3D printed houses are often considered to be the next step in the evolution of the construction industry. They are cheap, sustainable, and take less time to build than conventional houses.
However, there is some skepticism about their durability and strength. From an outsider’s perspective, you might be tempted to think that 3D printed houses are very fragile and could not possibly compete with a conventionally built house.
This also concerns the long-term viability and application potential of these houses. For instance, can they be used for commercial purposes, and if yes, how tall a structure can we build before its structural integrity is compromised.
So how tall can you build a 3D printed house? 15.5m which is 5 floors tall, well if you consider the current tallest 3D printed building in the world. It is located in Suzhou Industrial Park in China, and it was developed by WinSun, one of the pioneering companies in the world of construction 3D printing.
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Does this mean that 5 floors is the limit? I think the answer to that is no. There are many reasons why that is, and we are going to take a look at them one by one.
PS: To know how much time is needed to build a 3D Printed house, check out How long does it take to 3D print a house?
What Are the Factors that Limit the Height of 3 D-Printed Houses?
The focus of developers for 3D printed structures is never to build higher. The ideal use case for 3D printed houses is a residential villa-style home. These houses usually have 1-2 floors, and they occupy a large portion of developed land and hence account for a lot of material used.
The appeal of 3D printed houses is that they use less material, and they offer themselves as an eco-friendlier alternative. However, this means that the houses have to strike a balance through which they maintain their cheap price, low material use, and yet still remain structurally viable.
This is what usually becomes a limiting factor that forces developers to maintain structures at a low height. The higher you build, the more material you need to use to maintain the structural integrity of the house, and the less eco-friendly it becomes (not to mention very expensive as well.)
So, the very things that make 3D printed houses desirable are lost. In addition to that, there are other factors as well that affect the size and height limitations of 3D printed houses.
For instance, the additive manufacturing technique relies solely on the load-bearing capacity of layers to bear the weight of the structure above it.
So, each preceding layer needs to be able to hold the weight of the structure above it. This greatly limits the height of the structure being.
Another important consideration is the material itself. Concrete is the most commonly used material for 3D printed houses, and traditionally it relies on reinforcement for strength and rigidity, because it lacks tensile strength on its own.
However, incorporating reinforcement in 3D printed structural elements is challenging and can affect the versatility of the buildings, particularly in terms of design.
It can also increase the time required to build these structures and can also require more material to be used. (Both of which are important considerations in a 3D printed house.)
There are ways to incorporate reinforcement in 3D printed structures and you can read more about those techniques in this article. It covers all those methods in great detail, and you can be the judge each method’s feasibility and effectiveness yourself.
With increasing height, you need additional rigidity. Reinforced frames are built for high-rise buildings to achieve that rigidity. The walls are then built around those frames to divide and section off different parts of each floor.
Theoretically, the walls can be 3D printed instead of being constructed conventionally. This hybrid mix of two construction styles can be used to gain benefits from both.
The reinforced frame can be used to provide the structural strength required to build higher and the 3D printed walls can provide speed, materials savings, and cost cuts.
This is one of many potential approaches through which the 3D printing method can be used to build taller structures.
If you are still worried about the structural integrity of 3D printed houses (which is a viable concern), check out this article where I take a deep dive into the structural safety of these houses.
Also check out if 3D Printed Houses Can Have Basements?
What Are Currently the Largest 3D Printed Buildings?
There have been ambitious attempts to reach for the sky and just like the WinSun project, others have succeeded as well.
According to their website, even the WinSun building has 10 floors, but 5 of them are underground, so it’s still considered to be 5 floors.
You could also look at the luxury villa constructed right next to the 5 story building, which has an area of 12,000 sq. ft. and has three floors. This building was also built by WinSun and it also showcases the potential that 3D printing has.
This villa only needs 72 hours, 3 workers, and 1 crane to be built from the ground up. These are unprecedented speeds when compared to conventionally built homes.
It costs around 160,000 USD (compared to tens of millions of dollars for a conventionally built home of the same size), which proves the cost-effectiveness of the technology.
Another example is the Dubai Municipality Building, constructed by Apis Cor (a Florida-based company), and it is currently the world’s largest 3D printed building in terms of area.
World’s largest 3D printed building in Dubai. Credits: rediff.com
It is a 6,900 square-foot structure that is around 9.5 meters high at its tallest point. That equates to around 3 floors. Only three workers and one 3D printer crane were required for the complete printing process.
Dubai’s government is very keen on further developing 3D printing technology. They plan to build a quarter of all their buildings using 3D printing by 2030. This will generate a lot of interest and much-needed investment in the 3D printed construction industry.
Over in the United States, Texas-based ICON holds the record for creating the largest 3D printed structure in North America. They partnered with the Texas Military Department to print a 3,800 sq ft. training barracks facility.
It is a single-story building that can house up to 72 soldiers on the grounds of Camp Swift in Bastrop, Texas.
Several other companies are working on numerous projects around the world using 3D printing construction techniques. You can read more about these companies and projects by clicking on this article.
Does Size Really Matter?
I think more than the size of individual units, it’s the scale that matters more.
One of the distinct features of 3D printed construction is its repeatability. The automated nature of technology makes it convenient for a developer to build numerous copies of the same design in a very short period.
This is really essential for horizontal expansion and in places where land acquisition is not a concern, this can result in the swift development of affordable units.
Many companies including ICON, SQ4D (based in New York), and WASP (based in Italy) already have multiple housing projects underway all over the world, where they are making use of this repeatability to construct affordable houses.
ICON, for instance, has already completed affordable housing projects like these for communities in Mexico, Bolivia, Haiti, and El-Salvador.
You can read more about affordable 3D printed housing in Are 3D Printed Houses Affordable?.
Like every other technology, 3D printed construction also has its shortcomings. The technology is relatively new and still undergoing developmental changes. This means that we will keep seeing newer innovations that will make the process of printing more effective and efficient.
With time, limitations of the technology will hopefully be resolved and once components like reinforcement are integrated into it, building higher would become very plausible.
There are already innovations like SDC (Smart Dynamic Casting) that make use of moving printheads to build around the rebar and hence they facilitate easier implementation of reinforcement around the structural elements.
3D printing has the potential to tackle issues like sustainable development, labor shortages, and housing crises. With investment and interest from developers and research from scientists, the technology can be adopted for market-wide implementation.
This can also include vertical expansion, where 3D printed buildings can have higher floor counts. So, in the future, if you see a housing community pop up near you within a few days, don’t be surprised. It might very well be the swift work of a 3D printer.
A good way to gain more perspective on this subject is to also read more about 3D print houses design guidelines in Design Guidelines For 3D Printed Structures – Your Full Guide.