It’s a perfect storm: a shortage of affordable housing made worse by a shortage of labor and ongoing supply chain complications. It’s a problem across the US, but in Maine particularly, the crisis is growing; the state is in need of 20,000 housing units – a number increasing year on year – and the housing that does exist is too expensive. Nearly 60% of low-income renters in Maine spend more than half of their income on housing.
But out of a perfect storm can come an innovative solutions – necessity, after all, is the mother of invention. With the aim of tackling both the housing crisis and labor shortage, the University of Maine has unveiled BioHome3D: the first 3D-printed house made entirely with bio-based materials.
The 600-square-foot prototype features 3D-printed floors, walls and roof. And when they say 3D-printed that’s exactly what they mean. Using a colossal printer (aka the world’s largest polymer 3D printer which also printed a 25-foot boat a couple years ago), the structure came together in thousands of layers of wood fibers and bio-resins. This differs from other 3D-printed buildings which use concrete or other non-biodegradable materials. The biomaterials used here are 100 percent recyclable. The University predicts that generations to come will disassemble the home and recycle its materials to perhaps produce the next iteration of the BioHome3D. You can imagine someone recycling their grandparents’ home to build their own.
Buildings and the construction industry are big polluters. In conventional builds, construction waste can be as much as 30 percent of the total weight of building materials delivered to a building site. Thanks to the precision of the printing process, construction waste was nearly eliminated here. Buildings themselves account for nearly 40 percent of global carbon emissions according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Using responsibly sourced wood which locks in carbon for decades may start to decrease that figure.
This building has more waste-saving solutions up its sleeve. The printing materials come from locally sourced wood fiber feedstock. This is waste material that’s generated continually by the forestry industry – as much as a million tons of it per year.
Keeping things local also reduces the size and potential complications of the supply chain. A labor shortage in China, for example, won’t affect the production of these homes. Using local wood supports the revitalization of local forest product industries, an industry that once held an important role in Maine’s history due to its paper mills. These large mills have been closing throughout the century, and the construction of these new buildings could create new jobs and opportunities for a community that’s been hit hard.
Inside, things are kept minimal. It’s all whites, grays and a wood tone that comes from the 3D-printed walls. The house isn’t huge – everything’s on one level – but it does look comfortable. In fact, it really wouldn’t look out of place listed on Airbnb.
But the BioHome3D is not for Airbnb. It’s for low-income families who need comfortable, warm and affordable places to live. These homes are needed now, and that’s why the house can be built at speed. Once printed, the BioHome3D was assembled in half a day. Two hours later, the electricity was working too. For a state that needs mass housing now, this is an attractive solution.
As the project develops, buyers will be able to customize their properties to suit their wants and needs. As nice as it is having rows and rows of identical houses, a touch of personality wouldn’t go amiss. And as much as these families need houses, they shouldn’t be excluded from turning a house into a home with personalizations that reflect who they are.
So, is this the future of living? Currently, the BioHome3D is just a prototype. With blustery snowfall and low temperatures, the building has a tough Maine winter to endure. Scientists will be monitoring thermal, environmental and structural changes using sensors equipped throughout the building. If it passes those tests and factors in personalization options, you might start seeing these in your own state.
From providing homes to finding use for waste materials, this house seems to do it all. Between these 3D-printed walls, in what seems like quite a humble construction, multiple big problems are starting to be solved. It’s a subtle reminder that sustainable living is more than just a lifestyle. It’s the solution to many of the issues our planet faces.