slums will be the beneficiaries, outside of targeted NGO efforts.

The Azerbaijani banks issued almost 3,000 mortgage loans in 2017 - from https://www.azernews.az/business/124717.html

The sharia laws prohibiting interest payments are also be relevant in a country with 95% Shia religion (I presume there are typical ways of structuring the mortgage to avoid "interest" e.g. see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_banking_and_finance )

Azerbaijan is a major oil and gas exporter so poor farmers are more likely to have first world problems. You were thinking Tajikistan.

Baku can beat Dubai for the per-capita ratio of AMG S-Classe Benz ownership.

Having a loan is a lesser concern to your imaginary poor farmer than being constantly on the run from the mob that runs every thing* in the country* and tolerate no competitors.

Yeah. I was wondering that. Azerbaijan is in the Eurovision song contest. They can't be on skid row. ;-)

Bosnia is on the contest while also on skid row.

Offshoot question. Why can’t we do this with plastic. Plastic sheds hold up great. And plastic lasts for 1000s of years.

Well, one concern may be that plastic lasts for 1000s of years. What do you do when you decide to renovate a village of ten thousand plastic silos or boxes? Transporting and recycling that volume of material would probably be expensive, even if it were a type of plastic that was largely recoverable without losing much of its material properties.

this is a waste of time. besides all the great points made elsewhere, about the availability of land, there is the fact that this technique does not provide a good house. concrete houses are usually re-enforced with steel. where is the re-enforcement? concrete is supposed to have "aggregate." without it, you basically have a pile of hardened mortar that expands and contracts way too much when exposed to water.

Having adequate mental health services in the United States would be a good start.

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