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Commentary By Isai Chavez

3-D Printing Comes Home

Economics Regulatory Policy

New 3-D printing technology has the potential to do wonderful things, such as replace damaged organs. Now, it may have another use, supplying affordable housing. The first 3-D printed home, built on site, was made in Russia last year. This year it is America’s turn. Can 3-D printing address housing shortages?

In Austin, Texas, New Story, a non-profit, and ICON, a technology company, partnered to create the first 3-D printed home in America. The home is 350 square feet and consists of a bedroom, a bathroom, a living room, and a porch. It took about 48 hours to print the home at a cost $10,000 (printed portion only). The 3-D printer, called Vulcan I, was not even operating at full speed when it created the prototype home. The second-generation printer (currently under construction by ICON), the Vulcan II, is expected to print a home in less than 24 hours.

New Story hopes to create a community of 3-D homes in El Salvador by 2019. These homes will include two bedrooms and a kitchen. Each home will be between 600 and 800 square feet, take less than 24 hours to create, and cost $4,000 (printed portion only).

ICON has stated that it expects to bring 3-D printed homes to American cities, starting in 2019.

Since there are only a few prototypes available in the world, durability of 3-D homes is difficult to determine. The community of homes being built in El Salvador will be the first real test. These homes need to be continuously monitored for durability ratings.

Another concern might be the potential of 3-D printing technology to displace construction workers. However, the prototype built in Austin still required workers to install the windows, roofs, and interior finishing. Even if technology replaces workers in the traditional aspects of home construction, there will be new employment in other areas. Technology does not eliminate jobs, it replaces them with others.  Granted, there is a high probability of replacing low-skilled workers with high-skilled workers who can navigate the new technology.

Affordable housing is vital to California. Earlier this year, the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) released its list of California cities and counties that are subject to Senate Bill 35 (SB 35) streamlining provisions. In total, 526 cities and counties have not met the affordable housing requirements set by the state.

Under SB 35 streamlining provisions, qualifying jurisdictions are granted a faster permitting process for new developments that include affordable housing units. Developers are required to set aside from 10 percent to 50 percent of units for affordable housing, depending on the income ranges the development is targeting. For example, new developments that target low- and very-low income households must set aside 50 percent or more units for affordable housing.

Other localities, such as Aspen, Colorado, and Washington, D.C., also require developers to set aside a share of units for affordable housing.

Unfortunately, a faster permitting process will not completely solve the housing shortage problem. To build more affordable housing, the cost of houses must decline.

3-D printed homes are a step in this direction. Low-income households in America, especially California, desperately need them.

California’s HCD cannot and should not wait until 3-D printed homes hit the market to address the immediate problem of the state’s housing crisis. However, to address the problem in the long-run, the state will need to have a permitting process in place for 3-D printed homes. California should create a task force to examine the permitting process necessary to facilitate the construction of these homes.

The solution to California’s affordable housing crisis may rest with innovative 3-D printed homes that provide low-cost, affordable housing. 

Isai Chavez is a contributor to Economics 21.

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